Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Cook, eat or shop for food? We need your brains

If you read other sections of the Observer than the Food section (it's OK, you won't hurt my feelings), you may have read announcemens about our new Carolinas Public Insight Network.

It's a cool thing, actually: You feel out a form detailing your areas of expertise, and we add you to a database of people we use as sources for stories. We don't sell your name or pass it on to anyone else. We use you for journalism, not for marketing. We don't even have to quote you if you don't want. We can just use your advice to get background on a story.

But it occurs to me that the first thing you think of when you see a fancy phrase like "public insight network" isn't food. People don't always think of food and cooking as something all that important.

It is important. Food expertise is as valuable as any other kind of expertise. Maybe more -- food costs you money, food keeps you alive, food is the one thing every person experiences.

Bargain food shoppers, locavores, expert cooks, trained chefs, people who know more about the best chili dog in the state -- we need those kinds of experts, too.

So, please go to . Fill out the form. And in the box for your personal or professional specialties, make sure you include a little about what kind of cook or eater you are.


Monday, September 27, 2010

Reporting for barbecue duty in Mayberry

Mount Airy, N.C., would be a nice place even without its history as the inspiration for Mayberry in the "The Andy Griffith Show." A quick 90-minute run up I-77 from Charlotte, it's a pretty little town of Victorian houses perched right on the sweet spot where the Piedmont hills start building up to become the Blue Ridge mountains.

And yes, it has another claim to fame besides Mayberry: It was home to Chang and Eng, the brothers whose vaudeville act supposedly gave the world the term Siamese Twins.

For people who don't understand the Tarheel reverence for all things Mayberry, let me explain: When I was a kid in the 1960s, everything on TV was about New York: "That Girl" lived in New York, Dick Van Dyke commuted to New York, half of the "Twilight Zone" sets were built to look like New York.

For us North Carolina kids, Mayberry was the only thing on TV that looked like the world as we knew it. Aunt Bea looked like my Aunt Rosalie, Mayberry looked like downtown Wilson, right down to the courthouse square. In the pre-AC days, front porches were survival zones.

I made the trip up to Mount Airy on Saturday to serve as a judge for the Mayberry Days barbecue contest. Yes, this is sometimes my life: Eat 26 samples of chopped pork 'cue and give each one a grade on a score sheet. As a "blind" judge, I was sequestered in a little room in the Surry Arts Council with two suspender-wearing gents. John T. Matthews is a Mount Airy native and retired hog farmer. The other judge was a TV/radio guy named Roy. He prefered just Roy -- he apparently once had a traumatic judging incident that involved a children's beauty contest and wouldn't judge again unless he was promised anonymity and a locked door.

I did my duty to the best of my ability, poking through the boxes, noting things like tenderness, moisture, even distribution of sauce and inclusion of small bites of crispy skin. By 9:30 in the morning, we had eaten our way through samples A-X.

Eating that much pork that early in the morning will bring on pork fat-induced hallucinations. When I stepped out into the sunny morning, I could have sworn Aunt Bea was thumbing through the local paper.

Oh, no, wait -- that's an Aunt Bea impersonator. And if there is room in the world for Elvis impersonators, I think it's a good idea that the world also have Mayberry impersonators. I saw a very convincing Barney, hang-dog jowls and all, and an excellent Otis Campbell stumbling up the street.

After walking around to look at the barbecue teams and listen to that wonderful sound of cleavers rapping out chopped pork, I stood on the sidewalk and watched the Mayberry parade. Actress Elinor Donahue was there, perched on the back of a convertible and laughing her head off. As an early fan of "Father Knows Best," long before she played Mayberry pharmacist Ellie Walker, I was delighted to see a lovely woman who looks like a retired librarian being treated like a beauty queen.

After giving her a wave, I got in my car and headed back to Charlotte, happy to know that the legacy of Mayberry is alive and well and having a great time in Mount Airy.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Need to scare up some Halloween fans

Do you make Halloween-themed treats? My colleague Andrea Weigl at the Raleigh News & Observer needs to hear from people with experience cooking up ghoulish gourmet treats. Are those frozen hands in the punch bowl worth it? If you are willing to share a recipe and be interviewed, e-mail her at or call her at 919-829-4848.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Food stuff to do

  • I can't write this the way Groucho would have asked it, but here's your chance to answer the question and win . . . a day on the Know Your Farms tour Sunday with the Tiny Chef. Cooking teacher Susanne Dillingham will take what you buy on the tour back to your house and help you cook it. To win, you have to answer this question: "What are five vegetables grown in our region in fall and five that are grown in spring?" (Oooh! Ooooh! I know! Aw, they never call on me.) Email with your answer or to get more details.
  • Do you speak sous vide? Williams-Sonoma wants to help you get your feet wet (vacuum-sealed food, cooked in water at very controlled temperatures . . . they'll tell you the rest). They're holding sous vide demos from 7-9 p.m. Oct. 18 at both the SouthPark and Birkdale stores. It's free and open to the public, but it helps if you call so they can put out enough chairs and supplies. 704-364-8886 for SouthPark, 6401 Morrison Blvd., or 704-895-8331 for Birkdale, 16740 Birkdale Commons Parkway.
  • Cooking Uptown, 1707 E. 7th St., has posted its November and December cooking classes. They fill up fast (and make good gifts, but you didn't hear that from me). Go to to see the list, then call 704-333-7300 to register.
  • Saturday is the Dilworth Chili Cookoff, in The Courtyard Shopping Center, 2400 Park Road, in front of Sunset Grille. It starts at 4 p.m., judging is about 7:30, and $5 is the entry fee. Which includes chili samples, I believe. And a bake sale. Proceeds benefit the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer and another charity that will be chosen by Fire Station No. 2 (and I believe the Deuces are capable of making some seriously hot chili.)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Race City Sauce Works brings the heat

