Sunday, October 5, 2014

Biscuit Traditions and Love on Wheels

A search for made-from-scratch biscuits brought me to Nashville, the home of country music and also the home of the food truck Biscuit Love. I had just learned about Biscuit Love from a blog post by Southern Foodways Alliance announced on Twitter.

Biscuit Love has garnered quite a following since 2012 when it began rolling the streets around Nashville. The husband and wife team of Karl and Sarah Worley source about 80 percent of their ingredients locally, which they creatively use to prepare a rotating menu of seasonal biscuit choices.

The line for biscuit orders starts early.

Chef Karl (right) keeps biscuits
moving in Nashville.
Karl is also known for his ability to make “beaten biscuits,” described by Southern Foodways Alliance as “an art form.” Karl, who learned how to make these biscuits from the late John Edgerton, noted Southern food author, is supplying them to SFA’s fall symposium later this year.

“Beaten” biscuits were the first biscuits in the South, according to food historians, and were an improvement on hardtack, the bread of traveling warriors and sailors. This “lighter” version of hardtack was made by beating the dough. In the recipe for biscuits in The American Cookery of 1796, the directions specifically call for the cook to “break” the dough while the oven was heating.

My order: farm cheese grits; biscuit with pumpkin spice and chai cheese;
biscuit with smoked sausage, fried egg and cheddar cheese

To break meant to beat with a rolling pin or other instrument – very tough work typically relegated to slaves or servants in the antebellum South. The “beating” process creates pockets of air and develops glutens in the dough that make the biscuits lighter. The recipe’s ingredients were simple: 1 pound flour, 2 ounces butter, 1 egg, wet with milk.

Deciding on which biscuit to order is not easy.

Beaten biscuits, which were made without leavening agents, declined with the arrival of baking powder and baking soda and the introduction of self-rising flour. The legacy of making beaten biscuits was preserved by several food historians, notably Egerton, whose family owned a “biscuit break.” This machine flattens dough that is run though the machine again and again by the cook. Edgerton once said that dough was beaten “100 times for family and 500 times for company.”

The next order is ready.
The Worleys are keeping a significant Southern tradition alive with their food truck and their knowledge of biscuits. Later this year they will open Biscuit Love Brunch, a new restaurant in Nashville. But for now, Biscuit Love rolls on wheels!

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Musical Roots in Nashville

If you want to explore the history of country music and appreciate its contributions to America’s music scene, where would you travel? Nashville, Tenn., is the destination for many because The Grand Ole Opry and the famous venues where it has played such as the Ryman Auditorium have such historic importance.

Ryman Auditorium gave birth to bluegrass in 1945.

A long-running radio program, the Opry has always featured the biggest starts in country music. The stage concert, which began in 1925, was initially a simple broadcast known as a barn dance on radio station WSM. Since then the Opry has built a solid reputation by showcasing country music legends as well as contemporary artists who continue their traditions.

The stage of the Ryman and the Confederate gallery
have historic importance to country music fans.

Ryman Auditorium became the home of the Opry in 1943, although it first opened in 1892. When I drove by it the first time, I thought it looked like a church. In fact, its original purpose was to hold revivals downtown for Rev. Samuel T. Jones, who preached hard against gambling and drinking. Known as the Union Gospel Tabernacle, the building was later renamed for Thomas Ryman, a riverboat captain, who had built it for Rev. Jones. As I stood in the auditorium among the curved pews, I could almost imagine Rev. Jones delivering a fiery sermon to an overflow crowd, many in the balcony built to add seating needed for the reunion of Confederate veterans in 1897.

Arched windows of the Ryman still give the appearance of a church.

The Opry continued to be broadcast from the Ryman until 1974, when The Grand Ole Opry House, a much larger and more modern venue, opened in 1974 in eastern Nashville. When artists perform at the Opry House, they stand in a six-foot oak circle cut from the Ryman’s stage to carry on the traditions in the new location.

Curved pews of the Ryman retain their tabernacle look.

