Holidays are all about ritual, religious or otherwise, and if you're in danger of forgetting that, there's no one like your family to remind you. Some families stomp around in the cold chasing visions of the perfect tree. Some hang wiry old mistletoe from the chandelier and guffaw anytime anyone passes under. Some pop popcorn and play that certain movie, again and again.
The best rituals, of course, center around food. When my husband and I lived for a time in New York, we'd come down South at Christmas and eat our way through town. I'm pretty sure it counted as a ritual. Breadmens, Bullocks, Bojangles. We three kings of Orient are.
This month, your out-of-town guests might enjoy a little culinary tour through town, too. As national magazines keep reminding us, the Triangle has become a great crossroads of foodways, farms and food-lovers. Whether you're hosting visitors, escaping family or just out trolling for comfort food, start a little ritual of your own: Get out of the kitchen!
The Independent visited with eminent Southern sociologist John Shelton Reed and his wife, musician and writer Dale Volberg Reed, as they paused in the middle of their book tour. Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue, co-authored with William McKinney, was published just over a month ago by the University of North Carolina Press—just in time for the gift-giving season.
The Reeds welcome me to their home at lunchtime. We walk a block to pick up some Mexican takeout. Both coming and going, Professor Reed pauses as we cross the street, falling back a step behind. At first it's puzzling, then I realize he's naturally positioning himself on the outside of the sidewalk, the mark of a born gentleman.
Though the Reeds are great scholars of barbecue, they can as easily expound on the wonders of cornbread, collards, or, hey, crème brulee. Egalitarian to the end, they have spent decades studying the whole South: high-end, low-end, and everything in between.
Here's where they'd go on a culinary tour, if they were you.
Higher-end: curing a skeptic
Say you're a transplant—from California, Ohio, wherever—and you love it here. Your family from back home, on the other hand, isn't so certain. Sure, the state went blue in the last election, which proves it can overcome ... but golly, what are you doing in this backward place?
This holiday, don't fight them, show them: Show them all the things chefs and farmers are doing in tandem.
For decades, Chapel Hill's Crook's Corner and Durham's Magnolia Grill have bravely and brilliantly flown the flag of Southern cuisine, as close to haute as a menu with hoppin' john can get. (John points out that food 20 years ago was just food. That cuisine thing is so nouveau.)
The Reeds love Magnolia Grill: "It's a super place and we're so lucky to have it," says John.
Then there's Crook's: "That's our other favorite," says Dale, whose voice is a mixture of wry practicality and clever whimsy. It's hard to know whether she's about to share a well-considered thought or an off-the-record zinger. But she has nothing bad to say—nothing—about Bill Smith's menu at Crook's.
"He's doing these wonderful things like going through all the recipes he can find of favorite Southern cakes, so there's a new cake every time you go—if you don't go too often. And it's some cake you've heard of all your life."
Her husband nods: "Bill is kind of saddled with carrying the mantle [of the late founder Bill Neal]. Given that, I think he's really underrated, because he's not just keeping the flame burning, although he's doing that, too!"
A third semi-haute choice is Amy Tornquist's Watts Grocery in Durham, now in its second year. Something like the love child of Crook's and Magnolia, Watts Grocery is related to them as much by nature as nurture, but it's a little funkier, a little more casual, somewhere you can go for brunch to kick a hangover. Most importantly, it's a perfect place to experience the merits of farm-to-fork, whether it's produce, eggs, cheeses or meats that Tornquist summons to her kitchen; the restaurant advertises that many of the foods on the menu were "raised, caught, smoked, pickled or cured within a two-hour radius."
Everything in between
"We need to talk, before I forget, about The Barbecue Joint and The Pit," John says.
"Yesss ...what happens when barbecue goes upscale," says Dale, raising her eyebrows.
"Wine lists and Belgian beers ... Barbecue in my mind should be a workingman's food. Wilbur Shirley [of Wilbur's in Goldsboro] says you want a restaurant that's nice enough that people will want to bring their families there but not so nice a workingman wouldn't feel comfortable. The sheriff's there, the bail bondsman's there, the attorney's there," explains John.
