Sunday, September 25, 2011

In Ditches and Dishes: Picture a Sunflower on Your Plate

Have you traveled too fast along a two-lane country road and missed the thin yellow sunflowers growing in adjacent low areas? The next time you see a patch of the flowers, slow down and embrace a species of sunflower native to the South. It is often known as Jerusalem artichoke, a name very misleading because the plant is not an artichoke and it is not from Jerusalem. To avoid confusion, it’s more recently been called a sunroot or sunchoke.

Its blooms look like miniature sunflowers, providing a bright yellow sight to the highway landscape. The plant grows from 4 to 9 feet, but the real jewel is underground — a tuber, which is about three inches long and at least one inch thick, that resembles a ginger root. The perfect place for me to slow down and take a picture was in mid-September at the crossroads of Glendon, NC, where sunflowers were surrounding highway signs on a rural road between Carthage and Siler City.

Fortunately, Sir Walter Raleigh was not traveling too fast when he observed Native Americans cultivating sunroots in 1585 in an area of Virginia. However, it was French explorer Samuel de Champlain who took the plant to Europe in the early 1600s and created interest across the Atlantic Ocean by describing its taste similar to an artichoke. The French are also given credit for cultivating sunchokes on a large scale. The Italians named it girasole (meaning sunflower — literally turning to the sun); however, the English transformed the name into something familiar enough to pronounce (Jerusalem).

Early use of the vegetable is also documented in The Virginia Housewife, originally published in 1838 and widely regarded as the first Southern cookbook. It recommends boiling and dressing the tuber in ways “directed for potatoes” and covering it “with thick melted butter, and a nice white or brown sauce.” For many generations, sunchokes were not popular because they had a reputation as a poor person’s vegetable (a common weed with an edible root), although they are the most important root cash crop to originate in North America. In addition, an old wives’ tale linked them incorrectly to leprosy (the tuber’s shape was similar to distorted fingers deformed by the disease).

However, during World War II, the sunchoke gained favor in several countries because it could be bought without a ration card. Although now cultivated much more extensively in Europe than America, the tuber is making a comeback in the South because it has a slightly sweet and nut-like flavor (similar to water chestnuts). In addition, its potato-like texture makes it a favorite as a potato substitute for diabetics.

My wife and I first learned about “Jerusalem artichokes” on a Southern Foodways Alliance field trip in Tennessee. Bill Smith, chef of Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, NC, and named by the James Beard Awards in the final four for Best Chef Southeast, was mentioning how an 85-year-old lady supplies his restaurant with Jerusalem artichokes and gave fresh variety to his menu.

Many cooks and chefs in the South now use the vegetable as a main ingredient in a relish (with onion and red bell pepper). For example, Smith’s relish recipe is in several cookbooks, including a community cookbook published by SFA, which conducts events that relate foodways to culture. At a foodways film festival in Greenville, SC, Joe and Heidi Trull of Grits & Groceries provided samples of their relish as part of a tasting event before SFA documentary films were shown. Other prominent chefs and writers are also featuring the tuber in their cookbooks such as The New Southern Garden Cookbook by Sheri Castle, whose Southern food classes at A Southern Season I’ve attended.

Because the roots of the sunchoke to the South sometimes are often missed by casual readers of both old and new Southern cookbooks, its regional connection should be celebrated more. As I’ve learned more about the plant, I look for it in recipes as well as on the roadside. It’s a plant that still enhances the flavors of the South.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

A Burger Fit for Aunt Bee

Want to eat at an old-fashioned place with time-honored values that seems to thrive even as its town has fallen on hard times? Then travel to Siler City, a historic railroad town with about 8,000 residents in a farming community in the center of North Carolina. The town where Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier) retired after starring on The Andy Griffith Show, Siler City is better known as the home of Johnson’s Drive-In.