A show consists of several segments, each one with an artist “host” who introduces other performers. For the show that I attended, the hosts were music legends: Connie Smith, Riders in the Sky, Ray Pillow and Jeannie Seely. My main reason for attending the night that I did was to see Kellie Pickler (the new) and Mel Tillis (the old); they with Gretchen Peters, soon to be inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, were the principal draws for the large crowd of 4,000 plus that night.

Kellie Pickle sings in the oak circle brought from Ryman Auditorium.

Because the Opry is a radio broadcast, the segments are pieced together by the radio announcer who also does the on-air commercials live in front of the audience. Be prepared for several commercial breaks.

The live Opry broadcast is complete with commercials for the audience watching the show.

The mix of artists at the Opry includes bluegrass, folk, and gospel musicians as well as comedic performances and skits. Even the Ryman Auditorium was the scene for lectures by national leaders such as President Teddy Roosevelt and performances by notables such as magician Harry Houdini. 

The Grand Ole Opry House ends the pilgrimage by many country music fans.

The buildings themselves almost seem as important as the Opry, but the magnets to attend a performance are the old-time favorites and the opportunity to see the famous show live. For many in the audience their trip was a pilgrimage to Music City. The growth of country music has significantly shaped Nashville and far beyond this city founded in 1779.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Would You Order Livermush at a Classic Family Diner?

[Note: This post, prepared originally for the NC Folklife Institute's NCFood blog, is hosted on the institute’s website, with excerpts and a link to the website posted here.]

Want to step back in time and explore early food traditions of our state? Then stop at a family-owned diner that has been in business for more than 50 years. When you do, expect to find items on the menu that link back to days long ago.

Livermush on the sandwich menu
quickly aught my attention
The menu boards immediately caught my attention when I entered The Hub, a place popular for breakfast and lunch in Anson County. Located about 50 miles east of Charlotte on busy U.S. 74 that bypasses the downtown heart of Wadesboro, The Hub has been in business since 1961, according to Scott Drye, who began working in the diner when he was 11 and is the son of the owner. He said his father took over the diner in 1969 and has been operating it ever since.

Continue reading at the NCFood blog ...

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Scottish Heritage Preserved in Games, Music, Food, and Religion

Cultural history of the American South can be learned by attending events that preserve traditions of previous generations, particularly when the activities emphasize music, skill contests, food, religion, and other aspects of society and family. An excellent example occurs in Scotland County, N.C., during the first weekend of each October.

The Highland Games of Scotland County, held on the grounds of the John Blue Home and Historical Complex in Laurinburg, celebrate the rich Scottish heritage of the Upper Cape Fear and Pee Dee regions of the Carolinas. Even though events extend over three days, the primary day is Saturday (the second day), when the field opens to the general public at 8 a.m. The opening ceremonies feature pipe bands and a parade of tartans. The morning activities typically include Scottish athletic events, sheep dog demonstrations, piping and drumming competitions, and other entertainment. In the afternoon, more music and athletic competitions are held, including children games. The games continue a tradition of Scottish games in the area (that began in 1976 with the Flora MacDonald Highland Games, which had been held annually in nearby Red Springs but were discontinued in 2007).

Athletic Competitions
The athletic events seem particularly archaic when compared to today’s popular sports, such as football that emphasizes throw, punt, and run skills or basketball with a focus on dribble, pass, and shoot proficiency. However, the Scottish contests demonstrate skills needed in arduous conditions for taming both native and foreign lands. For example, one event – turning of the caber – involves throwing a caber (a tree that can range from 17 to 21 feet and weigh up to 160 pounds) so that it turns end over end with the large end striking the ground before the small end follows through and then strikes the ground. The champion wins by landing a caber in a perfect 12 o’clock position (on an imaginary clock). In contrast, competitors in other events are judged by the height or distance that they can throw a cumbersome object. The highest toss wins for these two events:

  • Sheaf toss. A sheaf (bundle of twine wrapped in a burlap bag), which weighs up to 16 pounds, is tossed with a pitchfork over a horizontal bar.
  • Weight over bar. Using only one hand, competitors toss a weight (up to 56 pounds) with an attached handle over a horizontal bar.
The longest throw wins for other events.
  • Open stone. A stone weighing up to 22 pounds for men (12 pounds for women) is thrown (or “put”) from the shoulder with only one hand.
  • Heavy weight toss. A competitor throws an implement weighing up to 56 pounds with one hand.
  • Light weight toss. Similar to the heavy weight toss, this event also uses an implement but a lighter one (28 pounds for men and 14 pounds for women).
  • Scottish hammer throw. A hammer (with a shaft of 50 inches or less), weighing up to 22 pounds, is thrown over the shoulders using both hands.
Can children participate? At the games in Scotland County, children from 4 to 16 can compete in several basic activities, including Scottish competitions, such as the stone throw; caber toss; clachneart, an event resembling the shot put; and hammer throw. In addition, running events (not exceeding one-fourth of a mile) and a tug of war offer other competitive contests for young participants.

Music
Music seems to be playing continually during the Highland Games of Scotland County. Although a central entertainment stage has continual performances and demonstrations of music and dance, the main music attraction is the piping and drumming competitions. Because the sweet and melodious tunes of the bagpipe have been heard in the Carolinas since the 1730s when the first Highland Scots arrived in the region, the music competition for pipes and drums bands is intense.
The music competition honors the Argyll Colony that arrived in 1739 in the Upper Cape Fear region and was the first group of a large emigration of Highland Scots that continued for about 100 years. As they arrived, music was an indispensable component of social life and prominent in several historical settings. For example, pipers during the American Revolutionary War were known for creating a ruse to confuse Patriot forces as to the location of Loyalist forces. Because suspicions arose about the “alien British” community in the region during the War of 1812 and they were pressured to assimilate into American ways, piping became less prominent.

As a result, piping was replaced by fiddling in providing music for dance, even though the local conservative Presbyterian clergy typically viewed music and dance as irreconcilable with spiritual life. Recovering slowly from this decline, pipe bands began to appear in the Carolinas by the mid-20th century. An early example is the Blue Ribbon Caledonian Pipe Band, established around 1947 in the N.C. Triad area, that played for the inauguration of Governor Scott in 1947. A few years later in 1955, The Citadel in Charleston began a pipe band that is still part of the cadet music program.

However, even with these early encouraging examples, piping and pipe bands were not part of this region of traditional Highland settlements until recently. Typical competitors at the Highland Games include the oldest continually organized pipe band in North Carolina. Wearing the Carolina tartan (the state tartan of North Carolina), the band, organized in 1968 by graduate students, is from N.C. State University. Formed in 1991 (earlier than most other bands) is the pipe band from St. Andrews Presbyterian College, which regularly competes throughout the U.S. South. Other bands in the Carolinas, formed mostly after the mid-1990s, from Raleigh, Columbia, Huntersville, and Jamestown also vie for music awards.

Food
Food is another way to connect culturally to previous generations. During the Highland Games, many Scottish foods are available. For example, Scottish meat pies, sausage rolls, haggis puffs, and Forfar bridies (a meat pastry) made by Cameron’s of Kearny from Sumter, SC, were tempting. Drinks included Irn-Bru (a popular Scottish carbonated beverage) and ginger beer. (The meat pie was an excellent mid-afternoon snack.)

Scott’s Keltic Kitchen & Bakery of Murrells Inlet, SC, delighted spectators with Scottish desserts. Scottish meat pieI was particularly impressed with the clootie dumpling with devon custard that I had never tasted before. The bakery was also offering scones with strawberries and cream (very popular) as well as sticky toffee pudding, cream meringue, and chocolate bread pudding (with chocolate sauce).

Family Bonds and Other Heritage Connections
Although the food selections are popular, the vendors detain the attendees only briefly from the main gathering area of the clans. The primary game field is encircled by more than 40 clan tents where families, societies, and other groups mix and mingle. On display are histories, migration patterns, insignia, and tartans (the symbol of the family association or home district). Each clan, a gathering of families for economic and political protection as well as social support (who are not necessarily related by blood), in Scotland had its own tartan.