The Reeds first tried The Pit, the swank downtown-Raleigh venture run by legendary pitmaster Ed Mitchell, when it opened just over a year ago, and they acknowledge the place was having growing pains. "But we went back last month—it was a launch party for [Holy Smoke], and so Ed was there with his peers ..." says John.
"... And he did beautiful food," finishes Dale.
The bottom line: It's all about the wood. Mitchell cooks with wood, unlike some others who have switched to gas, John explains gravely.
"Raleigh needs The Pit. If there's another wood-cooking barbecue place in Raleigh, we don't know about it ... Just because I have reservations about upscale barbecue places with valet parking doesn't mean everyone should," says John, laughing.
As for The Barbecue Joint in Chapel Hill, he gives it honest praise too: "Terrific food and adventurous cooking, and those guys are tremendously innovative. We annoyed them by saying in our book that we don't trust people who get playful and postmodern with barbecue, which is what they're doing. But, it's good food! ... They're [just] doing something else, something other."
He can't move on without mentioning Papa Mojo's Roadhouse on Highway 55 in Durham. "Best Louisiana food I've had outside Louisiana," says John, who has lived in that state and just about everywhere else in the world at one point or another, as a good sociologist would. (But he wants to make sure there's no confusion here: "It's an import, it's like Sichuan.")
John also gives a nod to The Q Shack and Red Hot and Blue, but points out that they're Texas and Memphis style, respectively. He's a barbecue elitist. "Put that in the same category as Papa Mojo's—it's good food, it's Southern, but it's not from around here."
Home-cooking, sticky floors and all
Everyone has a soft spot for the Triangle's most storied eateries. They are institutions, with centuries of service between them, where memories and traditions run thick, inspiring loyalties nearly as bellicose as those inspired by basketball. At Bullock's and Dillard's in Durham, Big Ed's and the Mecca in Raleigh, and Allen & Son and Mama Dip's in Chapel Hill, it sometimes seems the lines of customers will never end.
But a few new places require attention too.
"Talking about hidden gems, this is our hidden gem: It's called Backyard BBQ," says John.
"Backyard BBQ Pit!" corrects Dale.
Like Allen & Son, Backyard BBQ Pit cooks with wood, which automatically elevates it. From okra fried up right when you order it, to hushpuppies that are so light and sweet they seem more like a treat at the fair, "everything is just right," says John. (These words, intoned with deep meaning, are akin to conferring knighthood.)
On a recent visit to Backyard BBQ Pit, on Highway 55, a mile south of Interstate 40, the Indy spoke with Donald Cozart, who runs the place with his aunt, uncle and brother. In April 2007, they bought it intact from the owner of AW's Barbecue. The previous owners had a following, but under the new management, the name changed, the recipes changed, and the place boomed.
"At AW's, a lot of canned foods were used, and we wanted to go with the homey-type feel, with real quality food. We started making our own potato salad, our own coleslaw. All of our foods except for the baked beans are now homemade. We really take pride in what we do," says Cozart.
"We smoke every day—the guy who was smoking before, he wasn't smoking every day. People that know real good-quality barbecue can kind of taste that 'leftover' taste. It's worth the extra work."
Though this is their first restaurant venture, the family is practiced in feeding large groups: "God has blessed us to do that. My uncle, we consider him the master chef, he instilled in me and my brother the concept of how to produce the quality product that we do in a large quantity.
"[Before this,] we lived in, how do you say it, a less fortunate community. We have a nonprofit organization, it's called the Vision Youth Association. It's an outreach ministry that reached [out] to a lot of kids in the community that we stayed in—we'd have basketball teams and we had cookouts. That's how we went into the restaurant business. Our one-year anniversary, we had over 600 people here."
Though it's Monday at 2:30 p.m., Cozart's cell phone and landline take turns ringing, occasionally overlapping in jazzy syncopation. He effortlessly juggles lunch lines, phone lines and queries from the kitchen while maintaining a friendly banter with customers.
