Sunday, November 21, 2010

Barbecuing for the Lord: Street Ministry Fixes Good Southern Food

Love and mercy are on the menu on N.C. 5 between Aberdeen and Pinehurst. “This is St. Paul’s, and street ministry is on the move. It’s God’s plan, not ours,” says Valerie Washington, a church volunteer whose passion is helping people in need.

In the area of Jackson Hamlet some drivers slow down on Fridays for a reason other than the 35 mph speed limit as they see smoke, and many are stopping to taste what’s on the grill. All the smoke is for a good cause.

Leo Thomas“We are raising money to assist the needy,” says Leo Thomas, a volunteer cook for St. Paul’s Missionary Baptist Church in Jackson Hamlet. The grilling was “started to help families in need. We’ve been doing this for about two years,” he says. “The need is so great this year.”

The cooking is “part of layman’s league for the pastor. It benefits our benevolent fund,” he says. “The community has so many different needs, such as paying light bills. We try to help wherever we can.”

Thomas says the church used its grill proceeds last winter to provide complete turkey dinners to 68 families at Christmas in a combined effort with Mosaic Ministries in Seven Lakes and Greater Harvest in Midway. In addition, the money raised is used to purchase gift cards for families in need, says Anthony “Tony” Washington, an associate pastor at the church -- and Valerie’s husband.

More Than Chicken

The menu on Fridays usually features barbecued chicken and sometimes fish with sides that can include cabbage, cole slaw, baked beans and green beans. A plate is topped off with a slice of cake and drink. On some Fridays, the smoke is a little thicker because the volunteers are barbecuing ribs. The grill operation usually begins at 10 in the morning.

“We start to serve at 11 and stay until we sell out, usually by 3 pm. We always hope to sell 100-plus plates,” says Thomas. The church even offers plates free to law enforcement officers and a discount for the military, “but they usually give us donations,” Tony Washington says.

Ministry, Food and Education

Valerie Washington’s street ministry vision is influenced by her experience in New Jersey. “I came from a 3,000-member church in Atlantic City where street ministry and outreach are very important,” she says. “Feeding the homeless is really important in a large city. We brought that here with us. God sent us and has placed us in this path to minister.”Linda McDowell, church treasurer, and Valerie Washington, church volunteer

A regular volunteer at St. Paul’s roadside grill who loves barbecued chicken, she confesses, however, that her favorite dish is chicken and dumplings made by her grandmother. “It’s so good – an original Southern dish. My mom also made it for our family.”

Serving food for her church is only a part of what keeps her busy. She is still celebrating receiving a GED in June at Sandhills Community College. “I’ve been fighting for my diploma for 20 years,” she says. It took me a long time. The tutors at the college brought me a long way. I work at Wal-Mart, and going to school after work was a lot of pressure.”

She identified one tutor at SCC for special praise. “Mrs. Wanda Sweeney is one of the kindest, most courteous and most supportive persons,” says Valerie Washington. “She’s forever in her heart. I love her. They even gave me a party because I kept coming back, persevered and keep on going. I learned a lot at Sandhills Community College,” she says. She now plans to earn a cosmetology degree.

Even with a full-time job and additional stress as a student, she is typical of the St. Paul’s congregation who find time to enrich the community and enjoys each other’s fellowship when they work together on a ministry project.

Ministry and Military

Pastor Tony Washington St. Paul’s is a vital member of the area, says Tony Washington, who operates the grill when he’s not on duty with the Army. “The church is very family-oriented and has a membership of about 100,” says the Army noncommissioned officer, who was born in Pinehurst and has served around the world. “I’ve completed two tours in Iraq with one more overseas assignment to go, probably in Afghanistan.”

He says as he thinks of retirement from the military in about two years. Until then Thomas says he’ll continue to train soldiers for Iraq and Afghanistan. “My favorite Bible verses are from the 23rd Psalm because of where I go and the work that I do,” says the minister and soldier. “It’s very appropriate for me.”

Grilling is not a new activity for Washington, who says that he was about 11 years old when he handled a grill the first time while he was living in Texas. “In the South the young ones watch the grill. They are taught at a young age,” he says. Whether he’s barbecuing for the Lord or family and friends, he grills in the tradition-honored style of the South -- an open flame not fueled by propane. “Barbecue is very sacred,” he says with a smile as he mentions the dos and don’ts of barbecuing. “I never use propane. I always cook with wood and Kingsford charcoal.”

