Thursday, October 24, 2019

Making Biscuits at the State Fair

A huge mixing bowl is used to make 80 biscuits.

My first year as a biscuit-maker at the N.C. State Fair is now in the history book, and I am very happy with my experience. I was fortunate to work with dedicated people who have worked many years at the booth of Cary United Methodist Church, which is the longest-serving food vendor at the fair and is renowned for its biscuits, especially country ham.

Cary United Methodist Church, which first opened its booth at the fair in 1916, is the longest-serving food vendor.

First Experience

The biscuits that I made at the fair were far superior to than the ones made at the training class. I was surprised at how good they looked. Midway through the first shift I had a 10-minute break, so I took a ham biscuit outside to eat. It’s hard to be modest. I don’t think I’ve eaten a better biscuit. 

Biscuits just taken out of the oven are ready for the "stuffers."

The shifts that I worked were all in the afternoon, so I missed the morning crowd that comes early and wants biscuits for breakfast as well as the late-night fairgoers who order a few (or a dozen) ham biscuits to take home for the next day. In one five-hour afternoon shift about 600 biscuits were made—a busy time—but the previous shift that morning had baked 1,360 (in six hours).

Ham cooking has to keep up with the orders, too.

Fortunately for my first experience I was paired with a veteran biscuit-maker. Suzy worked five days this year, which is her seventh consecutive one. I could tell that she had been a kindergarten teacher: She was very patient and positive, and she offered tips and ideas that were helpful.

Biscuit "stuffers" keep busy fulfilling all the orders.

Biscuits at the Fair

Making biscuits at the fair was almost the same as at the training class except we kept making tray after tray after tray. The biggest difference is at the fair most teams don’t make biscuits by feel—we use a recipe! Six parts flour to one part shortening. For each batch, we used 24 cups of self-rising flour, 4 cups of shortening, and 3 quarts of buttermilk. (Don’t try this at home unless you want to make 80 biscuits.) Otherwise, the process is the same as in the class.

Customers sit and await patiently their orders inside the booth.

For only $2, the ham biscuit is a hot seller, and we ran out briefly for only a few minutes one afternoon. Otherwise, we had hot biscuits ready for orders, although when someone ordered a dozen to go followed by another person who wanted ten biscuits to take home, we had to expedite the tray that we were making.

The kitchen space is limited, but everyone works as a team.

Best Biscuits Ever

When a young family was eating biscuits near my work area, I leaned over and asked if they were the best biscuits ever. The mother nodded and gave a thumbs-up sign. When I told her that it was my first day, we exchanged expressions that indicated we both were surprised.

"Veteran" biscuit-maker Suzy and I made a LOT of biscuits.

Now that I’m an authentic biscuit-maker, I’ve joined the circle of legendary bakers who have made biscuits for more than a century at the state fair. I hope to return next year and continue the tradition.

Above: My hat that proves that I worked in the kitchen.
Below: At the top of the 155-foot-tall SkyGazer Ferris wheel, the largest traveling wheel in the U.S., a rider can see up to 15 miles in any direction. The gigantic wheel is adorned with 524,000 LED lights.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Learning to Make Biscuits for the State Fair

A buttermilk biscuit with ham is a crowd-pleaser at the State Fair.

Walking among the food vendors at the N.C. State Fair held in Raleigh each October is enough to tempt you to try all the creative and traditional foods. Although the exotic creations—such as a double cheeseburger sandwiched between two Krispy Kreme donuts—captivates the media each fall and is what many fair-goers talk about, a simple buttermilk biscuit is what attracts my attention.

A lot of ham is cooked for all the biscuits at the fair.

Training Class

Last fall I was amazed at one booth in particular. Operated by First and White Plains Methodist Churches of Cary, NC, the booth was cranking out biscuit after biscuit (served with country ham or sausage) to a long line of customers. When I was told that this booth makes up to 1,200 biscuits each shift, I had to learn more and soon wanted to be a biscuit maker.

A training class is offered each year for new biscuit-makers.

Several days before the fair begins, First Methodist holds a biscuit-making training class for new volunteers. (During the fair, the booth is too busy to conduct training.) I quickly signed up for the class and was the first person to show up on the morning when it was held. Maybe I was that excited.

Working the shortening into the flour is the first step.

Flour, Shortening, and Buttermilk

For a couple of hours, we amateur biscuit-makers watched as veterans demonstrated the process. Then we divided into teams to make our own and see if we could be successful. The challenge is high because First Methodist is the longest-serving food vendor at the fair and is so renowned for its biscuits (many customers stop every time they come to the fair for the biscuits).

