Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Hungry Drover

John Wilson and Sheila Springfield have a vision of a place where neighbors meet to share gossip and good food. They wanted their restaurant to be a kind of community center in the tradition of the town where they operate, Travelers Rest. Their café, at the intersection of Tigerville and Locust Hill roads features a long table in the center of the room designed to bring neighbors and strangers together.

I was there for breakfast a few days after they opened in August, 2012. John, an affable and avuncular sort, welcomed me at the door and offered a sample of their breakfast fare: Country ham, grits, and a huge biscuit slathered with country gravy.  The ham was excellent and not overly salty and the biscuit and gravy were grandma-good, but the grits took best of show; soft and creamy, almost melting in the mouth. Sheila came around in her customary black apron and permanent smile, and confessed that, though she is the head chef, John is in charge of grits.

Sheila is a fan of Southern Appalachian cooking and her menu consists of recipes she learned from her grandmother, and old favorites as well as those she has researched from old and new southern cookbooks.  The cafe offers a seasonal menu of country fair made with locally sourced ingredients.

Visitors are invited to browse the shelves of art and crafts from local artists, and may even pick up a gallon of local raw milk, honey or a bag of local tomatoes to take home. The hungry drover is a welcome addition to upstate fare.

The Hungry Drover is open Monday-Friday, 10AM-6PM and 8AM-2PM on Saturday.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Backcountry Barbecue

My friend Marc Hoffman has been nagging me to check out this restaurant for a couple of years. Over the recent holiday weekend, I finally got a chance. Backcountry Barbecue is located just off I-85 at the Linwood exit near Lexington. Which any Lexingtonian will tell you is the barbecue capital of the world. It is also the home of the world famous Lexington Barbecue Festival held in October, which draws thousands of people to the area.

Lexington is where I cut my teeth on barbecue, so to speak, when I was living in nearby Salisbury and through my girlfriend at the time, I was introduced to “The Monk”, which was the local name of the  world famous Lexington Barbecue restaurant, where I experienced my first “lean brown course chopped tray.” For aficionados, memory of their first real barbecue often ranks up there with memory of another first (if you know what I mean.)

One of the features of Lexington barbecue is that you can get the regular “chopped” meat or “course chopped.” Mentioning the word “pulled” is likely to have the same effect as the guy who used to say “Would you please pass the jelly?” on the telly.

Back Country Barbecue is in a non-descript building by the side of State 43. Like most good BBQ joints around here, interior decoration seems to have been an afterthought, but, as I always say, you don’t eat atmosphere, you only pay for it.

Like the rubes we were, we sat out front on the Formica®, while the locals opted for the cozy dining room with its red (painted) brick wall and faux mantel. There was also a counter, but it was crowded with papers, menus, spoon and fork dispensers and the like.

I ordered the course chopped sandwich and received a bun full of thumb-sized chunks which, though slightly dry, had excellent smoke and the bark(which is the reason you order course chopped) was immensely acceptable.

The hazard of ordering course chopped pork on a bun versus the tray mentioned earlier, is that the watery Piedmont sauce soaks through the bottom of the bun much faster than with the regular chop, giving it the consistency of mucilage. This is a feature which I had forgotten in the thirty years since I had eaten my last course chopped Q.  As I mentioned before, turning the bun over mitigates the issue to some degree, but alas, by the time I remembered this, it was too late.

An indication of the quality of the meat is perhaps reflected in the fact that I can usually count on eating one and a half sandwiches at these places because my wife seems never to be able to finish hers, but here I was out of luck. I looked up from my plate to see my wife wiping the last morsel from the corner of her mouth.

It’s tough in the BBQ business in these parts because the competition is fierce and the expectations are high. Backcountry Barbecue is in for the long haul.
Diner rating:


Wednesday, January 5, 2011

In a Crowded Field, Richard's Holds its Own

Ricard's Barbecue sits in view if the historic Grimes Mill in Salisbury, NC.
 The historic and photogenic town of Salisbury, NC is located just a few miles from the epicenter of North Carolina Barbecue, Lexington, home of the world famous Lexington Barbecue Festival which draws thousands each October.

Salisbury is a veritable mother lode of smoked pork, with probably more BBQ joints per capita than any other town its size. Places like Wink’s, The College BBQ (home of the best foot long hot dog I’ve ever eaten) and Hendrix Barbecue are household names around these parts. Richard’s is a relative newcomer to the scene, being only a couple of decades old. It is also closest to the town square, having supplanted the now defunct Peeler’s which was just behind the courthouse and edging out Marlow’s by a snout.

