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.