As the dough is kneaded, the flour and shortening begin to adhere to each other.

In the class we didn't use a written recipe, but the process is simple. Fill a mixing bowl about two-thirds full with self-rising flour. At the fair, the booth uses 25-pound bags of Snowflake brand. (For the training class, we used tried-and-true White Lily.) Then scoop a handful of shortening about the size of a softball and knead the dough on a lightly floured work surface. After a few minutes, you quickly learn if more shortening is needed (all the flour is not adhering in clumps) or if a little more flour should be added to have a good dough consistency.

Biscuits are placed on an ungreased cookie sheet for baking.

Next buttermilk (at room temperature, not chilled) is added. For our mixing bowls, we added about a quart of buttermilk and continued to knead the dough. Again from the feel of the dough, you can tell if more buttermilk is needed. When you are satisfied with the dough, it’s time to roll it into the desired height (about the distance from the end of your thumb to the first knuckle) to form the biscuits. An empty metal can (that once contained pineapples) cuts each biscuit simply by pressing it into the dough. No twisting!

Into the oven goes the first pan. 

Baking to Perfection

The biscuits are then placed on an ungreased cookie sheet – about 40 to a sheet – and baked at 400 degrees initially for six minutes. After the sheet is rotated, the biscuits are baked for six more minutes. When the timer sounds, you have biscuits that every person who comes to the fair wants. If rolled to the right height (not too tall), the biscuits are perfect--and not gooey. If any extra flour is shaken off when they are placed on the sheet, they should be golden-brown when they come out of the oven. They are then filled with hot country ham or sausage by other kitchen volunteers.

Patience is needed as the biscuits bake.

About a dozen were trained in the class, and we are ready to show off our talents. Each one of us is expected to sign up for two shifts during the 11 days that the fair is held. Each shift has two biscuit-makers. When we beginners make biscuits, we will work with a veteran who will help to guarantee the consistency of our work.

After the biscuits have baked for six minutes, the tray is rotated in the oven.

A Tradition of Teamwork

Because each day of the fair has three shifts (usually five hours long each), a lot of biscuit-makers are needed. However, even more volunteers are required; about 40 are needed for each shift. The team effort is huge. More than 500 volunteers work at the booth each year. Although making biscuits is important, it is only a part of the much larger overall effort.

Finally a tray of biscuits just out of the oven are ready for tasting.

What First Methodist started in 1916 has developed into a great tradition, and amazingly it has continued unbroken all these years. The original hand biscuit has been served every year since the first one. I’m ready to show off my new biscuit-making skills.

A benefit of being in the class is the chance to take home extra biscuits, which I enjoyed with homemade strawberry jelly.

Note: Several biscuit recipes (with specific measurements) are available online, including this one by Crisco

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Moravian Chicken Pie, a Tradition Worth Preserving

Moravian chicken pie
Moravian chicken pie is a very savory dish.
How many times have I enjoyed Moravian chicken pie, a savory meat pie? I‘m not sure. Because I grew up in Winston-Salem, NC—the center of Moravian culture in America—it was featured often at church suppers.

This regional specialty is a flaky double-crusted pie packed with tender chicken that is served in slices with a rich gravy. A humble dish that is appetizing and hearty, it brings together chicken, pasty and gravy in a simple format with nothing else. Because the chicken has been boiled and chopped into bite-size pieces before being baked in the pie, it is deliciously tender, and the rich gravy guarantees a flavorful taste that is moist.

Moravian chicken pie
Chicken pies on the serving line at Fairview Moravian Church in Winston-Salem are ready to be served.

Colonial Origin

That city in the Piedmont region of the state grew out of the colonial settlements of Moravians known as Wachovia, a tract of almost 100,000 acres purchased in 1752 from John Carteret, the British statesman known as the 2nd Earl Granville.

Colonial Moravian settlers
Each table is decorated with a centerpiece of early Moravian settlers in colonial dress.

Most accounts credit the Moravians who in 1766 founded the town of Salem (that merged with the industrial town of Winston in 1913) as being the originators of the pie. They were familiar with meat pies, a staple of their diet in Europe. The Moravian Church, one of the world’s oldest Protestant denominations, has its roots in central Europe that is now part of the Czech Republic. Early Moravian immigrants to America began arriving—with their baking traditions—in 1735 in Pennsylvania to escape persecution by governments and state churches in Europe.

Serving line
The serving line is staffed with very efficient (and experienced) church volunteers.