The people in this part of the country are provincial about their barbecue. It’s always chopped. Here, the slap of cleaver on hardwood is an almost constant counterpoint to the chatter of customers, clinking of glasses and the Nashville sounds that squall from the speakers. Pulled pork is anathema, as is sliced pork, or beef, which, of course, really isn’t barbecue at all.

At Richard’s the “white’’ meat is finely chopped--almost minced-- lightly smoked, served with red slaw on top and hushpuppies on the side. Add a tumbler of the syrupy tea they serve in these parts, and your meal is complete. The sandwich comes to you dry. The sauce, which sits on the table in a re-purposed ketchup bottle, is left up to you.

The sauce is always vinegar based in these parts. No other type is worth their consideration. I love the bite of the vinegar and the crunch of the coleslaw as a counterpoint to the mild squish of the meat when I chomp down on a sandwich, but the juices from the slaw and the thin sauce sometimes soak through the bun, making it fall apart. That’s why the waitress will hand you a fork with your sandwich, though the soggy bun problem can usually be ameliorated by flipping it upside down. Richard’s has a salad bar and a varied menu, but why bother. With so much competition in the area, there’s no room for mediocre ‘Que and Richard’s holds its own.

Diner Rating: 3

Friday, December 10, 2010

Ode to a Cookbook

The story begins in 1973. I was a bachelor, newly hacked from my mother’s apron strings, and just learning to cook for myself. I was working at a small radio station in Kannapolis, North Carolina. The call letters were WGTL. The owner, who also owned a funeral home, was named Fred Whitley. The joke was that the station’s call letters stood for “Whitley Gets Them Last.”
     I was doing my air shift, alone in the station one afternoon, and in walked a young lady with a backpack. She was on one of those summer jobs where students went door to door selling books and magazines. They would always come up to you and say something like, “I’m trying to win a trip to Jamaica, and I need to sell so many books by such and such a date.”
     My first thought was “Why the hell do I care if you go to Jamaica?” But she was cute and energetic, so I figured she was worth my time. She proceeded to lay out a series of offers for various books and magazines, and I pretended to be interested, until she pulled out this huge cookbook.
     “This cookbook is dedicated to American cooking, “she said. “It has recipes for any type of American food you can think of.”
     “How about Moose?” I asked, trying to stump her.
     “Moose?” she repeated, accepting the challenge and deftly flipped to a section entitled “Game”
     “Moose!”, she said with a triumphant smile, holding up the book, which was open to a page which had recipes for “Moose Fondue, Moose Roast”, Moose Stroganoff”, and the ironically named “Moose Swiss steak.” She had obviously done this before. The Moose recipes were tucked between “Elk Noodle Stew” and “Opossum with Sweet Potatoes”. I was hooked.
      I was an avid hunter in those days and any cookbook that held innovative ways to scorch hapless fuzzy creatures was a winner in my mind. She pointed out that the ingredients in each recipe are listed in the order that they are used, as well as any required prep, which was an innovation back then and still not true of all recipes even today.
      One of my pet peeves is to have to stand there with a knife in one hand and an onion in the other and feverishly to scanning down into the directions to find out what to do with it, but this book listed things like "One medium onion, finely chopped." No guessing involved.
      So I bought the book for $15.00, which was big money for me back then.
      Over the years, I have used that cookbook more than any of my others; more than my Betty Crocker, more than my Joy of Cooking, more than my Escoffier. Especially my Escoffier. The book is called The Illustrated Encyclopedia of American Cooking. I once loaned the book to my mother, who liked it so much she almost didn’t give it back.
     The wide range of fare covered in the cookbook can be sensed, perhaps in its first three entries: Abalone, Almond, Avocado. As you can see, the book is arranged in alphabetical order by subject—from Abalone to Zucchini. Why, it’s like an encyclopedia! No flipping through a list of techniques or back to the index to find a recipe. If you want to cook beans, flip to the bean pages a Bam! (to coin a phrase), there are pages and pages of recipes for all types of beans, including my favorite bean dish, Spanish Limas. The scant nod to techniques is in the glossary--They assumeyou already know the difference betwene "saute" and "sear". Each section begins with a couple of paragraphs about the food in question, including information on the history of the ingredient and paragraphs on buying, storing and preparation.
     Of course, recipes being what they are, there can be somewhat of a confusion factor: Is Chili with beans listed under Chili, or under Beans? (Chili) This can be mitigated somewhat if you remember to look under the main ingredient for whatever your trying to cook. There is, for instance, no section for cookies, but under Oatmeal, you will find Apple Filled Oatmeal Cookies, Lace Cookies, Oatmeal-Chocolate Chip Cookies, Oat Cookies and Oatmeal Roll Outs. But you won’t find those ever popular chocolate oatmeal drop cookies—they’re listed under Chocolate.
      And that brings me to another thing that sold me on the cook book initially. This is the book that, if you get home late at night and about all you have in the house is a can of olives, half a dozen eggs and a jar of peanuts, you can find a recipe.
      Remember, this was way before the days of 24 hour Wal-Marts or McDonald’s drive-throughs. In those days in my small town in North Carolina, everything was closed by 8 PM, and so when I got off work at midnight, the pickin’s were slim indeed.
      The book has served me as a bachelor, through my marriage and into my mature years. Favorite holiday recipes include Wine Glazed Ham and a recipe for Eggnog that always gets raves. The recipe calls for, among other things, 12 eggs and a quart of apple brandy. Even today, when my experience and ability is at a much higher level that forty years ago, this is still the book I turn to first when I want to find something new to do with, say, a butternut squash.
      It’s also refreshing to read a cookbook that was written back before the onset of our current phobia of anything that is good to eat. In this honest tome, there is no concern for too much fat, protein or carbohydrate. No Weight watchers points, no color codes, just plain old American food, prepared the way grandma used to do it, back when food had flavor. There is no section on tofu.
      Needless to say my cookbook has received a lot of wear and tear over the decades. The cover is missing over the spine, the pages are stained with all manner of spilled ingredients, there are little red check marks on the pages where an old girlfriend marked her favorite recipes—we split up in 1979-- and the last page of the index has been taped together where my niece tore it when she was five years old. She’s forty now.
      Last year I decided to put the old book to rest, so I went to on the off-chance that there might be a used one out there somewhere. To my surprise, the book is still in print; under the imprimatur of Favorite Recipes Press. Now it sells for 28 bucks and change, which, inflation being what it is, is still a bargain. In the customer reviews, I found a reviewer who had almost the exact same experience as me. Small world. I gave the old edition to my daughter who is just now trying to make her way in the world, as I was when I first came across it.
      In the newer edition, the cover and some of the internal color photos are updated, but otherwise, it is essentially the same as my original, with the same recipes on the same pages, including many of the original black and white photos. I bought a used-but still in good shape-1992 edition and it now holds a special place on my kitchen book shelf. Though trends in cuisine seem to change as often as the wind, good cookbooks, like your grandmother’s recipe for soup stock, never go out of style.

