True Grits: A Southern Ramble
The drive down the I-40 from Raleigh, the capital of North Carolina, southeast to the historic port city of Wilmington is both picturesque and rather bemusing. Towering pines, oaks and beech trees line the roadside providing copious natural beauty. Other towering things lining the roadside offer entertainment in the form of numerous billboards, which seem to coexist peacefully among the foliage and which sport some unintentionally funny messages.
“Jesus, saviour of the world!” preaches one, immediately followed by another one enticing motorists to visit “Adam and Eve Lingerie and Novelties.” Then there’s the one for Burger King prescribing its signature Whopper as “Just What the Doctor Ordered!” Really? Which doctor?
I might have driven myself off the road, or into another vehicle, or into the local jail while taking this all in, making my already short vacation even shorter. Lucky for me, I wasn’t driving. As it turns out, Tidings has a few hundred subscribers in the good ol’ you-ess-of-ay. My friend Candace and her hubby, Doug, are two of them. They’d packed their belongings and dog and relocated to the town of Cary, a suburb of Raleigh, not that long ago, and I figured, hey, why not pop down for a visit, take it easy, buy some stuff cheap and check out the booze ’n grub scene in the American South. It didn’t hurt that Doug is an Ontario-trained chef and recently set up his own personal-chef business (athymetosavor.com).
“I’d call Southern food ‘comfort food’ in that it’s pretty rich,” Doug explains, when asked to define Southern cuisine. “Think along the lines of Southern fried chicken, mashed potatoes with cream gravy, corn biscuits and hushpuppies and a variety of greens. And of course, barbecue pork — especially in the southeastern states — and barbecue beef in the Southwest.”
I kind of zoned out after he mentioned hushpuppies, thinking to myself, They actually eat shoes down here? I wasn’t so much surprised that shoes could be eaten as I was about such gastronomic splurging given the state of the economy. I mean, shoes are pricey. Plus, what do you match with shoes? Barefoot wines?
As it turns out, hushpuppies are a sort of deep-fried cornmeal dough ball, and “The Triangle” (the area bounded by Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill) has been rather insulated from the brunt of the economic downturn due to the high number of big-time employers in the area. So I guessed they actually could afford to eat shoes, if so inclined.
Back on the subject of barbecue, it should be pointed out that a) as a cooking style, it was invented in the Carolinas in the early days of the USA, b) it’s a local source of borderline rabid pride and c) it’s not something you “go to.”
“You eat barbecue, you don’t go to a barbecue,” Doug revealed.
“No, you go to a cook-out,” Candace clarified. It was a light-bulb moment though I treaded gingerly lest some claymore of misunderstanding lay buried under the topsoil covering of what I knew deep inside was solid bedrock logic.
“So,” I tiptoed, “you could go to a cook-out … and eat barbecue … right?” I was starting to sweat just a bit.
“Whatever,” Candace yawned, as clearly unimpressed with my scalpel-sharp powers of deduction as she was with my nimble mastery of the regional patois. Doug at least had the common decency to flash her a “Honey, he’s our guest. Be nice” hairy eyeball.
Crushed (sort of) by Candace’s dumbing down of my (obviously intimidating) intellect, but nonetheless pleased with myself for unravelling that gastro-linguistic Mobius, I proceeded to probe and pry, gadfly-like, in the search of further veiled verities.
“The cooking techniques I was taught in Ontario are primarily the same as those in the South, except for the heavy use of oil and lard for frying and the large amounts of cream and butter. And another thing that is different is the ingredients.” Doug went on to cite collard greens (cooked similarly to spinach, usually with the addition of onions and garlic), okra (typically dipped in buttermilk and egg and coated in cornmeal prior to frying), crayfish — “crawdads down here” — and, of course, grits. (More on those later …)
We pulled into Wilmington, ready to do some sightseeing and then grab a bite.
“Are you guys hungry?” Candace asked politely, her slight sway suggesting late-stage hypoglycemia.
Now, Candace, being the extremely thoughtful individual that she is, had stocked my room at their place with a number of things she knew would appeal to me. Like a bottle of red wine along with glass and corkscrew, as well as miniatures of practically every man-grooming appurtenance I’d ever seen (and a few I hadn’t), plus a couple of respected journals including Bon Appétit and Men’s Health. The first was filled, predictably, with boring recipes and poncey diatribes about wines and things. Really, who cares? Men’s Health, however, is more or less a Cosmopolitan for guys and was packed with riveting essays like “Dress for Hotter Sex — Tonight!,” “Speak Her Sex Language” and “Cool New Sex Secrets!” Plus cooking tips such as “Power Up Your Diet … for More Sex!” (that last bit wasn’t there — but it was implied) and “Grill the Perfect Steak … and Have Sex with It!” (Okay, I totally made that one up.)