Simple Recipe

Unlike some Moravian culinary traditions—such as sugar cake (my favorite), cookies, and spiced tea—that are very popular at Christmas, the chicken pie is served year-round. Little has changed to the pie’s recipe since it was first served in colonial times. Unlike traditional chicken pot pies, the Moravian pie doesn’t have any vegetables.

Chicken gravy
A rich chicken gravy is ladled on top of each pie serving.

True to the Moravians’ simple, frugal lifestyle, the pie requires only five ingredients that would have been readily available: chicken, broth, flour, butter and salt. The pie was likely a way to use scraps of cooked meat.

Plate of chicken pie supper

Supper includes more than chicken pie. Fairview Moravian plates also have country ham, green beans, apples, and a biscuit.

The Tavern in Old Salem, a family-operated restaurant built in 1816 as an annex to the historic 1784 tavern, is steeped in Moravian traditions and history. Embracing its heritage, it serves a Moravian chicken pie and gravy for Sunday brunch and a tavern chicken pie with gravy, potatoes, and green beans as a plate at lunch on other days.

Sign of Fairview Moravian Church
Proceeds of annual suppers at Fairview Moravian Church have paid for mission projects and building improvements.

Community Appreciation

Although I didn’t grow up in a Moravian Church in Winston-Salem (which still shares the distinction of having the highest concentration of Moravians in North America with Bethlehem, Pa.), members of my church (a Presbyterian one) and other neighboring churches were admirers of the Moravian pie, so much so that it was routinely duplicated by congregations at events regardless of their denominations.

Congregation members and guests linger after eating supper to enjoy each other's company.

In addition to satisfying the appetites of a church and the local community, chicken pie suppers (yes, they are not called "dinners") have also enriched social connections as well as contributed to fundraisers and building programs. According to Moravian archives, churches in Winston-Salem held chicken pie suppers as fundraisers as early as 1920.

Moravian cole slaw
A tangy Moravian cole slaw is served family style at each table.

Enjoying the pie at Fairview Moravian Church in Winston-Salem, which I still consider as a “neighborhood church,” with its congregation made me appreciate even more how Moravians have enriched our culture—religious, social, musical, culinary, and other aspects. I’m glad that the chicken pie served more often than at only Christmas.

Placemats come complete with the Moravian blessing (on lower left corner).

Note: Several recipes are available online, including, this one recently in Our State magazine.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Temperance Hall: A Place to Debate and Proclaim Vows of Abstinence

Old historic structures always have a tale or two to tell. Temperance Hall, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, near Wagram, NC, has had an important role in its community for decades. Although it's a simple brick building, it has many stories to tell.

Formally known as the Richmond Temperance and Literary Society Hall, this historic structure in Scotland County is believed to be the only structure in North Carolina built to house a temperance society. The hall was the scene of lively debates in its early days and is still used for meetings of civic groups.

The simple structure of Temperance Hall was completed in 1860.

To elevate the moral and cultural life of its community, the Richmond Temperance and Literary Society was founded in 1855 in what was then lower Richmond County in an area settled in 1773 by Highland Scots. Built of hand-molded local bricks, the hall is still standing in tribute to its sturdy construction in 1860 by the Scottish descendants, although it was sacked five years later by U.S. soldiers advancing toward Fayetteville during Sherman’s Carolinas Campaign of the American Civil War.

Influenced by the temperance movement, the charter members vowed to “neither make, sell, buy, nor use as a beverage any intoxicating drink whatever.” The cultured and worried citizens at that time were troubled by the “deadly influence” that alcohol consumption was “exerting over the morality of our country and seeing the ravages that it is daily making in our midst.” Within a few years of organizing, the society built the small one-story, one-room hexagonal building with sixteen-foot sides near what is now the town of Wagram. Here they met and coordinated their “uncompromising hostility to intemperance and untiring zeal for the advancement of literature.” 

The finial on the roof portrays the twin aims of the Richmond Temperance and Literary Society.

The society’s twin aims are illustrated at the peak of the building’s roof by a wooden finial that represents an inverted wine goblet on top of a closed Bible. Both pieces of the finial were reportedly shot down by Sherman’s troops, and pot marks made by their bullets fired during target practice can still be detected on the hall’s exterior. The interior ceiling was once painted blue with a constellation of gold stars; each star represented a member of the society. However, if the member broke the vow of abstinence, the star was painted black. (Several stars had alternating coats of gold and black.) When a member died, the star was gilded with silver. 