Community Commitment

The grill mission is a community effort, and St. Paul’s receives a lot of local support. Food Lion on N.C. 5 in Aberdeen “is one of our biggest supporters,” says Thomas. The store often “donates cake and drink and frequently gives gift cards, up to $50 depending on the need.” Other food is bought locally. “We buy our fish at Aberdeen Produce. When we serve ribs, we get them from Aberdeen Packing that sells to us at cost,” says Thomas. Some items are also provided by other community friends and church members.

In addition to serving the Lord, Tony Washington dreams of opening his own ribs restaurant and cooking full-time when he retires from the Army. “I definitely want to be on Highway 5. I’d like to have it between Aberdeen and Pinehurst. We have a commitment to this community,” he says.

Note: This posting is a slightly edited version of an article published originally in The Pilot (Southern Pines, NC) on November 21, 2010 (pages C1 and C6).

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Collards Sprouting

Collards sprouting in old fields
Become green as green can be.
They soak up morning sunshine
As they wake up happily.

Daybreak dew glistens on leaves
That sparkle like priceless stones
As they create nutrients
Needed to strengthen our bones.

Rain storms crash over the fields.
Emerald leaves come to life
And soon soar like eagle wings
But quickly fall by our knife.

Into kitchens we bring them
To wash sand from their thick veins.
We heat our favored kettles
Often filled with captured rains.

Unable to stand the heat,
Leaves wilt like a jailed sinner.
We poke sometimes too often
To see if set for dinner.

To evening table they come
Where they claim a place of pride
Next to pork dishes we crave.
Ready for blessings, they bide.

Note: This poem was prepared in appreciation of the Fifth Annual Collard Festival in Maxton, NC, that I attended on Nov. 13, 2010.

Pot Likker

Feeling so poorly?
Couldn’t be sicker?
You know what to do:
Drink some pot likker.

Something ailing you?
Wanna fight and bicker?
You know what to do:
Drink some pot likker.

Heavy weight troubling?
Too big for the wicker?
You know what to do:
Drink some pot likker.

So lonely and blue?
Get better, quicker.
You know what to do:
Drink some pot likker.

Troubled and worried
About your ticker?
You know what to do:
Drink some pot likker.

You’re OK, but girlfriend
Says you should kick her.
You know what to do:
Give her some pot likker.

Note: This poem, prepared for the Fifth Annual Collard Festival in Maxton, NC, that I attended on Nov. 13, 2010, placed second in the collard poetry contest. It's a prize winner!

Emerald Leaves

Can you imagine
Old plants as they give
Love to families,
Love that surrounds
All our closest kin?
Ripen quickly as
Delicious green sheets
Sandy with our soil.

Keep your watchful
Eye on the plants as
Emerald leaves sprout,
Plentiful for all.

Under the morning
Sun, always growing,

Heavy with daybreak dew,
Every leaf glistens
And shines with delight.
Lusting for sunshine,
They soon deliver
Health and nutrition.
You can’t wait to taste.

Note: This poem is an acrostic (the first letter of each line spells a word or a message), a style popularized in North Carolina among university students by George Moses Horton (1798-1880?), an enslaved African American who taught himself to read and composed in his head a series of stanzas based on the rhythms in Wesley hymns. This poem was prepared in appreciation of the Fifth Annual Collard Festival in Maxton, NC, that I attended on Nov. 13, 2010.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

How About That Pecan Pie!

Have you ever entered a pie-making contest? When the pecan pie that I made was voted “best” at work, I was surprised because so many good cooks had entered with their favorites. How did I win? Creating a winning pie is just like playing baseball – avoid three strikes and you should find yourself in position to score. Making a pie itself is easy. The critical steps (all potential strikes) are deciding that you want to win, keeping the recipe simple, and showing up early.

First, decide if you really want to compete or only participate. When the contest was announced, I knew that I wanted to participate – if only to taste all the other entries. However, if I was going to complete all the effort for the contest, I wanted to do more than just participate. Because I had to make a “winning” pie, determining which pie to make was easy. Skip the fluffy and creamy ones. Pick a traditional sweet pie that evokes memories of good times with families, particularly at holidays, such as a pecan pie that is very traditional at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and you are guaranteed to receive a lot of votes.

Next, keep it simple – advice that works for almost every situation. For pie-making, use a proven recipe. To make a pie from scratch, according to Carl Sagan, the American astronomer, “you must first create the universe.” Not feeling like a scientist the night before the contest, I knew that I didn’t want to create a complicated concoction with many ingredients that would compete for attention. Just focus on the basics: sugar and butter. With a pecan pie, the lightly browned pecans on top catch everyone’s eye, and the gooey base sweetened with the right amount of corn syrup guarantees to produce a captivating taste and texture.