Johnson’s Drive-In has a history of satisfying customers for more than 65 years. It is the choice for many Southerners traveling on U.S. 421 or U.S. 64 that slices through the town. Now a four-lane road with constant traffic, U.S. 64 was a gravel road when the drive-in was opened by Leonard and Christine Johnson in 1946.

Claxton Johnson, son of the late founders, was on the grill when I arrived. Several customers, standing by a wall, were chatting in small groups and with others in the drive-in that they recognized. Although a few just wanted to order food to go, most were waiting for a place to sit because all 12 seats at the counter as well as the booths by the front window were occupied. As I waited, a long-time local customer clued me in on the restaurant’s history. I was lucky only 10 people were waiting; if the day had not been rainy, the drive-in would have been more crowded.

After a brief wait, I took a stool at the counter next to a lady who travels between Raleigh and Salisbury; this visit was the first time in many attempts that she was able to get a seat. Now that I was only an arm’s length from Johnson, I could observe the master at work. His focus on cooking 12 patties at a time was interrupted by only an occasional greeting from a familiar face. Each burger starts as a hunk of Western grain-fed, USDA-choice beef (the second highest rating after prime) that Johnson presses into a patty after it has withstood the initial sizzling hot surface.

After the only flip, he adds a slab of Velveeta cheese, just cut from a block by the grill. Before taking each patty off the grill, he adds half of the bun for a few moments before laying the patties on the rest of the buns lined in a row at the next station on wax paper and dressed to the customers' orders (with lettuce, tomato, slaw, chili, or other fixin's). As Johnson moves about the grill, family members weave around each other behind the counter without speaking like a dance ensemble that knows each other’s every move in advance.

Open only four hours on Tuesdays through Saturdays, Johnson’s Drive-In (which no longer serves outside but still retains drive-in in its name) is definitely a place no one should arrive late. After the meat bought that morning is gone, the drive-in closes. All fixin’s are also bought fresh in the morning, and nothing is saved for the next day.

As I left, Daniel Routh, known for guitar and vocals with the bluegrass group Nu-Blu that has won the Carolina Music Award for Country Band of the Year, rang up my bill. In 2006 Routh married Johnson’s daughter Carolyn, who has worked in the restaurant all her life and continues the family’s dedication to good food started by her grandfather, who was working at the restaurant only a few hours before he passed in 1985.

Although business at Johnson’s is thriving, Siler City has been beset by several economic problems best illustrated by the closing in 2011 of a poultry plant by Townsends Inc., the town’s largest employer, and the loss of more than 600 jobs. One way that the town has sought to recover from the impacts of such major declines has been to reinvent itself as a hub of creative arts. It is now capitalizing on the economic value of arts-based small businesses and is serving as the home to the N.C. Arts Incubator. However, Johnson himself makes a more significant statement about the economic value of community pride and the benefits of no-frills hard work and excellent service that provides continuity for customers as well as his family in his small town setting.

However, as Aunt Bee might have known, the importance of Siler City is not just the arts (and the monthly Third Friday Artwalk from 6 to 9 pm). It is the sense of community and family shared by many as they eat at Johnson’s. Rather than retire to her native New York City or glamorous Hollywood or Mount Airy (considered by many to be the fictional town of Mayberry, where close friendships in the community were paramount), she chose a small town in central North Carolina, where she fell in love with "all the pretty roads and the trees." When she died in 1989, she was buried in the Siler City’s Oakwood Cemetery, only a few minutes away from the establishment known for its hometown atmosphere, traditional family values and delicious burgers.

Although modern enough to have a page on Facebook, Johnson’s continues to serve old-fashioned burgers in a time-honored tradition that would have made Aunt Bee as proud as the local residents and the current travelers who stop for good food in a family setting.

Making the South Flavorful Throughout the Year

Looking for a flavorful treat that has excellent regional flavors and connections? Although the pecan pie is an excellent Southern desert, particularly during the fall, many homes entertain guests with a “nutty” fruitcake at the end of the year, especially at Christmas. No fruitcake in the United States has gained more attention that the one made in central North Carolina by the Scott family at its Southern Supreme business.

