Last weekend, I was lucky enough to be invited with my co-author to teach a KEEPERS cooking class at Southern Season in Chapel Hill. It was my first visit to North Carolina, which is surprising because I have long had an affinity for the South. My favorite author is Eudora Welty, and secretly I’ve always wished I’d been raised south of the Mason-Dixon, just so I could claim some of its rich heritage (and the accent and the pimento cheese sandwiches) as my own. I’ve also never in my life met anyone as sincerely nice as the people I’ve met in the South (with the exception of one harrowing incident years ago, when Tim and I attended a friend’s wedding in Gatlinburg, Tennessee and were harassed by the local police force for being “a bunch of Yankees”…it’s a long story).
From Charleston to Savannah, New Orleans to Atlanta, I’ve always been pleasantly surprised by how incredibly friendly everyone is to perfect strangers, which I guess is a product of good-breeding and geographical pride. Perhaps the fact that I’m from New Jersey has something to do with the shock I feel every time someone is nice to me for no apparent reason. Once, during a food festival dinner at Miller Union in Atlanta (a terrific restaurant that you should go to if you have a chance to visit), I hovered by the wall during cocktail hour, not knowing a single soul and expecting to spend the entire evening as a shunned interloper (which is basically what would have happened if this scenario occurred in New York City). But literally, within minutes of my arrival, a lovely couple came over and asked me who I was, where I was from, what did I do; and within minutes they had introduced me to everyone they knew, and they all scooped me up in their southern embrace of genuine interest and loveliness. We’re all friends on Facebook now.
Which all goes to explain why I was expecting a warm and delicious reception by the Tar Heel State, and they did not disappoint in the slightest. Before and after our class, Kathy and I plotted a course of Southern eating, aided by our good friend Kelly Alexander. Kelly is a former Saveur colleague, food writer extraordinaire, and Chapel Hill denizen, who literally knows everyone in town. Here she is with the owner/chef of famed Crook’s Corner during our epic Sunday morning breakfast visit (and I want his t-shirt):
And here’s what we ate:
Peach gravy! This is one of the chef’s specialties, which he gave me a sample of when I told him I’d never had a peach and meat gravy before. He said it’s only supposed to be a seasonal item, but the regulars demand that he keeps it on the menu. Fully understandable request.
While we were in Chapel Hill, fellow magazine food editor Dana Bowen tipped us off to the miraculous Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen, which is essentially a drive-thru biscuit place. Have you every heard of anything more wonderful than that? Although, our friend Kelly said it became an extremely dangerous temptation when she was pregnant with her second son…she had to have extreme willpower to hit the Sunset only once a week. I don’t think I would have exerted the same amount of willpower. Funnily enough, on the menu (which lists ever imaginable indulgent biscuit-sandwich filling from fried chicken to bacon and cheese) they list kale as one of the filling options. Needless we didn’t order the kale, we ordered our biscuit stuffed with country ham…
We enjoyed these egg and country ham biscuit sandwiches from inside our rental car, with a view of the parking lot and a group of co-ed acapella singers from William and Mary (name: the “Cleftomaniacs”), who were also enjoying a roadside biscuit breakfast. My only regret? I didn’t go back before my flight home for a bag of biscuits to take with me (that would have been the pro-move), because no one in New Jersey makes biscuits like the ones at Sunrise Kitchen. Now I’m sad and hungry.
The one thing I had to have on this trip was North Carolina BBQ, which, for those of you who do not spend your waking hours contemplating BBQ culture, is distinct from other forms of regional BBQ because the sauce is vinegar-based, which is exactly how I like it. We were directed by Kelly to go to Allen & Son, which is literally a roadside shack (isn’t that where all good BBQ is made?), located not far from the UNC campus. The first thing we ordered was a big pitcher of sweet tea (see up top); which I only enjoy get to enjoy when I’m in the South (my favorite sweet tea is the one served at Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room in Savannah).
I ordered the pulled pork (which is wood-smoked out back), slaw, and yes, more hushpuppies. I was very generous with the sauce dispenser and another regret is that I didn’t ask to purchase a bottle for home. Not only was the meal everything you dream eastern North Carolina BBQ should beâsmoky, tangy, with a tinge of peppery heatâbut the actor William Dafoe was having lunch only a few gingham-clothed tables away from us. Bonus.
I also enjoyed two wonderful restaurant dinners which, I would feature more prominently in this post, but since they were enjoyed at night, the lighting was less than optimal, so the photos are not the best. So keep that in mind! Our first night we went to Lantern, Andrea Reusing’s famed Southern-Asian-farm to table restaurant in the heart of Chapel Hill. We basically ordered the entire appetizer menu (and were given some generous additional plates to try, courtesy of the kitchen), which included salt and pepper shrimp with fried jalapenos, Vietnamese-style NC crab and pork spring rolls, black mushroom and cabbage dumplings, crispy local okra, and these NC oysters topped with yuzu creme fraiche and roe…On my last night in town, I went with Kelly to Mateo, a tapas restaurant near the Duke campus in downtown Durham. Through the blur of several Ferdinand-a bourbon cocktail with ginger-apple shrub and ginger beerâI fondly remember all of the small plates: NC littleneck clams with sherry, garlic, ham and boiled peanuts; shrimp with green tomatoes; and in particular the Huevo Diablo, a riff on the deviled egg (clearly one of my favorite things to eat…see the name of this blog) that was encased in a crispy layer of chorizo…
It was a phenomenally decadent handheld dish, made perfect by the company, the bourbon, and the pulsating soundtrack. Will I ever stop falling hard for the South? I don’t think so.