The society continued to meet in the hall until the 1890s. In 1899, the area around Wagram became part of the new Scotland County, and the hall found a new role until the 1920s as a school for white students (as segregation ruled during the Jim Crow era). After many years of neglect and decay, the hall was restored as accurately as possible in 1959 by reconstructing a two-tier wooden platform that supports a lectern used by speakers, adding a cast-iron stove similar to the one that originally heated the hall, and rebuilding the pairs of recessed bookshelves on the northeast and south walls. In its role as a museum today, it serves a symbol of cultural attitudes of a bygone era. 

A two-tier platform with lectern was reconstructed in 1959.

The restored home of North Carolina poet-laureate John Charles McNeill, a Scotland County native and grandson of Scottish immigrants, was moved to the site of Temperance Hall in 1960 and serves as the visitor center for both properties. 

Although hexagonal, the hall is architecturally significant because it is a diminutive version of the octagonal mode popularized in North Carolina in the mid-1800s by the concepts of Orson Squire Fowler, who analyzed that an “octagon house” (a term that refers specifically to octagonal houses built in North America during this period) with its eight sides encloses more space than a square one with equal wall space.  

The Richmond Temperance and Literary Society still meets all these years since its founding, although now only annually. The hall is about 1½ miles west of US 401, which is Main Street in Wagram, off Old Wire Road near Spring Hill Cemetery.

Temperance Hall has survived decades as the area around it has changed, and its history is quite phenomenal. Although meetings held in the hall today no longer promote abstinence, its continued use guarantees that its history is not yet complete and it may inspire more tales for future generations to tell.

Note: The post is influenced by two articles about Temperance Hall that I have written. One is an entry uploaded in June 2019 in NCpedia, the online encyclopedia about North Carolina. The other is an article published in the May 2019 issue of OutreachNC Magazine.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Snappy Lunch: Where a Pork Chop Sandwich Is King

Mount Airy, NC, is the destination for travelers who want to enjoy and preserve the legacy of “Mayberry,” the small town made famous by The Andy Griffith Show. The city is the birthplace of Griffith and has been nicknamed as Mayberry for inspiring the fictional N.C. town where the show is set.

The Andy Griffith Show

Fans of the show step back in time when they visit Mount Airy, which now hosts “Mayberry Days” each September, and stroll down Main Street that looks almost like it was created for the show. Most also plan a visit to The Snappy Lunch, which is next door to Floyd’s City Barber Shop.

A vintage sheriff's car is usually parked on Main Street.

The diner was made famous on The Andy Griffith Show when Andy suggests to Barney that they get a bite at The Snappy Lunch. (Show fans can see the scene in “Andy the Matchmaker,” an early episode.) Griffith also mentions the diner in his version of the song “Silhouettes.” Surprisingly, the diner is the only Mount Airy business ever mentioned on the TV show.

Pork Chop Sandwich

The Snappy Lunch is decorated with memorabilia from the 1960s.

The fried pork chop sandwich is the menu item of distinction. All the way includes chili, cole slaw, mustard, onion, and tomato. (Lettuce and mayo are also available.) Considering its celebrated status, it is served unceremoniously—simply wrapped in waxed paper. A variety of other sandwiches are on the menu, but few customers order them. Almost everyone having lunch when I was there ordered the famous sandwich.

The pork chop sandwich is the most popular item on the menu.

The menu itself is as simple as the trademark meal. The only “side” available is a bag of potato chips. No fries, no potato salad, no beans, no dessert. Beverages are served in Styrofoam cups. Memorabilia from the 1960s displayed on the walls and the mid-century vinyl chairs at Formica-topped tables also give the diner an authentic feel.

Diner History

In four years, the diner will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its opening in the location where it has always been: 125 North Main St. In its early days, customers were local workers and students. (Local schools did not yet have cafeterias.) Then a hot dog sold for 10 cents (now $1.60), and a bologna sandwich (now $1.90) was a student’s bargain for only a nickel. Griffith often talked about getting a hot dog and a soft drink at The Snappy Lunch when he was young.

The diner will soon celebrate the 100th anniversary of its opening.

I still remember my first visit to The Snappy Lunch. I marveled at how it is “locked in time” and adds to the old-timey atmosphere of Mount Airy. If you haven’t been before, now’s the time to go.

Note: This post is influenced by a more detailed article about The Snappy Lunch that that I wrote for OutreachNC Magazine published in its October 2019 issue.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Searching for Key Lime Pie

Key lime pie seems to be growing in popularity and is served at quite a few restaurants today. They don’t have to be in Florida (although it is the official pie of the state) or even in the American South. However, the pie seems to be the best on one of the Florida Keys. The most southernly the location is, the better the pie seems to taste.