Anyway, there was one article that purported to tell guys what women “really mean” when they say things. For instance, “I’m fine” in chickspeak really means “I’m totally not fine,” and “Are you coming to my family’s party?” means “You’re coming to my family’s party.” “Buzz off, creep” actually means “Buzz off, creep.” But apparently “Are you hungry?” means “I’m starving. Feed me.” I’m a quick study, so knowing now that Candace was, in fact, starving, we slipped into Elijah’s Restaurant on the banks of the Cape Fear River for lunch. I opted for the blackened catfish special and wasn’t disappointed. We all had a round of iced tea, which seemed to be the unofficial state drink. The stuff is ubiquitous, and, unlike here in Canada, it’s almost always served unsweetened.
The temperature and humidity by this time were really starting to build, so after a quick sightseeing tour on foot we headed north to Wrightsville Beach. But not before checking into a local winery.
In spite of many things suggesting they shouldn’t be there (heat, humidity, rich soil, etc.), wineries appear to be thriving in North Carolina. Many used to be tobacco farms that, under pressure from the anti-smoking lobby, cashed in one vice for another. Some in the north and west of the state are actually growing Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon and the like. Tom Terwilliger of the Triangle Wine Company (a retailer not far from Candace and Doug’s) informed me that Cabernet Franc and Viognier are looking particularly promising.
Other wineries use native grapes of the Muscadine species. While I didn’t have the chance to sample any Muscadine-based wines, Doug suggested, somewhat obliquely, that perhaps the most pleasurable way of enjoying them was to not taste them.
The winery we visited, the Noni Bacca Winery, doesn’t even bother with local fruit, opting instead to import grapes or juice from other states and countries. Tucked into a shopping mall and resembling some of the ferment-your-owns we see in Ontario, Noni Bacca is owned by Toni and Ken Incorvaia (Ken, interestingly enough, spent a large part of his life in Canada) and typically sources from California or Italy. Their wines have picked up a bevy of medals, and tasting through a flight of six reds — including the intriguing “Cucidati” that’s designed to marry particularly well with chocolate — showed that Ken knew his way around a fermentation tank. All were clean, balanced and supple. A little more concentration and weight would have helped out, though the wines certainly weren’t shy in the alcohol department.
It should probably be noted at this point that even though the wines of North Carolina have not quite hit “cult” status, the same is not true of the beer being produced. While an in-depth look at this industry is beyond the scope of the story, the brew scene is certainly worth exploring if you happen to be in the state. I was fortunate enough to taste a range of samples from the Carolina Brewery’s Chapel Hill location and was extremely impressed.
Now, with “beach time” running out, we hightailed to the coast and managed to grab a few hours of sun and surf. As the lithe bodies of scantily clad UNC students cavorted around me I made a mental note to heed the advice of Men’s Health (my new bible) and “Get Ripped and Ready Now! For Sex!” (Sorry about the last bit. Had to add it.)
Before leaving Wrightsville Beach we hit Motts Channel Seafood for some fresh mahi-mahi and shrimp, and Lighthouse Beer and Wine for a few bottles to match. Back home Doug Cajun-spiced the fish and served sautéed shrimp with cheese and onion grits. The dish was magic with both the 2010 Selection Ott Les Domaniers Côtes de Provence rosé and a 2009 Treana White (a California blend of Marsanne and Viognier).
“Shrimp and grits is a traditional low-country staple,” Doug pointed out, the “low country” being the Carolina and Georgian coastlands. “And grits are pretty much the french fries of the south.”
Call it what you will: grits in the South, polenta in Italy. It’s all just cornmeal. “It comes in a variety of colours and degrees of coarseness and is commonly eaten for breakfast. There are instant grits, too. But no self-respecting southerner would use that … or at least be caught using it.”
The next few days were spent rather idyllically. And cheaply. For those who are not regular cross-border shoppers, prepare yourself for a “kid in a candy store” experience. Prices, combined with hospitable folks, good food and a plethora of sites and activities, make a ramble through North Carolina — and the American South in general — well worth your time. You’ll be greeted by complete strangers with a friendly “Hah, howya deewin’?” To which the proper response is “Deewin’ fine … How you deewin’?”