As an adopted daughter of Hillsborough, smack-dab in the middle of North Carolina, I cannot be relied upon to be unbiased about writing or food. Everything I tell you will be glittered by the fact that I can walk a mile from my house and greet neighbors who contributed to this collection. And that I could carry home with me for dinner any number of fresh meats, some of the finest cheeses in the world from cows and goats I could pet if I wanted to, collard greens, berries and medicinal herbs, handmade chocolates of astounding artistry. On my morning run I pass beer brewing, bread baking and barbecue smoking.
This is not normal, and I know it, and I’m grateful every day.
So in gratitude, I leap at an opportunity to review such a collection. Eat it up.
The Carolina Table lays out stories about beloved food and community the way aunts and great-aunts in Nancie McDermott’s The Family Reunion laid out their best dishes on clothed tables at the Schley Grange. Be a hungry child, walk beside the long tables crowded nearly at eye-level with best pickles in cut-glass bowls, deviled eggs on proper deviled egg plates, Aunt Julia’s chicken pie, “threes” and “actual vegetables”, then the dessert table with “flights of pies”, fresh coconut cake, black walnut fudge and peach cobbler. It’s how I felt as I read this collection. My plate was over-full, and I kept coming back for more.
Reading The Carolina Table also feels like speaking your blessings out loud, with gratitude. Richard Chess’s Make It Holy about his “Sabbath Tribe” is a heart-full celebration of rituals of food, history, scripture. Bridgette A. Lacy’s Mater Day reminds us that we still yearn to gather together over good, good food at its glorious peak.
I recommend that you sit upright reading, so as not create an unsafe situation when you read Michael Parker’s Let’s Cook, EXCLAMATION POINT, including a remembrance of his father’s Scrambled Hamburger (“apparently his hamburger did not need any help”) or Stephen Petrow’s The Pies That Bind, a cautionary tale about complacency.
In three brief pages, Lenard D. Moore’s An Onslow County Tradition sings a ballad of land and sea, fatherhood, abundance, salty, sweaty work and contentment, memories of which cannot be erased by heartbreak, death, or bulldozers.
Diya Abdo’s On Food and Other Weapons is a sliver of this Syrian mother, now, here, tucked away in a North Carolina community. And, it is also, of course, the oldest story of all: an isolated, shy immigrant cook who knows as she breathes that her food will bring people to the table, to the home, to the heart. “The visiting Afghani boys say to ‘tell her that her food is delicious.’ That it tastes exactly like something they eat in Afghanistan.” Her cooking, like Sophia Woo’s dumplings in Vulnerability or Paul Cuadros’ chicken in Pollo a la Brasa Keeps Turning in North Carolina remind us that we are still a messy, delicious community of people from all over the world, that Southern food will evolve as the cookers and eaters are woven in.
In North Carolina and other places, food traditions were nearly lost by the post-war generation of can-cooks, my mother among them. The writers in this collection are conservators, having saved the stories as well as the well-worn recipes, like Lee Smith’s mother’s in The Recipe Box, “soft, weathered index cards covered with thumbprints and spatters”. And good that they did, for as she says, “our recipes tell us everything about us” and we are handed down treasure. Jaki Shelton-Green in Singing Tables says “the ghosts of other tables, other kitchens, remind me that we are all just ingredients and what matters is the grace with which I cook the meal”.
Zelda Lockhart’s Garden Gate is for everyone who ever thought, “If my ancestors could do it, I certainly can… and should”. She could and did: cheer her triumph. In Zelda’s garden, in Wayne Caldwell’s Ruby’s Kitchen, on the cottage deck in Bill Smith’s Hard Crab Stew, or Jill McCorkle’s grandmother’s kitchen sink in Remembering the Cake we visit the places where love and food and memory meet.
My generation of chefs and cooks show our gratitude in the thriving food scenes from Asheville to Durham to Kinston to Wilmington, and the kids are alright. As Sophia Woo says, despite the intense hardships of building a food business, “What made it worth it was people came to eat.”
In the same way that Nancie McDermott’s family reunion has evolved over years and generations, we may pine and hunger for the meals of those uncomplicated (we imagine) old black and white photographs and supper tables, but we won’t turn down a good takeout chicken leg and biscuit. We still gather and eat, and there is chocolate cake. All is not lost, and these good people remind us of the truest gifts of food, family and communion at our Carolina tables.