Several vendors from throughout the Carolinas set up tents for the Highland Games to display and sell Scottish merchandise – metalworks, fine arts, clothing and fabrics, utensils, and souvenirs. The booths were quite popular and attracted serious as well as casual shoppers.

Religion
Although some competitors and vendors seem to request divine intervention throughout the weekend, the primary religious event occurs on Sunday morning when worshipers at the nearby Old Laurel Hill Presbyterian Church (founded in 1797 by Highlanders) conduct a “kirkin’ of the tartans” service. According to Scottish legend, the ceremony can be traced to the Parliamentary Act of 1846 in England. The act banned the kilt, plaid, or other tartan garment to destroy Highland clan identity. In defiance of the British Crown, the Scots ignored the ban when they went to church and carried remnants of their tartans in their pockets, and the minister added a blessing into the service for the clans represented by the tartans. The first kirkin’ was held in Washington, D.C, in 1947 by the Saint Andrew’s Society (whose members are all Scottish descendents). A growing number of Presbyterian churches in the Southeast celebrate this service annually to recognize the transfer of faith to America by clans whose families arrived almost 300 years ago.

The Highland Games of Scotland County are an excellent way to learn more about the cultural history of the American South and traditions of previous generations. The skill contests — athletic as well as music — celebrate a heritage shared by many families. Because many Southerners live near venues that host Highland games (such as Grandfather Mountain, NC; Stone Mountain Park, GA, The Plains, VA; Tallahassee, FL; Greenville, SC; Maryville, TN; and San Antonio, TX), these games will continue to increase in popularity. Attend one soon and observe the past in the present.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Mobile Food for the Literati

[Note: This post, prepared originally for the NC Folklife Institute's NCFood blog, is hosted on the institute’s website, with excerpts and a link to the website posted here.]

Where do you go for food when you’re at a literary festival on a weekend and the places open on weekdays are closed? When the N.C. Literary Festival was held this year in Raleigh, the answers to feed the hungry public were food trucks. The festival drew thousands to author readings and discussions, performances, book signings, and children activities. Can you imagine how hungry these events made everyone?

Food trucks kept the literary festival
crowd from getting too hungry.
Food trucks can be ready to satisfy the hunger demands as the crowd surges during special events. The trucks often have well-established reputations for quick and tasty food. The clue for which trucks are really good is the length of the line of customers waiting to place orders. Twitter is often helpful to receive updates on times and locations that favorite trucks are serving.

Continue reading at the NCFood blog ...

Friday, September 5, 2014

Learning About Cheese Making (and Feeding a Baby Goat)

[Note: This post, prepared originally for the NC Folklife Institute's NCFood blog, is hosted on the institute’s website, with excerpts and a link to the website posted here.] 

To watch cheese being made, taste some artisan cheese samples, and take home a package or two, I headed to the Blue Ridge area of our state to travel part of the Western North Carolina Cheese Trail. Little did I expect to be bottle-feeding a day-old baby goat. Within minutes after arriving at Round Mountain Creamery near Black Mountain, NC, I was holding a full bottle of warm milk for an eager kid who cared little about who was feeding it.

Linda Seligman, creamery owner, teaches
me how to bottle feed a newborn goat.
The feeding was all part of the tour that I had arranged the day before. Before visiting the creamery, I reviewed information about the Western North Carolina Cheese Trail online. The trail, established in 2013, links together farms and creameries that show how artisan cheeses are made from goat and cow milk and inform visitors about the art and science of cheese-making. Helping to promote the cheese trail is the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP), which builds local food connections and helps area farms succeed. 

Continue reading at the NCFood blog ...

Friday, August 1, 2014

Mountain Trout Is N.C. Good

[Note: This post, prepared originally for the NC Folklife Institute's NCFood blog, is hosted on the institute’s website, with excerpts and a link to the website posted here.]

