Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Day Before New Year’s Day: Getting Ready

Starting the New Year right is so important. What’s the most significant first step? Eating ample servings of collard greens and black-eyed peas guarantees good health and fortune (or so we have been told).

The explanations for the symbolism of collard greens and black-eyed peas are many and vary by cultural traditions, many brought into the South. In some families, the greens represent paper money and the peas represent coins. (Special hint: serve also with cornbread, which can represent gold.)

Waking up on January 1 and deciding to start the year right is critical. However, even more critical is preparing the greens and peas in advance so that they are ready on New Year’s Day. Don’t wait until the start of the year to check the pantry. It may be bare!

Preparing on December 31 guarantees that you are set on New Year’s Day. The need to cook collards for a long time is another reason to prepare them the day before. Preparing black-eyed peas, on the other hand, is a cinch (as long as you have them on hand).

On New Year's Day, have greens and peas ready to serve family and friends at anytime during the day. (A purist may even want them for breakfast.) If you have a special family gathering, bring stuffed collard wraps or rolls as appetizers (a filling of black-eyed peas and rice is tasty) so everyone can have a promising start for the new year.

Even after January 1, look for opportunities to celebrate with collards and black eyed peas, such as by attending a festival. North Carolina even has two festivals for collards: one in Ayden and the other in Maxton. (To see recent photos of the Maxton Collard Festival, click here.) Georgia also has two: one serves the metro Atlanta region and the other is on the coast near Savannah in Port Wentworth. In addition, South Carolina  has one in Gaston. To celebrate the black-eyed pea, Mississippi’s festival is held in Mantee each October, and Texas has a black-eyed pea festival and cookoff also in October.

Starting the New Year correctly is so vitally important. Teach your children that they need to each their fair shares of collard greens and black-eyed peas before the sun sets on January 1. If they do, life is good.

If you are preparing collards for the first time, follow this approach and adjust the next time based on your taste preferences.


3 pounds collard greens
½ cup ham or pork pieces
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 quart hot water
2 teaspoons salt
3 teaspoons brown sugar
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

  • Initial setup
    • First, buy only local collards.
    • Wash the leaves thoroughly (and more than once to remove sand and any grit).
    • Remove the stems and any bad spots.
    • Roll up several leaves and make “ribbons” by slicing them about an inch apart. (Greens can also be chopped or shredded.)
  • Cooking
    • Cook leftover ham pieces slowly in oil until crisp.
    • Add water and simmer for about 15 minutes.
    • Add cut greens and bring water to a boil.
    • Sweeten with brown sugar and apple cider vinegar.
    • Cook on low heat for at least an hour with the pot covered.
    • Add water as necessary to keep greens well covered.
    • Stir occasionally and submerge greens with a spoon (because they float to the top).
    • Remove from heat when leaves are tender. (Leaves will be floppy and have a kelly green color.)
  • Last step
    • Save  broth (known as pot likker) for your friends who appreciate its nutritional value.
    • Chop collards into smaller pieces before serving if you like.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Loveless Cafe, an Iconic Southern Restaurant

When a restaurant garners award after award, you want to be sure that a visit there will match its highly publicized reputation. Such is the case with Loveless Café in Nashville. It is more than deserving of every award and accolade that it’s received.

The sign for Loveless Cafe has stood the test of time.

Loveless has been judged one of the best places for friendly family dining and among the top “essential” places to eat in Nashville. It has been also listed as an iconic Southern restaurant by USA Today’s Travel 10 Best series. Even People magazine has acknowledged the special connections of Loveless to the culinary traditions of Nashville after its chefs handed out 1,200 biscuits at the Music City Food + Wine Festival. These awards and recognitions are for 2014 alone; each year before also has its own special tributes to this exceptional place.

Country ham, two eggs with red-eye gravy, and stone-ground grits
Everyone who enters through the doors seems to be interested in the made-from-scratch biscuits. Thank goodness breakfast is served throughout the day and that biscuits are served with every meal all day long. Up to 7,000 biscuits are made daily. However, a quick check of the menu shows that more than biscuits attracts the lines of customers waiting for a table.

Up to 7,000 biscuits are made daily.

Trying to be prepared, I checked the Loveless website in advance to see when to arrive. I learned that the best time to avoid a waitlist is to arrive by 11 o’clock for an early lunch or 5 o’clock for an early supper. What I don’t remember the site mentioning is that those suggestions apply for only weekdays. When I arrived on a Saturday at 10:50 a.m. expecting a table available for lunch, I was amazed at how many people were meandering in the front of the restaurant and soon learned that my wait would be 75 minutes. (I’m glad that I arrived for lunch before 11 o’clock!)

