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.

Banana Pudding Cheesecake: Search Leads to Mount Gilead, NC

The banana pudding cheesecake made the drive to Mount Gilead, NC worthwhile. Never before had I tasted cheesecake with the flavor of banana pudding. It was truly the finest cheesecake I have eaten (of course, my taste buds prefer Southern flavors) – and the cheesecake’s price of $3.95 was the best value I had purchased all month.

Mount Gilead (zip code 27306), a town incorporated in1898 and with a population now of fewer than 1,500 residents, caught my attention because it’s the home of The Ford Place, which bills itself as a restaurant, pub and event center. As I arrived in town, it was easy to find – on Main Street in the center of town and a prominent part of the Mount Gilead Downtown Historic District, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

I always have to look at the dessert options before giving my order to a server. Because banana pudding cheesecake was the purpose of the trip, making this decision was not difficult. The dessert had been featured in “100 Foods You Must Eat in 100 Counties” [of North Carolina] in Our State magazine, which had recommended The Ford Place as the one location to dine in Montgomery County (in the central part of the state).

The food at The Ford Place is exceptional, due to the culinary talents of Steve Flaugher, who trained in Chapel Hill under the highly regarded Bill Neal. Our State had also drawn my attention to the Carolina Slider Plate, the first item on the menu under “sandwiches and burgers.” I knew that I was in trouble when the plate arrived because it was overflowing with three sliders in freshly baked yeast rolls. In addition, the plate comes with a side (as do all sandwiches); my choice was sweet potato fries – yum! The first slider that I picked up was the one with house-made pimento cheese and a slice of summer tomato – if only I could have chosen a whole meal of it! Next was a yeast roll with pulled pork topped with cole slaw – excellent! Knowing that I had to save room for dessert, I only sampled the last slider (and took the rest home); it was a fried green tomato sitting on top of smoked bacon and lettuce (not a bad snack later that evening).

My wife, who ordered the fried chicken dinner that comes with two sides, kindly shared her sides: mashed potatoes and collards. The chicken was crispy, and the sides made our table look like a Sunday family-style dinner – too many choices. Even as good as the chicken was, my wife raved more about the homemade flavor and texture of the mashed potatoes, which evoked more memories than Proust’s madeleine.

As we waited for our food to arrive (which was only a brief time), our server Dinah proudly walked us around the establishment. The building, constructed in 1922 and operated until 1960s as a Ford dealership (thus its name), had been recently restored, opening in March 2009 as a restaurant. Dinah pointed out original windows and doors as well as a car lift (now used as a stage for entertainment) that had been used to bring vehicles into the showroom (now the dining room); original sales offices have even been converted into restrooms for restaurant customers. On the restaurant’s walls are several historical photos of automobiles from the 1920s in the showroom.

Before becoming a place to sell cars, the location had been a livery stable – adding to the historic importance of The Ford Place, where the food is reasonably priced. The bill for two full meals with two beverages and a dessert that was shared was less than $25. The banana pudding cheesecake, however, made the trip one that we must repeat. Next time we may consider other entree choices, such as shrimp and grits or rainbow trout. Of course, the banana pudding cheesecake will be ordered again.

Update: The Ford Place is no longer open for business.