Finally, bring the pie early to the contest and insist that everyone take a small taste (even before the contest begins). The first impression scores high, and then the other arrivals are compared to yours. When you bring a pie to a contest, don’t be bashful. Jump right in and take a bite with everyone else and then begin to sample all the other entries. Don’t be a late entry, and never show up as the last entry when all the participants have made up their minds about which entry is the best.

Being ready for a contest also requires more preparation than just making a pie. Show up hungry. You don’t want to be tasting pies on a full stomach, and once you find one or two pies that you like, you might even want to take an extra piece and skip the next meal. In fact, at the next meal, start right. Because food contests prove that pies are our best menu choice, follow the advice of American writer Ernestine Ulmer: “Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first.”

For those who want the recipe:Recipe: The pecan pie recipe that I used is by Mama Dip (she has made it on ABC’s program Good Morning, America) – and it’s simple:
1 stick butter (or margarine)
1 cup sugar
1 cup light Karo syrup
3 eggs beaten
1 cup chopped pecans
1 unbaked 9” pie shell
Directions: Preheat over to 350 degrees. In a sauce pan, melt the butter but don’t let it brown. Mix in sugar and corn syrup and cook stirring over medium heat until sugar dissolves. Stir in eggs. Mix well. Stir in pecans. Pour into the pie and bake for 1 hour until firm. Serves 8.

P.S. Oh, yes, after you win the contest, enjoy wearing your crown.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Finding Muscadine Magic

Who in their right minds would travel several hours to attend a muscadine festival? The muscadine grape -- famed ingredient in southern wines, pies, and jellies – is again reclaiming its rightful place in food traditions of the American South. Although muscadine festivals are few and “far between,” the best one can be found in North Carolina.

North Carolina Connection

North Carolina, home of the 400-year-old scuppernong “mother vine,” has been celebrating the muscadine annually in late September. The 2010 festival was the sixth consecutive one and offered cooking contests, amateur wine-making competitions, music and dancing, arts and crafts, and educational seminars, but the main attraction was wine tasting because more than twenty wineries participated. Imagine going from one winemaker to another all afternoon (and evening) and getting your palate satisfied. Not just limited to established wineries of eastern North Carolina, the festival also included new ones from the Piedmont as well as South Carolina.

Held in the small town of Kenansville less than 200 miles from the “mother vine” that is reputed to be the oldest cultivated grapevine in the world, the festival showcases the grape that has a distinct fruity or “musky” aroma. Because its juice is sweet with a light taste and aroma, the muscadine, which is native to the U.S. Southeast, is very popular with cooks and winemakers.

Cultivated for centuries, the muscadine, which includes several varieties (including the well-know scuppernong that is bronze and discovered originally growing in the wild), has an extensive history. Native Americans preserved it as dried fruit. In the 1500s Spanish settlements in Florida made large quantities of muscadine wine, according to report of Captain John Hawkins in 1565. In North Carolina the muscadine has had a long prominent presence and was even noted by Sir Walter Raleigh after the Florentine explorer Giovanni de Verrazzano, while exploring the Cape Fear River Valley in 1524, had written in his logbook that many “vines [were] growing naturally there.” In fact, the N.C. General Assembly designated the scuppernong, the first muscadine grape cultivated in America, as the official state fruit in 2001. Popular with many because they are so healthy, muscadines contain antioxidants in skins, seed, pulp, juice, and wine and contain more antioxidants than any other type of grape.

Kenansville is an appropriate venue for the festival, a two-day event on the last Friday and Saturday in September. The county seat of Duplin County, Kenansville is a small town of just over 1,000 and was settled in 1735 by immigrants from Northern Ireland and Swiss Germans from Switzerland. The home of the festival is the Duplin County Events Center, which is across the highway from James Sprunt Community College, the only community college in North Carolina that offers a viticulture and enology technology program that focuses on the muscadine grape. Its students prepare for careers in vineyards, wineries, garden center, greenhouses, and related sales activities. (The college’s students won first place in the muscadine blush category in 2009.)

Wine Tasting
The most prominent winery at the festival is Duplin Winery of Rose Hill, N.C. With a tank capacity of over 1 million gallons, it is the largest winery in the South. In fact, it is the largest muscadine winery in the world and produces over 300,000 cases of wine annually. Its wines are excellent, and I enjoyed tasting them. In addition, like many vendors, Duplin Winery offers more than just muscadine wines.

Another prominent eastern N.C. winery is Vineyards on the Scuppernong in Columbia, NC, only a few miles from the Outer Banks. With muscadines grown in Tyrrell County, its tasting room in a restored brick building on the banks of the Scuppernong River, which flows into the Albemarle Sound, seems like the perfect setting for tasting wines that are so much a part of the region’s history. Muscadines were found on a farm in Tyrrell County by Sir Walter Raleigh’s expedition, and early settlers who moved into the area discovered the famous scuppernong grapes growing near this river. They are native to the area and since have been exported to all areas of the southern states of the United States.

