Friday, July 17, 2015

Where Food Is More Than Only Something to Eat

[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.]

Food is more than simply sustenance. Kitchens are more than places to prepare and eat meals. No place is better for demonstrating the value in society of food and kitchens than The King’s Kitchen in Charlotte, NC. As its customers enjoy the menu of the day, the unemployed, underemployed, difficult to employ, and recently released prison inmates learn culinary and food service skills.

Chef-in-training Horace Pressley spreads
a big smile when someone raves about
his mac and cheese.
Customers enter because the food is excellent and the service is top-notch. The Southern meat and three sides (with bread) seems the most popular order. The entrees of braised pot roast, fried or baked chicken, fried catfish, and grilled meatloaf rival any superior Southern restaurant. Customers may also be satisfied because the restaurant has a huge heart and social conscience. When I ate recently at The King’s Kitchen, the food was so good and the service so professional, I couldn’t image that the staff could include someone once homeless, a former drug addict, or convicted felon.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Adding Bounce to Your Life

Would you invite Amos Owens into your home or ask him to attend your next party?

Perhaps the most famous moonshiner in North Carolina during his lifetime, Owens slipped into obscurity before many of us were born. In his heyday, however, he was often sought for his special concoction known as Cherry Bounce.

Amos Owens
His legendary recipe was three parts corn whiskey, one part cherry juice, and one part sugar. Although his corn whiskey was special, even more precious was the juice because it was pressed from the fruit by the bare feet of his beautiful daughters.

People from all over the South traveled to visit him and taste his celebrated beverage, which was renowned as far away as the Mississippi River. Old-timers even claimed that it had medicinal value. 

Rutherford County in western N.C. celebrates this legacy with the Cherry Bounce Trail to promote sightseeing in the area. As visitors enjoy the beauty of the county’s landscape and rural history, they can reminisce about “the memories of old-time moonshiners who frequented these hills and valleys years ago.” The trail passes by Cherry Mountain, a high peak on the horizon, where cherry trees still grow wild -- and once offered a safe haven to Owens and his moonshining neighbors for distilling liquor.

Owens, who was born in 1822, brought 100 acres near Cherry Mountain in 1845 and by 1851 had earned enough money from moonshining to buy the entire mountain itself. Here, according to a local schoolteacher who recorded Owens’ life history at his request before he died in 1906, cherry trees yield “every June a crop of fruit remarkable for its size and flavor.”

Every second Sunday in June, Owens invited friends to celebrate the black-heart cherries when they were the ripest. His festival was known for its food, dancing, and physical contests. His granddaughter observed that “people danced and drank for as long as the food and drink and money lasted. Some would get so drunk and carried away that they danced in the nude.”

Although the trees on Cherry Mountain are “found nowhere else,” versions of Cherry Bounce existed well before Owens’ lifetime. A popular drink in the 1700s, it was even made at Mount Vernon for George Washington (although without Owens’ illicit moonshine).

Owens’ arrests are still legendary. Once when revenue agents discovered his operation, he invited them into his home for breakfast. Although they declined food, they did accept his kind offer to sample his Cherry Bounce. After several drinks, one officer passed out, and another staggered into the woods and did not return for hours. Owens made no attempt to escape, and the officers arrested him when they regained their sobriety. After serving six months in jail, Owens returned to his home (known as “The Castle”) and renewed his operations.

Cherry Bounce served by Gary
Crunkleton at State of the Place conference
For most of his life, Owens was the Cherry Bounce King. Although he was also once locked up for an entire year, he continued to make moonshine until 1890 when he was arrested again. During this trial, a judge convinced him to stop violating “the law.” He returned home, became a devout member of his church, and never again fired up his still.

Fortunately today, Cherry Bounce enjoys new life in the hands of skilled mixologists, such as Gary Crunkleton, who operates his private eponymous club in Chapel Hill. When I attended the “State of the Plate” conference, which explored local and global connections of Southern foodways, Crunkleton was a speaker and provided samples of Cherry Bounce inspired by Owens’ recipe. Attending a conference never provided such a rewarding benefit.

Celebrate cherries from the N.C. mountains – whether you enjoy the fruit or drink – and think about the man who enhanced the lore of this state.

Note: This post appeared originally in the June 2015 issue of OutreachNC, a monthly magazine distributed in 10 counties of central North Carolina. Click here to see the article as it appeared in print.