It should be quiet, well after the lunch rush, but every minute or so another customer strolls in, studying the price list above Cozart's head ($6.49 for a meat dinner with two sides and hushpuppies, $3.50 for a barbecue sandwich). Well-muscled and elaborately tattooed, he welcomes new diners with a knowing nod ("First time here?") and a sample-cup of chopped pork barbecue. Though the menu offers pork chops, beef ribs, roast chicken and a wide variety of fish, that little plastic cup does the trick: Everyone is won over by the balance of spice, vinegar and woodsmoke (including Clay Aiken, a regular, who reportedly lives nearby).
Where to go when you have a wild passel of folks to feed, maybe a raucous toddler or two, but the air's getting stale indoors, the wrapping paper's in tatters across the carpet, and no one can bear to face the dishes?
Whether at daybreak for eggs-grits-biscuits, or at lunchtime for a $3.89 vegetable platter, tuck yourself into a booth at Country Junction.
"The food is all correct," offers Dale.
"It is probably the cheapest meal you're going to find these days," says John.
Set back slightly on Weaver Street near Carrboro's town hall and farmers' market, the one-story greenish clapboard building is generally featureless, excepting a series of modernist porthole windows.
Owner Eunsook Lee, who prefers to be called Kim, runs the place with her husband; she emigrated from Korea more than 20 years ago. Her sister, who is retired, cooked in North Carolina restaurants for more than three decades and passed on her recipes.
"It's a nice sort of multicultural scene," says John, "with the black folks and the white folks and the Hispanic folks sitting around eating turnip greens cooked by these Spanish workers for this Asian lady. It's just a classic country buffet."
The Reeds don't hesitate to criticize where they feel it's due (see cooking with gas, above), but they're also surprisingly wide-open in the hunt for home-cooking. Case in point: They're fans of Cracker Barrel, which was founded in Tennessee but now has 582 locations in 41 states.
"It's worth mentioning!" exclaims Dale. "It's reliable, it's not expensive. It's founded in the South but it's got tentacles."
John goes one step further: "I mean, K&W's hard to beat, as far as I'm concerned."
Though founded in Winston-Salem, K&W now has 32 locations in four states—all the better to find a slice of coconut cream pie near home.
He grins, possibly thinking of his own holiday travels.
"If I have only $1.75, that's what I'm going to get."
Note: Restaurant hours vary during the holidays. Before you get your heart set on a meal, be sure to call first!
The taste of home—without the dishes
This list contains contact info for establishments mentioned in the story, as well as a non-comprehensive collection of other suggestions for home cooking, Southern food and barbecue in the Triangle. —Jane Hobson Snyder
Allen & Son Barbecue
6203 Millhouse Road
Highway 86 North, Chapel Hill
Backyard BBQ Pit
5122 Highway 55, Durham
The Barbecue Joint
630 Weaver Dairy Road, Suite 101, Chapel Hill
Big Ed's City Market Restaurant
220 Wolfe St., Raleigh
3330 Quebec Drive, Durham
1006 E. Pettigrew St., Durham
404 W. Weaver St., Carrboro
610 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill
Dallas Famous Chicken 'N Biscuits
1101 E. Williams St., Apex
3921 Fayetteville St., Durham
700 E. Williams St., Apex
Hog Heaven Bar-B-Q (2 locations)
2419 Guess Road, Durham
2780 Durham Road, Roxboro
1002 Ninth St., Durham
408 W. Rosemary St., Chapel Hill
13 E. Martin St., Raleigh
Papa Mojo's Roadhouse
5410-Y Highway 55, Durham
328 W. Davie St., Raleigh
The Q Shack
4120 Main at North Hills St., Raleigh
Red Hot & Blue (2 locations)
6615 Falls of Neuse Road, Raleigh
1900 Hillsborough St., Raleigh
State Farmers' Market Restaurant
1240 Farmer's Drive, Raleigh
1625 Wake Forest Road, Raleigh
1116 Broad St., Durham