Although connected to the coastal areas, muscadines are not limited to this region, and muscadine vineyards are springing up throughout the state as I found in making the rounds for tasting:
  • Locklear Vineyard and Winery of Maxton, NC, which promotes itself as one of the first Native American wineries and vineyards in the United States, was officially formed in 2006, although it has been bottling fruits from its vines for three decades and has slowly expanded from a half acre operation in 2003.
  • Its neighbor, Stephens Vineyard & Winery of Lumberton, offers the traditional red muscadine and white scuppernong wines with other specialties, such as green apple, blackberry, blueberry, and peach.
  • The Cloer Family Vineyards, which opened in 2010 in Apex, proves that muscadines have also arrived in the Triangle. Its red muscadine wine was very “noble.”
  • Old North State Winery in historic downtown Mount Airy is part of the developing Yadkin Valley wine region. Using vineyards established on farms that have been in owners’ families for generations, the winery is in a renovated 1890’s mercantile building and produces excellent dry, semi-sweet, and sweet wines.
The Muscadine

Thriving in hot, humid and dry conditions, fresh muscadines are usually found from late August through early October. They are well adapted to locations in the South where temperatures stay above 10 degrees F. (Major damage occurs when winter temperatures drop below 0.) Found at roadside markets, vineyards, and grocery stores, muscadines should not be washed until ready to use. If stored in a covered, shallow container in the refrigerator, they can usually keep up to a week.

(Because muscadines have thick skins and contain seeds, eating them requires a brief lesson: First, hold a grape with the stem scar up. Next bite or squeeze the grape into your mouth. The pulp and juice will burst through the skin into your mouth. Then savor the fruity flavor -- but be careful to avoid chewing the bitter skin. Spit out the skin and seeds if you wish -- or simply swallow them as some people do.)

Other Festival Events

In addition to wine tasting, the festival features more than ten hours of live beach music. The educational seminars on Saturday morning include a variety of topics, such as muscadine cultivars, cooking with muscadines, and vines in the backyard.

The cooking contest requires that all entries include a minimum of one cup of muscadine grapes. The wine-making contest has several categories: muscadine red, muscadine white, muscadine blush, and blend, fruit or other. Judging is on color, clarity, and flavor. The winemaking contest is limited to amateurs (no commercial wineries can participate).

Other States

Although the N.C. festival is superior, know that other states are also celebrating the muscadine:

  • The Muscadine Jubilee in Pelahatchie, Miss., occurs in mid-September and has been held for over 25 years. These folks know how to plan. The festival starts with a prayer breakfast and includes a grape stomp. The rules are strict: No stink bombs, guns, or obscene materials can be displayed or sold.
  • The folks in McMahan’s Cove, Alabama, have doubled their pleasure by combining muscadines and moonshine. Their Moonshine and Muscadine Festival is a life-affirming celebration to remember five friends who tragically died in the crash of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island, New York, in 1996. The first festival was held in the October after the disaster, and since then it has generated more than $60,000 in college scholarships. Usually held on the first Saturday in October, the festival is now “on vacation” but may return again soon.
  • In South Carolina, the Williams Muscadine Vineyard and Farm has held a festival annually on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend since 2004. Located in Nesmith, SC, the farm showcases operations of an old African-American farm with old plows and farm tools. A centerpiece is the eighty-year-old farmhouse where twenty members of the Rev. Gabriel and Mary Williams family lived.
  • In Georgia, Meinhardt Vineyards & Winery, the first winery in southeast Georgia, holds its Grape Stomp and Muscadine Festival each September.
Y’all Come and Taste

Come to Kenansville in September and taste the juices of the children of the mother vine, which now cover half an acre on Roanoke Island. It’s worth the drive to Duplin County, and tasting history makes it very enjoyable.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Spitting Watermelon Seeds

The most Southern of all sports in the hot days of summer has to be watermelon-seed spitting, with all due respects to swimming and car racing. Although grown in more than 40 states, the watermelon is especially associated with the South, the home of champion seed spitters.

Because of the region’s heat and humidity, most Southerners have a special relationship with the watermelon beyond cooling us off and keeping us hydrated during the final dog days of summer. At family reunions or church picnics, cold watermelon slices frequently prove more tempting than fried chicken or the favored aunt’s casserole.

In the days before energy drinks and the ubiquitous water bottle, the naturally refreshing watermelon was the choice for staying energized and hydrated. And eating watermelon virtually requires seed spitting. Seed-spitting contests are popular, whether they’re for family bragging rights or national television publicity.

