Saturday, July 22, 2017

Finding a Squash Pie

Imagine getting a daily allowance of vegetables and enjoying dessert – both at the same time. Some desserts are so sweet and hardly have any food value, not so with a traditional squash pie.

A pie made with yellow summer squash may not be familiar to many people. I confess that it’s not a pie that I remember eating, much less ever seeing before.

How do you think children who need encouragement to eat vegetables would react when they see a piece of squash pie? Walking by a potluck table when I was young, I’m sure that I would have skipped over it, but now that I’m older, I know better.

Nestled among apple dumplings, peach cobblers, and sweet breads, a squash pie for sale in Galax, Va., caught my attention.

Because one of my favorite pies is sweet potato, both in childhood and as an adult, I’m tempted to try a dessert made with a vegetable because it likely is based on a long-standing family tradition. Plus it reminds me of a time when desserts could be made without expensive ingredients if they included creativity, love, and maybe a vegetable.

Tables at the farmers market in Galax attract an early crowd when it opens on Saturday morning.

When I was meandering along the tables of foods for sale at a farmers’ market in downtown Galax, Virginia, the label “squash pie” immediately caught my attention. Topped with a baked meringue, it looked like something that I’d enjoy.

Marie Jones smiles at the table with her foods for sale.

The 95-year-old lady who was selling it made buying it an easy decision. She said that she’d been making squash pies since she was old enough to walk. Galax, a small town in southwestern part of the state, also seemed the perfect setting to find a homemade dessert.

When I got home, I enjoyed the sweetness of the pie, which is from the natural sweetness of the squash, not from sugar. The recipe is quite simple. In addition to sliced squash pieces, the pie includes margarine, eggs, and a dash of sugar. Because so much squash is included in the pie, it’s very dense and filling.

After the pie has been taken home and cut, a piece look delicious.

The taste of the squash pie is as good as that of a squash casserole. Of course, you have to be a fan of yellow squash to like either. They both deserve a place on a summer dinner table, but it you can only serve one, serve pie.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Peach Dumpling -- Delicious but Is It a Dumpling?

Stopping at a roadside stand that sells fresh peaches is a frequent occurrence for anyone who lives or travels through the Carolinas, particularly the Sandhills region. This area is remarkable for growing succulent peaches, much better than those that grocery stores bring in from distant states.

Johnson's Peaches has been in business since 1934.

In addition to buying a bushel or a peck, many people buy something else: peach ice cream, peach jam, peach preserves, anything that can extend the pleasure of enjoying peaches. When I stopped at Johnson’s Peaches in Candor, NC, on the menu board was something I don’t remember seeing before: peach dumplings.

The banner "Peach Dumplings" caught my attention when I was parking the car.

Because peach cobbler is one of my favorites, I couldn’t leave without buying some dumplings. Lunch plans kept me from eating them immediately, so I had them packaged to enjoy at home with supper. (Of course, a better idea is to eat them on site – with peach ice cream, naturally.)

What to order? A peach dumpling looks enticing.

Before ordering, I had reviewed the recipe for peach dumplings in a brochure that Johnson’s provides to its customers. Peach quarters are rolled in crescent rolls and baked in a mixture of sugar, water and butter with a topping of sugar and cinnamon sprinkled on top.

Johnson's recipe for peach dumplings includes a peach quarter wrapped in a crescent roll.

However, the peach dumplings that Johnson’s sells are different than those made using the recipe. When the server prepared the to-go box, I watched as she scooped a serving from a large rectangular metal tray – no individually wrapped peach quarters. With the pastry crust on top, it looked like what I know as a cobbler but with less breading.

Although I wanted to taste peach dumplings, the order that I took home was more to my liking – more peaches, less pastry. The peaches were superb, as expected. In business since 1934, Johnson’s knows how to please its customers.

A peach dumpling from Johnson's is delicious, but is it a dumpling:

The next time that I stop at Johnson’s, I’ll make sure that my lunch plans don’t interfere with eating a dumpling there – and I’ll also order peach ice cream with it.

Friday, June 2, 2017

A Beacon for Favorite Foods and Entertaining Service

When you enter The Beacon Drive-In in Spartanburg, SC, the sounds of the caller who takes order from customers as they arrive immediately captures your attention. As he barks their menu choices to the kitchen staff, they push their trays down the short line to the cashier. By the time they arrive, all items have been promptly prepared and served.

With a motto of “Where the Food Is Always Good,” the Beacon has been a local favorite since it opened in 1946. As it grew in popularity, it was moved to a new location and then expanded three times. Now the second largest drive-in in the United States, it serves a million customers each year. With a seating capacity of 350, customers are constantly coming and going, regardless of the hour, often in a line extending out the door.