Imagine fishing in a fast-flowing, rocky mountain stream and reeling in trout for dinner. Such experiences have always been part of the food culture in the Blue Ridge region, whether for the Cherokee with prehistoric ties to its hills and streams or the families who settled there after the Trail of Tears campaign evicted most Cherokee from their tribal territory.

Jonathan Creek in Maggie Valley, NC, is part of
the Mountain Heritage Trout Waters Program.
Visitors today can easily envision the days of how trout streams provided food for families as well as the thrill of mountain fishing. To encourage trout fishing as a heritage tourism activity, the N.C. General Assembly established the Mountain Heritage Trout Waters Program in 2007. Several locations in Haywood County and neighboring counties offer access to streams designated by the program. Only a special $5 fishing license (good for three days) is required. Some locations, such as the Town of Maggie Valley, even provide rods and reels at no charge. (Stocked ponds, although they don’t provide the stream experience, also offer chances, particularly to children, to reel in trout.)


Continue reading at the NCFood blog ...

Friday, July 25, 2014

Bluegrass Music in the Mountains

Want to hear authentic bluegrass music performed by an internationally known artist? Then travel the Music Trails of the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area that take you to the opry house in Maggie Valley, NC. This performance venue is in Haywood County, where the banjo has played in unison with the fiddle for generations since the Scots-Irish began to settle the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains to make “mountain music.”

The banjo skills of Raymond Fairchild draw guests each night to the Maggie Valley Opry House.

When I visited, I enjoyed music by Raymond Fairchild and the Maggie Valley Boys that connected me to the traditional folklife of the mountains. Fairchild played his five-string banjo as if he were performing again at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville rather than the opry (“opera” in Southern dialect that sometimes pronounces a final “a” as a “y”) in Maggie Valley. Born in 1939, Fairchild has yet to slow down. He performs with his band nightly April through October (the months that the opry house is open).

With 300 seats, the opry house has plenty of room for guests. Banjos on sale and memorabilia on the wall greets visitors as they arrive.

Fairchild has received many awards and honors, including two gold records. Most significant is the Bluegrass Banjo of the Year Award five times from the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America, which has also inducted him into its Hall of Greats.
     
 
Fairchild’s gold records and other awards are on display next to the stage.

Fairchild is often touted as the fastest five-string banjo player. When he plays an instrumental solo as part of a number with his band, his legendary dexterity is amazing. As Fairchild performs, the expression on his face is very solemn – almost a poker-face with no expression. A gifted musician for decades, he learned to play the guitar when he was 11, although he didn’t pick up a banjo until he was 18.

Fairchild performs nightly at the opry house with the Maggie Valley Boys.

Fairchild, who is proud of his Cherokee heritage, graciously shares the stage with the other musicians. Their rhythm guitar, bass, and harmonica combine in harmony with his guitar to produce music that makes you want to dance. In fact, during the performance, several visitors in the audience when to the elevated dance area and clogged to the tune being played. Fairchild also features his manager John Lucas as a vocalist in several selections. Lucas’ rendition of “Amazing Grace” in the Cherokee language is incredibly beautiful.

Singing “Amazing Grace” in the Cherokee language, John Lucas demonstrates his talented, rich voice as he is accompanied by Fairchild and the Maggie Valley Boys.
Although the evening was enjoyable, I would have enjoyed more music to demonstrate Fairchild’s elaborate, fast picking and skills to make the banjo mimic animal sounds such as those by mules in his performance of “Whoa Mule” (illustrated in this video recorded earlier in his career).

During intermission, band members “jam” with visitors.
The opry house has been operating continuously since 1988, even during earlier years when Fairchild was on the road for other performances. Although the music by Fairchild and the Maggie Valley Boys are the reason guests continue to attend the nightly shows, Fairchild gives credit during performances to his wife Shirley for the success of the opry house. In addition to managing the opry house and selling tickets before the performance, she multitasks during intermission by selling popcorn and soft drinks at the concession stand.

Fairchild (with display of moonshiner Popcorn Sutton in background) sells music and souvenirs during intermission as wife Shirley operates concession stand.