Who has the record for spitting a melon seed? Obviously, the answer has to be a Southerner. Set in 1995 by Texan Jason Schayot, the Guinness world record is 75 feet 2 inches.

The World Championship of Watermelon-Seed Spitting is claimed by the folks in Luling, Texas (home of the previous champion). At the town’s annual Watermelon Thump, seed spitting is serious business. A prize as high as $1,000 awaits the record breaker. Even ESPN has covered the event. Contestants often warm up to chants such as: “Come on everybody, take a look, (insert name) gonna spit into the record book.”

Our state celebrates the watermelon all summer, although events peak in July (Watermelon Month for North Carolina) at the State Farmers Market in Raleigh, where seed spitting is one of the contests. Our watermelon queen’s skills for spitting seeds are usually impressive, sometimes more so than the male contestants’. The 2007 queen propelled a seed 23 feet.

Because of seed spitting, most of us think of watermelon as the fruit loaded with thin, black, minute projectiles ready to splat against a cousin’s face or get lost in a pretty girl’s blouse. However, as The New York Times recently reported, most growers are focusing on seedless watermelons. “Only about 2 of every 10 sold in the United States have seeds.” The seedless picnic melon, which began flooding stores in the 1980s, now dominates the market.

The seedless variety also seems to receive preferential treatment, with prominent displays in the grocery stores, but savvy shoppers wander until they find the ones marked seeded. A good bite of watermelon always gathers a few choice seeds.

Let’s continue the tradition: Spit watermelon seeds, and hope that next year on Labor Day the traditional melon is still available. We need to keep the seed of competition alive.

Note: This posting was published originally as “Top Seed in a Summer Sport” in The News and Observer (Raleigh, NC) on Aug. 4, 2010 (page A15).

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Not Your Regular Hot Dog

A dip dog is not one of the Seven Wonders of the World, but don’t tell that to the folks of the Shenandoah Valley. It’s the choice of people who want to celebrate their 50th anniversary, teenagers for the right meal before high school prom, the final request by a father to his daughter as he is dying, and other Southerners who want a hot dog prepared according to a long standing tradition.

First, what is a dip dog not? It’s not a corn dog. But what is it? It’s a classic red hot dog on a stick that has been dipped in a family-secret batter, deep fried according to a time-honored tradition, dressed in mustard, and served in a brown paper bag. When you bite into a dip dog, you experience an outer-layer crunch before finding a soft white layer next to the dog.

Dip Dog Stand

More than 50 years old, the “Dip Dog Stand,” officially named Hi-Way Drive-In, has survived the onslaught of direct interstate travel and low-price (and often low-value) competition from fast-food establishments. Marion, Virginia, is the home. On U.S. Highway 11 (Lee Highway), the stand attracts travelers who know its location.

Fast traffic now prefers U.S. Interstate 81, which opened in the area in 1963. However, smart connoisseurs know to detour onto U.S. 11 when they approach Marion (zip code 24354). Unlike other businesses that got left behind when the interstate was opened, the Dip Dog Stand (less than a mile from the nearest interstate exit, Exit 39) still has a loyal following willing to take the slow road for comfort food that is reasonably priced. In fact, the dip dog is about the cheapest item on the menu. In 2010 it was selling for only $1.35, and it’s the cheapest dog on the menu (the regular hot dog is priced 10 cents more). The fancy footlong is more than twice as much. Even a small order of french fries costs more. Other items are clearly more, including the bacon double cheeseburger (more than three times as much), the small BBQ sandwich (twice as much), and philly cheese steak sandwiches (more than $5). Only an order of apple pie (without ice cream) costs less than the dig dog (add ice cream, and the dessert becomes more expensive).

Locals prefer the Dip Dog Stand to other food places and have voted it their favorite for not only best hot dogs but also best service, hamburgers, fries and ice cream. Although best hot dogs may be the beloved category, it is also best overall restaurant, according to customers who are readers of Smyth County Herald News and Messenger. In addition to being featured in the local press, it’s also drawn the attention of regional media, such as Southern Living.

Sometimes so many customers line up for dip dogs that those who have placed call-in orders can’t find a place to park. The stand closes only eight days during the year. Imagine the frustrations of travelers who arrive after it closes at 10 p.m. on Dec. 23. It doesn’t open again until Dec. 26. Otherwise, other closings are for only 24 hours.

The dip dog comes only one way: adorned with only yellow mustard. Traditional hot dog condiment options such as chili, onions, coleslaw, sweet relish, ketchup, are not available. It’s also served without a bun – an astute recognition that the bun can cost more than the red dog.

