Taking a visitor out to lunch is one thing. Taking New York's Ed Levine out to lunch ought to be titled "Eats, Shoots and Leaves."
In the food writing world, Levine is one of the smart guys who makes the rest of us pay attention. He's a book author ("Pizza: A Slice of Heaven" and "The Young Man and the Sea," with chef David Pasternak, among others) and he used to write occasionally for The New York Times. He has an almost goofy love of anything that smacks of authenticity in food.
In 2006, back when the rest of us were still figuring out how to spell "blog," Ed came up with the idea for a very cool Web site called http://www.seriouseats.com/, which would pull together smart people who were posting all over the Web. He swears he had no idea what he was doing, but it worked. Today, it's a must-check stop in my daily Internet reading.
His experiment has done so well, he has a staff - "with paid health insurance," he says with pride - and now there's a book coming out on Serious Eats food finds all around the country.
Ed came through Charlotte on Friday to start a quick trip through North Carolina for book research. He was bound for Lexington, Chapel Hill and Raleigh. But first he wanted to do a little Charlotte exploring, so I agreed to play tour guide. His stated aims: Fried chicken and banana pudding. I love a man who knows what he wants.
Just before 11 a.m., we pushed through the door at Price's Chicken Coop and ordered up fried chicken, gizzards and cups of very sweet tea. We spread out on the trunk of my car in the parking lot while I did my best to explain the makeup of the SouthEnd neighborhood and the importance of crushed ice in a great cup of sweet tea.
Ed has chronicled his attempts to reconcile weight gain with the life of a food writer, and he is disciplined enough to only pick at his food. I had to save him from making the mistake of closing the Price's box without trying a thigh. He leaned forward to crunch through that crispy skin and erupting juice and made a very happy noise.
"That thigh," he admitted later, "was pretty transcendant."
We jumped back in the car and raced up North Tryon to the Chicken Box, another favorite of mine. His verdict: Great hush puppies, really good fried chicken. Different from the Price's chicken, he decided, but good. Before we could leave, he took pictures of the red rugs on the floor with the Chicken Box Cafe logos. "I just love rugs in restaurants. Don't you?" Actually, that's one aspect of food I had never noticed.
For the banana pudding, we went back downtown to Savor Cafe on Morehead Street. He seemed very happy with the banana pudding -- "so much real banana flavor" -- and the Coca-Cola Cake, but he was fascinated by the Open Kitchen across the street.
He kept admiring the colorful retro look of the place and reading the sign out loud: "The Home of the Pizza Pie." Before we could drive back to my office, we had to pull into the parking lot so he could shoot a picture and run inside for a peek and a menu.
In his heart, that's what Ed really loves in food. It isn't the latest star chef or the most precious bite. It's the real. The real is what he thinks is the best thing about food in America right now. As the economy staggers, what survives is what really makes people happy.
"People recognize places that feel good and are real and have good food," he said over a few careful spoonfuls of banana pudding. "There's more good stuff than bad stuff right now. Food culture in America isn't museum culture. It's a vibrant, living thing."
Creating Serious Eats, he says, has been a blast because it let him find a lot of young, creative people who are crazy in love with food. At 59, he's created a business that lets these young people dig into a whole new way of writing.
"They're eating chicken, they have paid health insurance and they're 25," he said, laughing. "I don't know what they're going to do in the future, but for now, it's pretty great."