DG MARTIN COLUMN: North Carolina food: great resources, great challenges

Published 1:53 pm Tuesday, January 3, 2023

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Let’s take a culinary trip across North Carolina.

Our leader will be food expert and retired UNC-Chapel Hill professor Marcie Cohen Ferris. Our guidebook will be her latest book, “Edible North Carolina.”

D.G. Martin

For many years I traveled across our state searching for old-time country cooking eateries and simple barbecue restaurants, places where the locals meet to catch up with community news.

Ferris and the group of food experts she assembled for her book have taught me that I missed a lot about our state’s foodways. They are changing and there is a growing awareness of conflicts between the goals of low-cost food productions, fair compensation of food workers and protection of the environment.

Ferris’s experts show how the state’s food scenes are changing. They explain the challenges that will face those who work for food equity and justice.

For instance, food writer Andrea Weigl explains how some barbecue restaurants have been transformed from modest places serving ‘que and a handful of sides and sweet tea to restaurants with “full menus with appetizers and desserts, table service, cloth napkins, a full bar and even valet parking.”

One of Weigl’s examples of this new trend is Buxton Hall in Asheville, far away from the homelands of classic Lexington and Eastern styles barbecue. Buxton Hall’s chef and co-owner Elliott Moss buys pasture raised whole hogs — “up to fourteen hogs to serve between 3,000 and 6,000 customers during lunch and dinner seven days a week.”

The suggestion that one of the state’s best barbecue restaurants might be in faraway Asheville would have drawn laughs just a few years ago.

Back to the coast where Harkers Island advocate Karen Amspacher explains how the state’s commercial fishermen work to meet the demands of customers “who want fresh, local, sustainable seafood.”

She worries that “campaign contributions, lobbyists, and media campaigns assure well-funded recreational user groups that allocations of finfish in particular, a public-trust resource, will be dedicated to those who have the time and money to fish for leisure rather than those who fish for a living and provide North Carolinians with the state’s best, freshest seafood.”

Durham chef and Saltbox Seafood Joint restaurant owner Ricky Moore was recently named Tar Heel of The Year by The News & Observer. He supports Amspacher’s efforts, and believes that local, seasonal fish taste superior, offers more diversity and, most important, supports North Carolina fisherfolk.

“My guests at Saltbox want to know where to purchase their seafood. My advice is to go to your local fish market. At your neighborhood restaurants, do they serve regional fish? Where do they source their fish? Do not assume that all North Carolina restaurants get their seafood from our coast. Ask questions. What part of the North Carolina coast does the seafood come from? Is the fish in season? How do they acquire their seafood, where and when and from whom? My guests also want to know how fish should smell. If it smells fishy or rotten, it is old and has been handled incorrectly. Fresh seafood should have no smell at all or only the icy, fresh whiff of the ocean.”

Former UNC Chapel Hill and current Emory University professor Melinda Maynor Lowery takes readers to Robeson County where her Lumbee Indian kin introduce us to fried cornbread and collard sandwiches, food traditions they share with non-Indian rural neighbors.

Durham resident and N.C. State community food system outreach coordinator Shorlette Ammons “grew up Black and Country, and honestly, I have never had a strong desire to be anything else.”

Her description of the annual hog killing contrasts with the “environmental cost of industrial hog farming.” Struggling “to work effectively within institutions that historically perpetuated racial injustice requires a fair amount of soul searching,” she says.

But, she continues, “Food, farming, family, freedom — and the audacity to confront the contradictions they muster — are inherent to our history these stories are weighted by ancestry and remembrance, like the heaviness of wet tobacco leaves.”

These examples and many others demonstrate how Ferris’s authors give recognition to North Carolina’s admirable food resources and the challenges that accompany them.

D.G. Martin, a retired lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s “North Carolina Bookwatch.”