Got Dip Dog?

Opened in 1957, the stand was bought in 1966 by Grant S. Hall Jr. who owned it for about 13 years, when it was then bought by son Grant Jr. and his wife Pam. How widely known is the dip dog? Bumper stickers everywhere – from Iraq and Afghanistan to many points in the United States – ask, “Got Dip Dog?” More than 500,000 dip dogs are sold each year. Although most customers credit the Halls and the family’s dip dog formula for the business success, the owners point to God, who they say has blessed them abundantly. Pam modestly says, “We need to give the Lord credit.” In fact, the Halls have given away more than a million playing-card-sized, Bible-based pamphlets.

Covered in mustard (and just the right amount), a dip dog comes with little else, except for the stick (stuck in by hand). Many customers order the dip dog with onion rings or fries, but I liked it by itself (accompanied with only a strawberry milk shake, one of more than 10 flavors on the menu). A frequent question is whether “dip dog” is one word or two. Most prefer two, much like hot dog. Otherwise, there are few questions before customers order. The Dip Dog Stand also offers its own barbeque sauce, known as Backyard Batch (but that’s another story for barbecuing).

Lots of hot dog lovers attend the apple festival held in neighboring Chilhowie (once the second largest apple-growing center in Virginia) in late September each year. The grand parade on the last Saturday in September showcases the area’s best. Not surprisingly, the Dip Dog Stand is a usual participant and has been a finalist for the best float.

Red Hot Dog

The red hot dog itself deserves a little explanation, particularly for its fan base in this region. The multi-generation fondness for the red hot dog in parts of the South has been documented by Fred Sauceman of East Tennessee State University in Johnson City. In fact, I was in Bristol, Tenn., for an event sponsored by the Southern Foodways Alliance when the documentary “Red Hot Dog Digest” (which defines the dip dog as the “apotheosis of the red hot dog”) debuted to followers of Southern food and culture.

Even though several decades ago, the U.S. government began to warn about dyes, particularly red, in foods, few hot dog aficionados wanted their dogs looking differently than the familiar red color. When regional drive-ins try to serve undyed dogs, the results were amazing. Thinking that the dogs were undercooked, customers returned them uneaten. Since then, the red hot dog has reigned supreme in several Southern locations. As a result, some regional packers stayed with recipes (government approved) that retain the red color.

For example, Valleydale still colors its dogs with the same dye used to make cough syrup cherry red. Valleydale, which operates as a division of Gwaltney (an independent operating company of Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork processor and hog producer), markets its Valleydale brand hot dogs throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern United States. In the neighboring state of North Carolina, Carolina Packers also produces locally famous red hot dogs, which are also produced by other regional packers and served in local eateries in Georgia and Alabama. Only in southwestern Virginia is the red dog preferred without a bun and dipped in batter before being deep fried.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Students Study Southern Culture Through Food

How do you study Southern culture? Do you start first with history, politics, religion or another part?

For students at Sandhills Community College, their first choice usually is food, which they then relate to a time or place of the American South. Each semester students explore what it means to be Southern and what makes the South different from other regions of America.

Food clearly is a defining element of Southern culture, although (in addition to history, politics and religion) art, music, literature, race relations, family and social structure are important. All of these elements are part of a course on Southern culture; however, food seems to rank high with the students. In the South, every food dish tells a story and preserves memories that each of us has about our family, neighbors and lives — good times as well as bad.

In addition, “everyone has to eat,” says Autumn Auman, a student in a recent class, but “in the South food is much more than just a way to survive. Food brings together friends, laughter, romance, family and usually just an overall good time.

“Food is the foundation for Southern culture,” says the 2005 graduate of Pinecrest High. “It’s hard to think of the South and not see fried chicken, collards, cornbread, fatback, pecan pies and sweet tea.” Food is part of “family reunions, weddings and is even brought to the grieving families of those who die,” Auman says.

“Southerners celebrate everything with food – weddings, funerals,” says Angela Carroll, another student in the class. “Whether food is used to ease the pain or just to fill our stomachs, it makes us happy.”

Home Cooking in Aberdeen

To learn more about the connection of food to Southern culture, the class took a “field trip” to The Chompin’ Ground [which closed in early 2010], which featured many Southern dishes on its buffet, on Highway 5 in Aberdeen. From fried chicken and biscuits to BBQ and home-style vegetables, the menu was definitely regional. Although some students had known about The Chompin’ Ground beforehand and a few had previously eaten there, the class experience made all passionate advocates of the superior Southern cooking on the buffet.

“I thought nobody could make country-style steak like my Grandma,” says Paige Thomas, a student who graduated in 2005 from Lee Senior High in Sanford, “but I was wrong. The Chompin’ Ground was awesome. I even went for seconds, and I never do that.”