Eggnog Supreme a’ la The Illustrated Encyclopedia of American Cooking
12 eggs, separated              1pt. light cream
1-1/2 cups sugar                 1 pt. heavy cream
1 qt apple brandy                Nutmeg
2 qt. milk

Blend egg yolks with sugar. Add brandy. Add milk and light cream blending well. Beat egg whites until soft peaks form. Whip heavy cream until fluffy. Fold egg whites and whipped cream into yolk mixture. Chill. Sprinkle with nutmeg to serve. Yield: 40 servings.

Nowadays eating raw eggs is frowned upon due to the risk of salmonella. Use your own judgment.

Spanish Limas a’ la The Illustrated Encyclopedia of American Cooking
1 med. onion, chopped                                1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 green pepper, chopped 1 tsp.                    Worcestershire sauce
2 tbsp. butter or margarine                            2 c. canned lima beans, drained
1 c. canned tomatoes                                    1 ½ c. grated process cheese
1 tsp. salt (we substitute Colby or ¼ tsp. pepper Cheddar)

Saute’ onion and green pepper in butter until golden; add tomatoes. Simmer for 10 minutes. Add seasonings and beans. Alternate layers of bean mixture and cheese in a greased 1-qt casserole. Bake in 350 degree oven for 30 minutes. Yield: six servings.

The Worcestershire sauce adds an interesting twist.

. . .and just so you know I wasn’t exaggerating;

Peanut Sandwich Filling a’ la The Illustrated Encyclopedia of American Cooking
1 sm. bottle olives                          Dash of pepper
1 sm. Bottle sweet pickles              1 tsp. dry mustard
4 hard boiled eggs                          1 egg
½ lb salted peanuts                         ½ cup vinegar
1 tsp. salt                                       1 c. milk
6 tsp. sugar                                    1 tbsp. butter
2 tsp. cornstarch                             Bread slices

Process olives, pickles, eggs and peanuts in a food processor or blender. Combine salt, pepper, cornstarch, sugar and mustard, blending well. Beat in egg , vinegar and milk. Place vinegar mixture in a saucepan over low heat. Cook, stirring constantly until thickened. Stir in butter until melted. Add peanut mixture, blending well. Spread filling between bread slices.

I’ve never had the nerve to try this, so if you do, let me know what it’s like.

My 1992 edition of The Illustrated Encyclopedia of American Cooking beside myolder, tattered edition