Columbia Restaurant in St. Augustine, Florida, is one of several restaurants in Florida that serve the pie.

On a trip through the Florida Keys, my wife and I were watching for signs where Key lime pie was being served. The more homemade the sign was, the more enticed we were to stop. As we drove from Key Largo to Key West and returned, the first option for food had to be Key lime pie. If it wasn’t on the menu, we weren’t interested in eating there.

I found my favorite pie in Islamorada, Florida.

For me, the best Key lime pie was served in Islamorada, a village that stretches 18 miles across five keys. At the Islamorada Fish Company, I found the perfect Key lime pie, served with a graham cracker crust (not a pastry crust, which I don’t prefer) with a lime slice and a dob of whipped cream (not meringue or extra cream to avoid diluting the lime flavors) in an attractive white ceramic cup.

A  table at Islamorada Fish Company that overlooks the Gulf of Mexico is the best place to enjoy the pie. 

Although some people think that Key limes grow in only Florida, they are grown primarily in Mexico and Peru. Although they are named for the Florida Keys (the small, low islands located off the southern coast of the state) where they also grow, they are not indigenous to the area. They vary in size and color and are smaller in size and harder in texture than the more common lime (citrus latifolia).

Key limes are grown primarily in Mexico and Peru.

The juice of Key limes with egg yolks and sweetened condensed milk creates a magnificent dessert. The original recipe didn’t call for the mixture to be cooked because during mixing a reaction between the acidic lime juice and the proteins of the egg yolks and milk cause the filling to thicken on its own without baking. However, pies today are usually baked for a short time because consuming raw eggs can be dangerous.

The city of Marathon, set on 13 islands in the Florida Keys, is the home of Sweet Savannah's, which always have pie ready.

I always check to see if Key lime pie is on the menu of restaurants even in locations outside of Florida; however, whenever a restaurant in the Florida Keys indicates it serves the pie, I stop.

Whole pies are available for takeout in Key West, Florida.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Finding a “Swamp Fest Platter” at a Fish Camp

Fish camps once were common in the South in coastal areas where commercial fishing crews worked until the early parts of the last century. Huts (or cabins) for the workers at some camps were built to last only one season of fishing, and others were more permanent and often could last more than a dozen years. In addition to housing for workers employed in the fishing industry, some camps had accommodations for their families who would spend summer months there on vacation. Other camps in the Carolinas were simple campsites where textile mill workers and their families fished and fried their catches when they had free time.

Relics of old fishing equipment are on display outside Clark's Fish Camp.

Some fish camps evolved into family-style seafood restaurants where local clientele would be served reasonably priced meals. Although the fish camps were usually located on waterways, lakes, or rivers, most bought their fish from wholesalers and farms. Although many of these restaurants have closed as they faced competition from chain restaurants, a few such as Clark’s Fish Camp on the banks of Julington Creek in Jacksonville, Florida, are still thriving.

The rustic exterior wall of Clark's Fish Camp adds to the fish camp atmosphere.

Originally a bait and tackle shop, Clark’s maintains a fish camp atmosphere with very simple and rustic features. Lilly, a five-foot alligator, makes her home in a large aquarium known as Lilly’s Pad that also houses turtles and fish. Also on display is the largest private taxidermy collection in America – lions, bears, tigers, monkeys, giraffes, deer, bobcats, and other amazing animals -- although the food is what makes this restaurant a destination for tourists and brings back local clientele. The menu includes everything imaginable.

The simple entrance to Clark's refers to its history.

My wife and I indulged on a “swamp fest platter” loaded with gator tail, soft-shell crab, frog legs, conch, calamari, catfish, and hushpuppies. Other platters can also include clam strips, oysters, shrimp, scallops, and crab cakes. Signature dishes feature trout, tuna, and salmon.

The swamp fest platter cam loaded with frog legs, gator tail, soft-shell crab, conch, calamari, catfish, and hushpuppies.

Eating by the banks of a creek with slowly flowing water added to the ambiance of the rustic building that houses Clark’s. The extensive menu is very popular, and it makes many customers wish that such fish camps were still more common.

Key lime pie is the best way to finish a meal at Clark's Fish Camp.

Two baby alligators swim near the entrance to Clark's.

Stuffed animals overlook the long rustic bar.

Note: Click on the links for history of fish camps in North Carolina and South Carolina.