Old-fashioned home cooking like Grandma made is what most of us prefer rather than fast food. “If I could have Grandma’s cooking every day,” says Ashley Shouse, “I would say ‘yes’ every time.”

For many in the class, a good home-cooked meal is a family tradition, whether it is made by a parent or grandparent. “My grandmother loves to bake sweets and also cook for others,” says Rebecca Williams of Ellerbe, who planned to complete her elementary education degree by transferring to St. Andrews Presbyterian College after finishing her studies at Sandhills. “For years my family has eaten Sunday lunch at my grandparents’ house. Grandma will always have the following: a meat, usually some kind of chicken or beef, vegetables; during the summer they would be fresh from the garden or what she had canned from the garden, home-made biscuits and cornbread, and of course sweet tea,” says Williams, a 2006 graduate of Richmond Senior in Rockingham.

Family Style

Dave Linthicum, who owned and operated The Chompin’ Ground [before it closed], set up a family-style buffet for the class. “We sat at a long table like a Southern family, while enjoying Southern food and small talk,” says Mikhail Truskin, a native of Russia who has lived in the Sandhills for seven years and commutes from Raeford for his classes.

Another student, Jeremy Collins, says, “Our dinner there really reminded me of my own family with all the loud commotion over everyone’s conversation while we waited to eat and then almost a dead silence when we had our food.”

Lindsay Cameron, a 2007 graduate of Union Pines High, adds, “In the South, eating as a family is something very important. By getting everyone together, it brings a sense of unity. This time allows the family to catch up on their daily lives and share stories.”

Shouse, a 2005 graduate of Union Pines High and a nursing student at Sandhills, agrees. “Food brings you together especially in the South because it gives us a chance to sit down and be with our families. I usually think of my family reunion when I think Southern food because of all the recipes that have been passed down from generations that still hit our table,” she says.

“My family on my dad’s side has about 200 to 250 family members that join us and we always run out of room for the food that has been brought. There is fried chicken, biscuits, mashed potatoes, fried okra, ham, and the list goes on and on,” says Shouse.

Compared to the South, “most families up north do not have the time to sit down and enjoy the home cooked meal or family time,” says Stephanie Wegner, who recently moved to the Sandhills from New Jersey. “I’m adapting very well to the Southern culture and I love it,” she says.

Love on the Menu

Because Southern food is based around the family, love is always part of the recipe. “Southern food always tastes different than other foods,” says Williams. “The one ingredient that others do not have is love and that is what makes it so good!”

“Southern cooking brings families together all over the South,” says Tamara Oyler, a fine arts student who plans to transfer to UNC-Wilmington, “and stories are told in many Southern homes of how recipes were passed down from generations to generations.”

“Family is a big deal in the South,” says Marshall Conrad, who is from Harrisburg, “therefore, food is a way to bring together the family at one event and to share a meal together. Another big reason for the large amount of culture tied into our Southern foods is because the South was a very poor region after the Civil War; therefore, we created dishes with things that could be acquired easily and cheaply,” says Conrad, a 2006 graduate of Central Cabarrus High who moved to the area to attend Sandhills’ turfgrass management program. “Our class trip to The Chompin’ Ground brought together the class in a true Southern family style meal to show how we as the South consume our foods,” he says.

Good Atmosphere

“The Chompin’ Ground is a perfect destination when you have a hankerin’ for some delicious Southern style cooking,” says Collins. “This isn’t any old food chain franchise but a place of real Southern soul.”

The atmosphere at The Chompin’ Ground is “friendly,” says Bud Loomis, a 2007 graduate of Western Harnett High who later transferred to N.C. State after completing his studies at Sandhills. “The social experience is one that you don’t get at somewhere like Red Lobster or Olive Garden,” he says. Not only the atmosphere but the food is also special.

“When we went to The Chompin’ Ground, I thought to myself, ‘Dang, this grub is good,” says Jacob Darr of Thomasville. “I looked around and saw everyone getting along great. I think good food brings out the social part in people. Food is another icebreaker for a conversation,” says Darr, a 2007 graduate of East Davidson High who moved here to attend Sandhills’ turfgrass management program. “Some of us made new friends and learned a lot about one another through fellowship and good food,” he says.

“The South is known for good food,” says Williams. “You can always find a good home-cooked meal somewhere in the South. Many restaurants offer home-cooked country meals like The Chompin’ Ground. The food was delicious and very Southern. “It was your typical Southern meal: fried chicken, dumplings, meat loaf, and a variety of vegetables. Many restaurants portray the idea of having ‘country buffet’ or ‘home-cooked’ meals, but they do not live up to their expectations. The Chompin’ Ground did,” she says.