The caller at the head of the order line barks each item to the kitchen crew.
When the drive-in opened, its menu was limited, but today the menu is so extensive that a new customer needs several minutes to decide among the choices: burgers, BBQ, chicken, and seafood are popular. Gizzards, beef hash, and other regional favorites are on the menu, which also includes several specialty items, such as homemade chicken stew.

The kitchen crew prepares orders as customers move towards the cashier.

Plates include two sides and “a-plenty” dishes (similar to combos of fast-food establishments) include french fries and onion rings to guarantee you are full “a-plenty” when you finish your meal. Because the Beacon serves more iced tea than anyone else in the country, I had to order it. Just the sugar needed for making its sweet tea is astonishing: 3,000 pounds each week.

The menu is more extensive than many new customers expect.

Because the Beacon has contributed so much to local culture, the road where it is located has been renamed for its founder, John B. White Sr. In addition, an adjacent street has been designated to honor its long-time caller, J.C. Stroble, who died in 2013 at age 71 after working 57 years at the drive-in.

Tray for two: flounder with onion rings, hushpuppies, chicken stew, slaw, hash tray, and peach cobbler.

Stroble, known as the “Beacon Barker” for how he shouted orders to the cooks, began working at the drive-in as a carhop when he was 14. Although he lost his sight to glaucoma at age 37, he continued to work, and his signature style helped to make the Beacon a celebrated institution. Because Stroble was such a Spartanburg icon, he was featured on a segment of CBS Evening News in 2011. Similar to Stroble, several other employees have been long-term veterans of the Beacon with more than 50 years of service.

The Beacon sells more iced tea than anyone else in the United States.

Eating at the Beacon is more than enjoying food. Listening to the caller, watching customers move through the line and gaze intently as their food is prepared, and being in the midst of repeat customers and first-time arrivals are just as much an integral part of a visit to the Beacon.

A million customers a year have easy access to the Beacon at its current location.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Day Before New Year’s Day: Getting Ready

Starting the New Year right is so important. What’s the most significant first step? Eating ample servings of collard greens and black-eyed peas guarantees good health and fortune (or so we have been told).

The explanations for the symbolism of collard greens and black-eyed peas are many and vary by cultural traditions, many brought into the South. In some families, the greens represent paper money and the peas represent coins. (Special hint: serve also with cornbread, which can represent gold.)

Waking up on January 1 and deciding to start the year right is critical. However, even more critical is preparing the greens and peas in advance so that they are ready on New Year’s Day. Don’t wait until the start of the year to check the pantry. It may be bare!

Preparing on December 31 guarantees that you are set on New Year’s Day. The need to cook collards for a long time is another reason to prepare them the day before. Preparing black-eyed peas, on the other hand, is a cinch (as long as you have them on hand).

On New Year's Day, have greens and peas ready to serve family and friends at anytime during the day. (A purist may even want them for breakfast.) If you have a special family gathering, bring stuffed collard wraps or rolls as appetizers (a filling of black-eyed peas and rice is tasty) so everyone can have a promising start for the new year.

Even after January 1, look for opportunities to celebrate with collards and black eyed peas, such as by attending a festival. North Carolina even has two festivals for collards: one in Ayden and the other in Maxton. (To see recent photos of the Maxton Collard Festival, click here.) Georgia also has two: one serves the metro Atlanta region and the other is on the coast near Savannah in Port Wentworth. In addition, South Carolina  has one in Gaston. To celebrate the black-eyed pea, Mississippi’s festival is held in Mantee each October, and Texas has a black-eyed pea festival and cookoff also in October.

Starting the New Year correctly is so vitally important. Teach your children that they need to each their fair shares of collard greens and black-eyed peas before the sun sets on January 1. If they do, life is good.




If you are preparing collards for the first time, follow this approach and adjust the next time based on your taste preferences.

Ingredients

3 pounds collard greens
½ cup ham or pork pieces
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 quart hot water
2 teaspoons salt
3 teaspoons brown sugar
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

Directions
  • Initial setup
    • First, buy only local collards.
    • Wash the leaves thoroughly (and more than once to remove sand and any grit).
    • Remove the stems and any bad spots.
    • Roll up several leaves and make “ribbons” by slicing them about an inch apart. (Greens can also be chopped or shredded.)
  • Cooking
    • Cook leftover ham pieces slowly in oil until crisp.
    • Add water and simmer for about 15 minutes.
    • Add cut greens and bring water to a boil.
    • Sweeten with brown sugar and apple cider vinegar.
    • Cook on low heat for at least an hour with the pot covered.
    • Add water as necessary to keep greens well covered.
    • Stir occasionally and submerge greens with a spoon (because they float to the top).
    • Remove from heat when leaves are tender. (Leaves will be floppy and have a kelly green color.)
  • Last step
    • Save  broth (known as pot likker) for your friends who appreciate its nutritional value.
    • Chop collards into smaller pieces before serving if you like.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Loveless Cafe, an Iconic Southern Restaurant

When a restaurant garners award after award, you want to be sure that a visit there will match its highly publicized reputation. Such is the case with Loveless Café in Nashville. It is more than deserving of every award and accolade that it’s received.

