The Carolina Table: North Carolina Writers on Food
Edited and Introduced by Randall Kenan
Eno Publishers, 2016, pgs. 189
“The Carolina Table: North Carolina Writers on Food” is the latest offering from Eno Publishers. The nonprofit press, founded in 2008, primarily puts together anthology-style books that offer a wide breadth of voices from across the area. Many of their books up till now have been site specific: Hillsborough, Greensboro, Wilmington (disclaimer: I have a piece included in that anthology). However, “The Carolina Table” looks at the state as a whole.
Editor Randal Kenan has assembled an interesting and compelling group of writers to talk about North Carolina food traditions, ranging from nationally well-known, like Daniel Wallace, author of “Big Fish” (“The Mesopotamia of Pork”), and Sophia Woo, winner of the Food Network’s “The Great Food Truck Ride” (“Vulnerability”), to home-state favorites, like Jaki Shelton Green (“Singing Tables”).
Lee Smith’s excerpt from her memoir “Dime Store” contains my favorite anecdote in the book. She recalls introducing her mother to bagels: “Momma responded they probably tasted good to someone who had never had a biscuit.” You can examine that observation from a variety of angles and find truth.
Local humorist and Lady of Letters Celia Rivenbark recounts her first real job at a restaurant in her hometown and the local shared adoration of the owner’s Grape Hull Pie in “Grape (Hull Pie) Expectations on Highway 117.” Good memoir writing makes very personal experiences relatable to the wider public. In Rivenbark’s piece the first job, and all the embarrassing mistakes and missteps that lack of experience throws our way, merge with the very palpable and hunger-inducing descriptions of large-portion comfort food.
Of course, there is homage to barbecue, in Daniel Wallace’s piece. Also grits make an obligatory appearance from Moreton Neal in “Putting on the Grits” (former wife of Bill Neal, the famous chef of Crook’s Corner). Neal’s piece opens with a restaurant scene in Asheville where she “schools” a Floridian in the language of grits. I have so been there—unable to not explain something of great importance to a person who should have his or her life enriched with knowledge. Neal provides a solid and succinct history of grits and a fabulous recipe for a grit soufflé that will save you for a brunch you just did not have time to plan for.
Tomatoes also get page space in Bridgette A. Lacy’s “Matter Day,” an ode to the beauty of tomato sandwiches and the friendships they can foster. As well I love the hands-on nature of Bill Smith’s “Hard Crab Stew,” which includes this gem of an observation:
“Today it seems I am the only person who remembers how to clean crabs at all. People vanish when it is time to take on this task. It’s best done outside, and it usually involves beer, a garden hose and mosquitos.”
I love Randal Kenan’s writing, so as soon as I heard he was editing the volume, my antenna went up. Kenan grew up in Duplin County, North Carolina, and went on to teach and write at UNC Chapel Hill. His writing reflects his journey: an early awareness of the necessities of rural life, followed by a broader awareness as the world opened up for him through education and experience. He writes with a balance of the two worlds, and it is refreshing and insightful, not nostalgic nor mythologizing. Kenan has assembled a broad cross-section of voices to discuss our state’s food ways: eastern, western, mountain, coastal, old, young, male, female, prose, poets, LGBTQIA, immigrant, farmers, cooks, noncooks, even Jewish. But if any particular voice is lacking, it is that of a strong Native American tradition. In a state with eight tribes and one of the largest populations of Native Americans east of the Mississippi, foodways would seem to be an opportunity to discuss the preservation of culture in the face of remarkable odds.
In his introduction Kenan does take on the stereotypes of Southern food—all fried—lots of sweet tea and little regard for nutrition. I opened the book and expected lots of love poems to pimiento cheese and fried chicken. It’s an interesting idea, trying to figure out how to assemble 30 voices to represent food in a state like ours. Mountain trout is not part of life for people here at the coast—anymore than crabs are for residents of Madison County. Most of my love of traditional Southern cooking I absorbed via osmosis from my friends and their families. Now, as an adult, my love of Sun Drop, Cheerwine, muscadine grapes, pecans, and collards, would perplex my parents, each of whom could not stomach any of the above.
In his introduction Kenan also touches on the economic issues of food, disappearing farms—especially farms owned by African Americans—food deserts in urban areas and of course the ecological issues of industrial hog farming. But the writers tend to shy away from these worries and focus more on the positives of how food brings people together, in sharing meals and their lives. Many of the pieces made my stomach growl with hunger. However, the recipes in the book are clear, accessible and usually credited by name to the people the authors wrote about—which gives it a nice personal touch. Every recipe and most of the individual piece of writing made me hungry. I took two trips to the grocery store before I finished reading.
Mastering the Art of French Cooking
Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle, and Julia Child
Knopf, Vol 1 1961, Vol 2 1970
In the history of cookbooks, few have had the profound and lasting impact on American culture than “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” The signature cream-colored covers speckled with fleur de lys in red for volume one and blue for volume two are classy little homing beacons on a homecook’s shelf. It simultaneously tell others, they’re dealing with a serious cook, while reminding the cook he or she can attempt and succeed with recipes that intimidate them. Because, let’s be frank, these books tackle food that is intimidating. But it is also impressive, rewarding and down-right delicious.
Americans tend to remember Julia Child wrote the books— but they don’t remember her coauthors, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. Perhaps it is a bit of rooting for the home team, but one could also chalk that up to Child’s long-running cooking show that made her one of America’s foremost celebrity chefs. I mean, her kitchen is in the Smithsonian, for crying out loud.
My edition, at least, does not have the splashy food photography of contemporary cookbooks—rather tasteful line drawings accompany the text and the emphasis is on the recipes themselves and technique. The importance of quality ingredients and proper tools is stressed.
I first attempted to cook from this book while in college. I had some failed experiments—my lack of knife skills and poor-quality kitchen tools bear some but not all of the responsibility for the failures. If anything, the certainty with which the authors write is inspiring. They never doubt cooks can do this —and what is more, their lives will be richer and more worthwhile from it. That belief in readership has probably done more to keep these books in print than any of the recipes.