Peach cobbler with ice cream
However, the time was well spent reviewing all the autographed photos of the famous who have made a pilgrimage to the Loveless, browsing among the goodies and keepsakes for sale in the restaurant’s shops, and looking over the historic property that includes a recently built special-event barn (very popular for weddings).

Carol Fay Ellison, known as the Biscuit Lady, is remembered in art work at the Loveless.

What began as Loveless Motel and Café in 1951 quickly became a destination for hearty eaters as they learned about its delicious homemade preserves and made-from-scratch biscuits. Although the property has changed hands several times, biscuits are still made using the original Loveless recipe. In fact, my biscuits were so good that I tweeted a picture of them – and Loveless later added it to its online collection of Twitter photos and comments.

Biscuits with homemade preserves (and sorghum on request) are served with every order.
The food was more than memorable, and the portions are also more than ample. After I had ordered a peach cobbler with lunch, people at the next table had to comment that the banana pudding was the best ever (“Banana pudding to go, please”). Because I couldn’t try everything that I wanted at lunch, I also ordered two additional items – braised turnip greens and more stone-ground grits – to go with the pudding just so that I could continue to savor the tastes of Loveless later in the day.

Banana pudding is the best dessert!

Because Loveless Café is such an iconic Southern restaurant, I’ll be back soon. I’ll even drive the eight hours from home just for the biscuits – but will also take advantage of the full menu again. Located near the Natchez Trace Parkway, Loveless has a prime location for travelers, but its food is much more important than its location for attracting appreciative customers and preserving its well-deserved reputation.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Uwharrie National Forest

Want to pan for gold? Panning seems like such an archaic, futile exercise. But at one time the Uwharrie Mountains were a destination for gold hunters.

Do adventure seekers there today still search for gold while they are enjoying other outdoor activities? “Yes, they do, but I don’t know how successful they are,” says Terry Savery, recreation program manager at Uwharrie National Forest, land initially purchased in 1931 by the Federal Government to protect and preserve mixed woodlands of oak and pine.

Searching for gold in N.C. led to
America's first gold rush.
Gold was first found in North Carolina in 1799 only about 30 miles west of the forest. Word that gold was in “them thar hills” spread like wildfire and led to America’s first gold rush, mostly forgotten in the books of history and overshadowed by the great California gold rush of 1849. However, the chance to strike it rich in the Uwharrie Mountains brought countless prospectors and miners who searched the hills and panned the streams for the sparkling metal.

The priceless search for adventure in the Uwharrie still brings in steady streams of outdoor enthusiasts. More popular than gold panning today are camping, picnicking, hiking, hunting, mountain biking, horseback riding, kayaking, boating and fishing.

The forest gets its name from the Uwharrie Mountains, considered to be the oldest mountains in North America. Formed about 500 million years ago with peaks as high as 20,000 feet, what had been a coastal mountain range now sits more than 150 miles from the coast and lies obviously in the Piedmont region because a gravitational shift pushed today’s coastal plain above sea level. The high points of the mountains now are only a fraction of their once magnificent heights, reduced by gradual erosion to just over 1,100 feet.

Bald eagles are often spotted
in the Badin Lake area.
With its mix of hardwood and pine woodlands, the forest is home for at least 60 reptile and amphibian species and for most of the 60 mammal species that live in North Carolina. From 55 bird points in the forest, approximately 85 bird species have been observed recently. Bald eagles are regular visitors, although no active nests are known. Savery confirms that bald eagles have been spotted in the forest’s Badin Lake area.

A special area is the Birkhead Mountain Wilderness, which was established in 1984 on the northern end of the Uwharrie Mountains. Because motor vehicles, motorboats and motorized equipment are prohibited in federal wilderness areas, the Birkhead offers astonishing opportunities for solitude with nature. Even travel by bicycle and on horse is prohibited. All trails in the wilderness are designated hiking trails.

Named for the Birkhead family who moved in around 1850 and eventually owned almost 3,000 acres, the wilderness still shows clues of early Indians and settlers who occupied the area many years earlier. The Birkhead Mountain Trail traverses the wilderness from north to south for more than four miles. Along the route are remnants of old homesteads and farms, old roads, gold mining operations and evidence of timber harvesting.

The Uwharrie National Forest protects and
preserves mixed woodlands of pine and oak.
The Uwharrie is the habitat of 66 freshwater fish species. In addition to game birds, game animals that call the forest home include white-tailed deer, wild turkey, quail, bobcat, opossum, rabbit and gray squirrel. The forest is heavily hunted and has the highest use per acre of any N.C. Wildlife Resource Commission game land.

The Uwharrie is a top tourist destination for good reason. With its enticing road and trail system, abundant lake and river frontage, and moderate slopes and elevations, it’s the perfect place for outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy nature.

Note: This post appeared originally as a longer article in the August 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.