The sign for Loveless Cafe has stood the test of time.

Loveless has been judged one of the best places for friendly family dining and among the top “essential” places to eat in Nashville. It has been also listed as an iconic Southern restaurant by USA Today’s Travel 10 Best series. Even People magazine has acknowledged the special connections of Loveless to the culinary traditions of Nashville after its chefs handed out 1,200 biscuits at the Music City Food + Wine Festival. These awards and recognitions are for 2014 alone; each year before also has its own special tributes to this exceptional place.

Country ham, two eggs with red-eye gravy, and stone-ground grits
Everyone who enters through the doors seems to be interested in the made-from-scratch biscuits. Thank goodness breakfast is served throughout the day and that biscuits are served with every meal all day long. Up to 7,000 biscuits are made daily. However, a quick check of the menu shows that more than biscuits attracts the lines of customers waiting for a table.

Up to 7,000 biscuits are made daily.

Trying to be prepared, I checked the Loveless website in advance to see when to arrive. I learned that the best time to avoid a waitlist is to arrive by 11 o’clock for an early lunch or 5 o’clock for an early supper. What I don’t remember the site mentioning is that those suggestions apply for only weekdays. When I arrived on a Saturday at 10:50 a.m. expecting a table available for lunch, I was amazed at how many people were meandering in the front of the restaurant and soon learned that my wait would be 75 minutes. (I’m glad that I arrived for lunch before 11 o’clock!)

Peach cobbler with ice cream
However, the time was well spent reviewing all the autographed photos of the famous who have made a pilgrimage to the Loveless, browsing among the goodies and keepsakes for sale in the restaurant’s shops, and looking over the historic property that includes a recently built special-event barn (very popular for weddings).

Carol Fay Ellison, known as the Biscuit Lady, is remembered in art work at the Loveless.

What began as Loveless Motel and Café in 1951 quickly became a destination for hearty eaters as they learned about its delicious homemade preserves and made-from-scratch biscuits. Although the property has changed hands several times, biscuits are still made using the original Loveless recipe. In fact, my biscuits were so good that I tweeted a picture of them – and Loveless later added it to its online collection of Twitter photos and comments.

Biscuits with homemade preserves (and sorghum on request) are served with every order.
The food was more than memorable, and the portions are also more than ample. After I had ordered a peach cobbler with lunch, people at the next table had to comment that the banana pudding was the best ever (“Banana pudding to go, please”). Because I couldn’t try everything that I wanted at lunch, I also ordered two additional items – braised turnip greens and more stone-ground grits – to go with the pudding just so that I could continue to savor the tastes of Loveless later in the day.

Banana pudding is the best dessert!

Because Loveless Café is such an iconic Southern restaurant, I’ll be back soon. I’ll even drive the eight hours from home just for the biscuits – but will also take advantage of the full menu again. Located near the Natchez Trace Parkway, Loveless has a prime location for travelers, but its food is much more important than its location for attracting appreciative customers and preserving its well-deserved reputation.







Monday, August 1, 2016

Uwharrie National Forest

Want to pan for gold? Panning seems like such an archaic, futile exercise. But at one time the Uwharrie Mountains were a destination for gold hunters.

Do adventure seekers there today still search for gold while they are enjoying other outdoor activities? “Yes, they do, but I don’t know how successful they are,” says Terry Savery, recreation program manager at Uwharrie National Forest, land initially purchased in 1931 by the Federal Government to protect and preserve mixed woodlands of oak and pine.

Searching for gold in N.C. led to
America's first gold rush.
Gold was first found in North Carolina in 1799 only about 30 miles west of the forest. Word that gold was in “them thar hills” spread like wildfire and led to America’s first gold rush, mostly forgotten in the books of history and overshadowed by the great California gold rush of 1849. However, the chance to strike it rich in the Uwharrie Mountains brought countless prospectors and miners who searched the hills and panned the streams for the sparkling metal.

The priceless search for adventure in the Uwharrie still brings in steady streams of outdoor enthusiasts. More popular than gold panning today are camping, picnicking, hiking, hunting, mountain biking, horseback riding, kayaking, boating and fishing.