Complete Menu

The completeness of the menu at The Chompin’ Ground was also impressive to Wegner, the New Jersey transplant. “Some of the food selections they offered were fried chicken, meatloaf, country fried steak, chicken and dumplings, okra, squash, mashed potatoes and gravy, and collards. Since I moved down here in July, “says Wegner, “I’ve noticed many differences of how food is prepared as well as the different types of food that are normally eaten.”

The Southern culture class “was my first time ever eating Brunswick stew, collards or okra,” says Wegner about the times on campus when the class discussed the historical and cultural contexts of these foods and were served samples to taste.

“In Southern culture class we have been studying these foods, along with where they come from and how they found their way to the South,” says Courtney Wilson, a 2007 graduate of Chatham Central who plans to transfer to a UNC System school after completing her associate in arts program at Sandhills.

Okra, one of several vegetables considered Southern, “is not a native of the South,” she explains. “It really came from the banks of the Nile in Africa. Egyptians were the first to grow okra.” Okra made its way to the United States in the 1700s after it had been brought to the Western Hemisphere by slave ships during the 1600s, and it has been valuable more than as a side dish. For example, during the Civil War when supplies were blocked, Southerners “would grind the okra seeds and use them as a substitute for coffee,” says Wilson, who adds that she and her “Pa have always had a garden, and in this garden it has had okra.”

Comfort Food

“Country style steak, sweet tea, fried chicken, and turnip greens are the staple foods of the South,” says Jason Douglas, a 2006 graduate of Chatham Central who plans to transfer to N.C. State after completing his associate in science degree at Sandhills.

“When our class attended the dinner at The Chompin’ Ground, we learned this lesson. The restaurant served almost every kind of Southern food, including fatback, and even let us eat our fantastic meal family-style. By sitting family style we were able to get to know one another better because we were all in one grouping instead of being separated by many different tables. This made the dinner all that much better because everyone was included in the main discussion,” Douglas says.

The discussion after the meal included readings from the 1800s by Douglas “in character,” he says, which made the class activity “a great learning experience.” Because “Southern food is a comfort food, everyone was more than jolly to be there,” he adds.

However, sometimes Southern food is a little different. “I work at John’s BBQ [which also has now been closed],” says Carroll, “and I can tell which customers are from the North and definitely which are from the South. Northerners politely say, ‘Fried pickles? What in the world?’ My response is always, ‘You should try ‘em!’” says the 2006 graduate of Union Pines who plans to transfer to UNC-Wilmington after completing her studies at Sandhills.

Historic Setting

“Where you eat will have a lot to do with whether you will be satisfied or not after you have finished your meal,” says Shirley Frye who grew up in Ohio before moving to the Sandhills and is now learning more about Southern culture. “The Chompin’ Ground is a place where you will get satisfaction and you will be content after leaving,” she says.

Even the building where The Chompin’ Ground is located has a strong connection to local culture. “The Chompin’ Ground is actually a historical landmark,” says Collins, a 2007 graduate of Union Pines High who plans to transfer to N.C. State after completing his studies at Sandhills.
“It was the center of attraction for many years as the train station for the Pinehurst. From serving ticket stubs to serving sweet iced tea, it renders a peaceful, Southern atmosphere,” he says.

Frye also noticed “when the building was first built, and how many people had been in this same building many years ago when it was a train depot,” she says.

Sweet Ending

The meal was topped off with a trip to the dessert area, which includes several cakes and other sweets. Although the class experience at The Chompin’ Ground was clearly sufficient to satisfy all appetites, a few days later Collins came to class with three apple pies made by Johnsie Collins, his grandmother, who lives in West End. As a result, the class discussed the importance of the apple and apple industry to the state and the annual celebration during Labor Day weekend at the North Carolina Apple Festival in Hendersonville. However, three home-baked pies brought the celebration directly to the SCC classroom.

Apples definitely have a connection to Southern culture — whether for making cider, wine or vinegar; eating fresh as wholesome fruit; or being used in pies or cobblers, both traditional Southern desserts. “Apples are used in a variety of recipes, particularly pies, cobblers and stewed apples in the South,” says Erica Ritter, a 2006 graduate of West Montgomery High who is studying physical therapy at Sandhills.

The learning continues the next time the students eat with their families or sample more regional flavors in class.

Note: This posting is a slightly edited version of an article published originally in The Pilot (Southern Pines, NC) on March 19, 2008 (pages C1-C2). Since that date, the two restaurants mentioned – The Chompin’ Ground and John’s BBQ and Seafood – have closed.