Sunday, December 24, 2017

Bluegrass on Christmas Eve

Bluegrass musicians play the tunes of carols at Christmas at a Lutheran church established by German immigrants? Where and why does this happen, you ask.

A bluegrass service is held annually on Christmas Eve in Newton, NC.

The church is located in Newton, NC, a well-established city that received its charter in 1855. Almost a century earlier a group of German immigrants, mostly from Pennsylvania and sharing Lutheran and Reformed (now United Church of Christ) faiths, arrived in what was then the wilderness of North Carolina. About 1759 they organized the first church in the colony west of the Catawba River, and the congregation erected their first church, known as the Dutch Meeting House, after obtaining the deed to the property in 1771.

The Historic Church is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1818, a replacement two-story log weather-boarded church was built with a separate, now repurposed, slave gallery. It is still the oldest existing church in North Carolina west of the Catawba River and is now known as the Historic Church of Old St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, whose congregation now regularly meets in a nearby brick building built in 1952.

The award-winning Sigmon family fills the church with the sweet sounds of strings.

The initial congregation met without a pastor until 1776, when John Arndt, a veteran circuit rider, traveled from Lutheran settlements near Salisbury. In 1781, he became a full-time missionary to the region west of the Catawba and preached in the German language, the common speech of local families for several generations.

The language spoken initially at the Historic Church was German.

Much like the shift from German to English, the music of the service also changed and now includes bluegrass, known for having been born in the Appalachian South with roots in Irish, Scottish, and English music. Several times during the year (May, July, October), the congregation conducts bluegrass worship services at the historic church. On Christmas Eve, it has also conducted a bluegrass worship service since 2011.

The second level was a slave gallery before the end of the American Civil War.

The bluegrass services make the Historic Church come alive. The old structure is still as solid as the year when it was constructed. However, now the language spoken inside is English, and the sounds of banjo, fiddle, string bass, guitar, and mandolin accompany the voices of the carolers.

A bluegrass worship service has been held at the Historic Church since 2011.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Can I Win a Food Contest at the State Fair?

Entering a food competition at the state fair has never been high on my “bucket list” – until this year. Because I’m not a cook, know little about winning recipes, and seldom want to show my food projects to a judge, I’ve been content to observe winning entries and read about the winners. However, this year I was inspired to enter and compete.

Ribbons are ready for the winners.

For this year, I decided to enter the cooking competitions at the N.C. State Fair coordinated by the N.C. Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services. Specifically, I was attracted to the contest sponsored by the N.C. Peanut Growers Association that was held on Thursday, October 12. Each entry was to be “a delicious breakfast recipe that is filled with peanut flavor and will be sure to get your morning started with a smile.” I could place in a contest that featured peanuts, right?

Cooking contests are held annually at the N.C. State Fair.

The first critical step is to submit a recipe by the deadline, which was ten days before the date of the contest and meant that I had to brainstorm about possibilities even a month in advance. After evaluating several options, I picked a favorite, which I called “Peanut Buttery Breakfast Pizza,” that I hoped would be a winner.

My entry starts to take shape.

The recipe starts with a package of soft tortillas about five inches in diameter. After spreading a tablespoon of peanut butter on each tortilla, banana slices are added to half of the tortillas (the remainder are saved to use as “tops”). A little honey is drizzled and finely chopped peanuts are sprinkled over the tortillas with bananas. Next, the tortillas without banana slices are placed over the other tortillas. Finally, the doubled tortillas are sliced into quarters.

Doesn't my entry look like a winner?

On the day of the contest, entries are turned in mid-afternoon, and judging takes place an hour later. Judging is based on flavor and taste (50%), creativity (25%), and ease of preparation (25%). I felt good about the flavor/taste category (what is better than peanut butter and banana flavors?) and the ease of preparation (the entry only took me about 10 minutes to prepare). Each recipe needed to contain at least one-half cup of peanuts or peanut butter, and entries needed to serve six to eight judges. The winning recipes were awarded cash prizes: $200 for first place; $150, second; $100, third; and $50, honorable mention.

I proudly turn in my entry with high hopes.

I was amazed at the creativity of the winners. First place was spicy peanut butter and banana breakfast braid. Second place was peanut butter French toast with nutty pig candy. Third place was peanut butter and jelly pop tarts. One recipe, peanut butter and banana waffles, received honorable mention. Although all are creative, the level of preparation doesn’t seem that easy. At least I was on the right track by combining peanut butter and bananas. If I compete again, I need to give more consideration to creativity, which seems more influential than only 25%.

Lisa Prince, host of the TV program NC Flavor, announces the winners.

Although I left empty handed without receiving a prize, at least I got to see what the contest is like and didn’t have to buy an admission ticket to the fair. A major benefit of entering the contest is free admission to the fair – plus the experience gained to compete next year.

Meanwhile, the carnival-like food attracts the attention of the fairgoers more than a cooking contest.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Picking Wild Persimmons and Making Pulp

Persimmon picking is definitely a skill. Not everyone can do it – or is interested. It takes patience and perseverance. A little knowledge of the local landscape also helps. Equally important is keeping procrastination tendencies in check.

In the fall, fruit on persimmon trees is easily seen in bright sunlight.

Who today really wants to go outside in the cold and pick up fruit on the ground after it has fallen from a tree, particularly when ripe, fresh fruit is so readily available in grocery stores? The effort to pick persimmons probably is the biggest barrier for most people. For me, it’s not the effort; it’s procrastination. If I don’t pick them immediately after they fall, they quickly spoil.

Picking up the fruit soon after it has fallen is important.

Persimmon pudding is a favorite dessert, but making it doesn’t happen unless ripe persimmons are brought home. Knowing where persimmon trees are located is the first step, and then watching as the fruit on them grows and shines with a bright bronze color is crucial. Native to the eastern United States, persimmon trees like full sun and are often found on the edge of woodlands.

After persimmons are washed, they are ready for the pulp to be separated.

Wild persimmons, smaller than those available commercially, are not completely ripe until very soft. It takes only a few minutes to pick a bucket of persimmons. When you return home, wash them and then prepare to extract the pulp by mashing the fruit in a sieve or colander with a wood spoon or similar flat object. The riper the persimmons, the easier the pulp separates from the seed. (A common kitchen tool like a potato ricer works faster, but some of us prefer the old-fashioned method.)

A wooden spoon and colander are all the tools needed

The reward for picking and cleaning persimmons and removing the seeds is luscious pulp ready for making pudding. Enjoy.

Only seeds are left after separating the pulp.
Pulp, fruit, and tools are the key elements.

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.


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

  • 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.