The forest gets its name from the Uwharrie Mountains, considered to be the oldest mountains in North America. Formed about 500 million years ago with peaks as high as 20,000 feet, what had been a coastal mountain range now sits more than 150 miles from the coast and lies obviously in the Piedmont region because a gravitational shift pushed today’s coastal plain above sea level. The high points of the mountains now are only a fraction of their once magnificent heights, reduced by gradual erosion to just over 1,100 feet.

Bald eagles are often spotted
in the Badin Lake area.
With its mix of hardwood and pine woodlands, the forest is home for at least 60 reptile and amphibian species and for most of the 60 mammal species that live in North Carolina. From 55 bird points in the forest, approximately 85 bird species have been observed recently. Bald eagles are regular visitors, although no active nests are known. Savery confirms that bald eagles have been spotted in the forest’s Badin Lake area.

A special area is the Birkhead Mountain Wilderness, which was established in 1984 on the northern end of the Uwharrie Mountains. Because motor vehicles, motorboats and motorized equipment are prohibited in federal wilderness areas, the Birkhead offers astonishing opportunities for solitude with nature. Even travel by bicycle and on horse is prohibited. All trails in the wilderness are designated hiking trails.

Named for the Birkhead family who moved in around 1850 and eventually owned almost 3,000 acres, the wilderness still shows clues of early Indians and settlers who occupied the area many years earlier. The Birkhead Mountain Trail traverses the wilderness from north to south for more than four miles. Along the route are remnants of old homesteads and farms, old roads, gold mining operations and evidence of timber harvesting.

The Uwharrie National Forest protects and
preserves mixed woodlands of pine and oak.
The Uwharrie is the habitat of 66 freshwater fish species. In addition to game birds, game animals that call the forest home include white-tailed deer, wild turkey, quail, bobcat, opossum, rabbit and gray squirrel. The forest is heavily hunted and has the highest use per acre of any N.C. Wildlife Resource Commission game land.

The Uwharrie is a top tourist destination for good reason. With its enticing road and trail system, abundant lake and river frontage, and moderate slopes and elevations, it’s the perfect place for outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy nature.



Note: This post appeared originally as a longer article in the August 2015 issue of OutreachNC, a monthly magazine distributed in 10 counties of central North Carolina. Click here to see the article as it appeared in print.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Best Seafood at a Gas Station

What do you expect to find when you travel to a beach town in the South and stop at a building that looks like a gas station? For visitors to Edisto Beach, SC, you may be searching for seafood if Whaley’s Restaurant & Bar is your destination.

The pumps in front of Whaley's serve as a reminder that
the building was once a gas station.

Whaley’s achieved prominence when it was listed among Coastal Living’s top 25 seafood dives of the South Atlantic. When I visited Whaley’s website and saw that it served food in a former gas station, I was intent on going there whenever I was within an hour or so away. There I found a framed display on the wall attesting that Whaley’s is a seafood dive that Coastal Living loves. Even Southern Living considers it a top spot for local seafood.

The Coastal Living cover and article are prominently displayed.

True to its history as a gas station, Whaley’s still has the old pumps in front of the building, which opened for business in 1948. Instead of customers pulling up for a tank of regular, they now stop for something to drink and eat. A visit to the restrooms proves how old the building is – they are located outside in the back, appropriate for a building designed in the 1940s as a gas station.

Finding the restrooms at Whaley's is easy -- they're outside.

All sandwiches come with “raw fries,” which are Idaho potatoes sliced thin and then fried. They were extremely addictive, and I finished them well before my sandwich, a “Sarah Jane BLT” (a BLT with grilled shrimp and avocado) that alone was worth the drive to Edisto Beach. I also shared an order of shrimp and crab bisque with my wife, who described it as one of the best that she had ever tasted.

My wife (right) meets Whaley's famous owner/operator/bartender,
a veteran of the Korean Conflict who at 82 stays young by working.

After I had ordered, I overhead a customer at a nearby table order the “Big Ugly” burger, which I had seen on the menu. However, it didn’t match its name; it looked too good – not ugly at all. He and his companion were traveling from Florida and were also visiting Whaley’s for good food.

Whaley's is picturesque -- it even received a beautification award in 2012 from
the Council of Edisto Beach (the vines in front must have been the clincher).

Let’s hope that Whaley’s keeps serving local bar customers, seafood lovers, and wandering tourists for a long time – and that its building continues to evoke memories of an era that has slipped away from many beach towns.

The ocean surf is only two blocks away from Whaley's in Edisto Beach, SC.