Maggie Valley is famous for several notable people, including Popcorn Sutton (legendary moonshiner), but Raymond Fairchild is clearly the hometown favorite and a beloved member of the community.

Maggie Valley proudly proclaims itself as the home of Raymond Fairchild.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Foods Made in N.C. Often Continue Family Traditions

[Note: This post, prepared originally for the NC Folklife Institute's NCFood blog, is hosted on the institute’s website, with excerpts and a link to the website posted here.] 

Have you ever wandered through a festival that showcases the best flavors and tastes of North Carolina? Imagine attending an event that highlights the best of N.C. agriculture and celebrates specialty foods made in our state.

Muscadine smoothies are on display
at the Got to Be NC Festival.
The three-day, family-friendly Got to Be NC Festival held each May at the State Fairgrounds in Raleigh draws attention to food creations of long-standing as well newly established producers. More than 75,000 people from across the state typically attend this event.


Continue reading at the NCFood blog ...

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Working with Clay and Appreciating Pottery Traditions

Special Note: The "behind the scenes pottery crawl" to benefit the Northern Moore Resource Center will be held in 2014 on Saturday, May 10, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. For specific details about this year's event, including tickets, click here. Tickets can be obtained on the day of the crawl in Robbins, NC, at the Resource Center or in advance from Country Bookstore in Southern Pines or Heavenly Pines Fine Jewelry and Gifts in Pinehurst.



Pottery has a rich tradition in the American South where extensive clay deposits, used centuries ago by Native Americans in making functional and ceremonial pots, gave colonial setters the material to create their pottery. Although the functional use of pottery declined, many potters continued their craft and passed it on to succeeding generations until today when the distinctive features of folk pottery are appreciated even more for their artistic value. The growing interest in traditional arts and crafts has brought new attention to the pottery industry where in North Carolina alone more than 2,000 potters are active.

When a “pottery crawl” was held in the Seagrove, NC, area, I got to immerse myself in the largest concentration of working potters in the United States. Although Seagrove is only one of several areas in the state that feature folk potters, it has been designated as the birthplace of N.C. traditional pottery and serves as the home of the N.C. Pottery Center. So many potteries are located along N.C. Highway 705 and its side roads that the state has designed this thoroughfare that bisects Seagrove as “N.C. Pottery Highway.”

The event was more than a visit to pottery art galleries to admire their creations (although they were for sale and 15% of all sales were donated to the nonprofit that sponsored the crawl). The visits were particularly valuable to see where and how the art is created – and to observe demonstrations from shaping at the wheel, to glazing, and to firing techniques.

In his studio, Ben Owen III demonstrates how clay
is shaped at a wheel.

When I visited several shops, I saw a rich variety of pottery styles, colors, shapes and sizes that preserves a local pottery tradition that dates to the 1700s. European settlers with pottery-making traditions were attracted to the Seagrove area because the local clay was so plentiful. They soon began making jugs, crocks, pitchers, dishes and other utilitarian items for daily household use. Although these items are still made by today’s potters, their work also includes contemporary pieces that are truly decorative.

For me, the event was also my first opportunity to make “pottery” – a very modest attempt to create a very amateurish-looking small bowl. At Seagrove Stoneware, housed in the original Seagrove General Store, several wheels had been set up for anyone who wanted to try turning a pot. I couldn’t resist the opportunity.

Alexa Modderno of Seagrove Stoneware
starts by demonstrating the proper technique.

After I had dug my fingers into the wet clay, I could share in an appreciation for the art and skill that pottery-making requires as well as a fascination for shaping earth to create an object that connects to the lives of earlier generations.

My tutor watches as I start to
shape a block of wet clay.
Then she realizes that I need a
little more guidance.


My finished project (after it was
glazed by the real professional)

“Turning” clay was a novel experience. I was able to use foot power without too much difficulty to spin the wheel at a constant speed. However, I was surprised at the effort I needed to shape the clay as the wheel turned. I needed to apply more pressure with my hands than I had anticipated, although I was reasonably satisfied with the simple symmetrical shape that I produced.