Although begun very humbly in 1985 in the Scotts’ garage, Southern Supreme has become an international gourmet food company. As a result, it has expanded into a modern building with four kitchens and a retail sales room. Sales have grown to more than 200,000 pounds of fruitcake annually. However, the business still retains its family-oriented practices that emphasize quality and value. (Its emphasis on customer service is best illustrated by its record with Better Business Bureau, which gives its highest rating of A+ to Southern Supreme and has no complaints to report.)

Bear Creek, an unincorporated community (zip code 27207) where Southern Supreme is located, is just as traditionally Southern as its products. With only 4,100 residents in 1,625 households in 81 square miles (a population density of 51 people per square mile), neighbors don’t see each other too frequently, except at church -- or at Southern Supreme when they work there part-time. Several dozen residents are hired near the end of the year to meet the seasonal demand for fruitcakes and other specialties. In fact, family members of several students in my college classes have worked part-time there.

For more than 25 years, Southern Supreme has sold its fruitcake and other specialties by mail order as well as from the retail store in the farmland of southwestern Chatham County. Before October, Southern Supreme operates primarily as a mail order business, although the retail store remains open year round.

When is the best time to visit? For most it is mid-October when the Scotts have their annual open house. Despite the isolated location of its retail store, more than 10,000 people visit during the four-day event that starts usually on the second Thursday. After the open house, the store remains a fashionable destination and is so popular that some cities and counties, such as Carrboro Recreation and Parks and Fayetteville-Cumberland Parks and Recreation, offer tours before Christmas.

Although I’ve been to an open house, I dropped in on a rainy Saturday a month early when the store was uncrowded and I didn’t have to stand in line to sample the goodies. I enjoyed being able to taste samples at my leisure, linger at the photo display of days ago and read more information about fruitcakes and Southern Supreme than the average person should know:

  • 2,100 calories in one pound of fruitcake

  • 21 servings in one pound of fruitcake

  • 1,800 eggs cracked in a day

  • 2,800 pounds of fruitcake made in a day

  • 8 Scott family members who own and operate the shop

  • 100 employees during peak season

  • 2,400 packages sent out on the first day of a week

However, I missed seeing the store decorated in its finest holiday attire as it is for the open house and I wasn’t able to view cooking stations that are set up to show how cookies, cakes, and other goodies are created. In addition, I missed the picturesque foliage in October when many visitors select the Devil’s Stomping Ground Scenic Byway (NC 902) to travel to Bear Creek from Pittsboro, the county seat to the northeast, or the small towns of Seagrove and Robbins to the southwest. To enjoy the seasonal experience, I might have to return during an open house and be part of the excitement with the crowd again.

Southern Supreme takes advantage of being in the South to use ingredients with wonderful flavors connected to Southern culture in not only fruitcakes but other favorites as well:

  • Fruitcakes with regional fruits and native pecans are especially Southern (although fruitcakes are as old as the Romans). Fruitcakes date to the colonial period when European settlers brought traditions of having made them in their home countries.

  • Nut specialties feature regional favorites, such as the pecan that is native to the American South and the peanut that has a long tradition in the South. Both are featured prominently in nut boxes, bags, and candies.

  • Jams, jellies, and marmalades are also beloved Southern choices, particularly those made with strawberries, blackberries and peaches grown in the South.

  • Relishes made using old family recipes depend on garden tomatoes and bell peppers of the South that have been enhanced with mixed spices.

Although fruitcake will always be its claim to fame, Southern Supreme has many regional delights than Southerners enjoy. Rather than struggle with an Internet search for find something generic for the holidays, take a fall trip to Bear Creek where the Scotts’ store still beckons to past guests as well as first-time visitors. The Southern connections to traditional flavors are appreciated not only at the end of the year but also throughout the year.