Being able to shape clay at a Seagrove studio connected me to the community that includes several potters who have family ties to the early English and German immigrants. Some families claim eighth- and ninth-generation potters. For example, the ancestors of Ben Owen III came from England in the late 1700s and made storage jars and other utilitarian wares for other local settlers. In addition, Sid Luck of Luck’s Ware is a fifth generation potter. These families created a network of local potters that has attracted newcomers to join the growing local assortment of almost 100 pottery workshops and studios.

Part of the collection of tools used by his ancestors
on display in the museum of Ben Owen III

The crawl, organized by the Northern Moore Family Resource Center, is held on the Saturday of Mothers’ Day weekend as a fundraiser to conduct its programs. This nonprofit organization serves an area where the extensive loss of manufacturing jobs over several decades has resulted in many children living in poverty. The center provides educational and recreational programs for children living in poverty, assists residents who need to learn English as a second language, and helps low-income families to purchase homes.

Working with clay in the Seagrove area gave me a tangible connection to the rich pottery tradition in the South and particularly North Carolina. Visiting workshops during an event sponsored by the Northern Moore Family Resource Center helped to not only benefit this community service organization but also to acknowledge the role that this traditional craft plays in our culture.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Grits & Groceries: At the Crossroads with a Rooster (and Pig's Tail)

Sometimes the best home cooking is at the crossroads of nowhere in the most remote area of a county, and sometimes a well-chosen name may give the best clue that the food is authentic down home cookin’. At Saylors Crossroads (the intersection of S.C. highways 284 and 185), Grits & Groceries near Belton, S.C., has become a destination for food-inspired travelers.

Belton, founded by families of Irish descent and chartered in 1855, advertises itself as a community of “rolling hills, small ponds, and lakes.” I can attest to the scenery and remoteness because on my trip there from nearby Greenville (only 22 miles to the northeast) my GPS device lost its signal and I roamed more than 45 minutes out of the way.

In eastern Anderson County, Belton boasts a population of fewer than 5,000. However, Grits & Groceries has a clientele that clearly exceeds the local population because its owners serve excellent traditional Southern food. Heidi and Joe Trull (whom I’d met a few years earlier on a field trip conducted by Southern Foodways Alliance) operate the establishment in an old country store that once was also a post office and radio station. At Grits and Groceries, they combine Cajun, Creole, and Southern cooking traditions that feature locally grown organic produce and dairy products. In addition, Heidi and Joe’s own extensive garden provides seasonal vegetables for the menu.

Both Heidi and Joe have more than simple Southern cooking roots. After circuitous career paths through kitchens in the Carolinas and other parts of the South, both were lured to New Orleans where they eventually joined Emeril Lagasse’s Nola restaurant in the French Quarter. Joe, in fact, was Emeril’s pastry chef for ten years; Heidi had even owned and operated her own restaurant, Elizabeth’s, before joining Nola.

Before I arrived at Saylors Crossroads, I thought I would order Carolina shrimp gravy and grits ($10.00) but instead was immediately attracted by the pimento cheese sandwich ($5.50) at a neighboring table and ordered one for myself; it is true regional tradition. My wife chose French toast stuffed with cream cheese and fresh strawberries ($8.00) — the best French toast that either of us has tasted. In addition, we also shared an order of praline bacon ($4.00), an excellent treat that provided an appealing contrast to our primary choices. However, most memorable was a plate of pig’s tail (not routinely on the menu) that we shared with a trio also attending the Potlikker Film Festival, which Southern Foodways Alliance conducts around the South (that weekend Greenville was the venue). Although we wanted to try one of Joe’s special homemade desserts (pies and cakes), we couldn't eat more so we compensated by taking home a copy of Heidi and Joe’s cookbook.

With a rooster on the corner at Saylors Crossroads, Grits & Groceries, which offers heaping servings of “real food, done real good” (Heidi’s slogan also still used by Elizabeth’s), is hard to miss (when you’re on the right road). If you do head that way, arrive at least before 2 p.m., when they close — and before you travel, check out the directions on their website that might cut 45 minutes out of your driving time.