Charlotte-based Race City Sauce Works won the title as the hottest hot sauce at the N.C. Hot Sauce Contest, held Saturday in Oxford. The reason: Their '98 Octane Ghost Pepper Reserve, which contains bhut jolokia chile, also called Ghost Chile. They also won for Most Unusual Sauce, for their Victory Lane Jalapeno-Sour Apple Pepper Sauce.

Debbie Moose was in the hot seat as a judge for the hot sauce category (the contest also looked at barbecue sauces). Read about it this morning on her blog,

Time to pick your apples

It's always a little startling to realize that the heat of summer hasn't finished letting go but the fall apples are already hanging in the trees. If the lower humidity and (slightly) cooler temperatures put you in the mood, you can find apple and pumpkin farms in our Pick-Your-Own Farms database, at

I was having lunch in Hendersonville on Sunday when I overheard a visiting family asking the guy behind the cash register at Mike's Soda Shop about an apple farm - "Mountain Top, Top of the Mountain, something like that?" The cashier answered him with "Sky Mountain." Wrong on both counts: I'm betting he was looking for Skytop in Flat Rock, a longtime favorite among apple fans. You can find the directions, hours and correct name for it in our database, too.

We always get a couple of apple and pumpkin farms calling in late summer, long after we compile the list in spring. Here are a couple that didn't make this year's database:

  • Hodges Family Farms in Mecklenburg County has pick-your-own pumpkins along with family activities, such as hayrides, pony rides and a corn maze. It's at 3900 Rocky River Road East; 704-494-0107. Open daily from Sept. 25 to Oct. 31, 9 a.m. to dark. Get the details at
  • Windy Hill Orchard is at 1860 Black Highway in York, S.C., with pick-your-own apples, fresh apple cider, farm tours and fresh-made apple products. Apple picking started in mid-August and continues until Christmas. Hours are 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday, and noon-5 p.m. on certain Sundays (Sept. 19, Sept. 26, Oct. 3 and Oct. 10). Details and directions:

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Eat and be merry this weekend

Thanks to a long-planned mountain trip, I'll miss all the Charlotte food excitement this weekend. So enjoy it twice as much on my behalf:

  • The yearly Yiasou Greek Festival at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, 600 East Blvd., until 9 tonight, plus 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and noon to 8 p.m. Sunday. General admission is $2 for adults, but it's free if you can show a ticket that proves you got there by bus or light rail. Charlotte food lovers know this one well: You can buy plates and Greek specialties, and they have an open-air market that includes Greek products. It is seriously fun, even if you don't drink a single shot of ouzo.
  • Time Warner Cable BBQ & Blues, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday on Tryon Street from Trade to First streets. This is the contest and music festival that grew out of the old Brews, Blues & BBQ, which grew out of the Charlotte Shout cultural festival. It still includes a certified barbecue competition, cooking demos, pig racing and more. Nice touch this year: At the People's Choice Contest at 1 p.m. Saturday at The Green, you can make a $5 donation to Slow Food Charlotte and vote on barbecue samples made from locally raised pork. Nice. Details:

Enjoy. Meanwhile, I'll pass the time in the car imagining what would happen if you combined Yiasou and BBQ & Blues. Pork baklava, maybe? Smoked feta? It's starting to sound tasty.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Barbecue road trip, Part III: Cook's BBQ

OK, I've been holding out. When I made a swing by a couple of Statesville stops last week, I was actually on my way back from an early lunch in Lexington. Statesville is not usually on the way back from Lexington, but Tom-Tom makes many fine drives possible.

And in this case, the best was the first.

I've been hearing about Brandon Cook at Cook's BBQ for a couple of years. I had just been waiting for an open travel day to check his place out. The son of barbecuer Doug Cook, who owns Backcountry Barbecue in Lexington, Brandon opened his own place and decided to forego modern shortcuts like electric or gas cookers and go back to all-wood cooked barbecue.

Does it make a difference? Apparently so: he's had to expand his little restaurant, tucked away in the country outside Lexington, a couple of times. Draw your own conclusions on this, too: When I pulled up for an early lunch at 11 a.m. on a Wednesday, there were already two patrol cars with officers waiting to eat, and two more had joined them by the time I left around noon. Maybe it's like following truckers - Lexington police officers know good barbecue.

And amazingly good barbecue it is. I ordered a chopped pork plate and opened my notes. But after the first bite, it was several minutes before I could order my brain to write more than "oh my lord." Moist, tender, with just enough outside brown to give the whole pile texture. It was like pork raised to a higher purpose.

It came with just enough vinegary sauce already mixed in. In fact, I reached for the sauce bottle once and draw back my hand. It's good sauce, vinegary with just a little heat, and they take the time to serve it warm. But it seemed like a sacrilege to cover that pork with anything.

The $6.29 plate came with red slaw and a basket of terrific hush puppies -- round and as small as shooter marbles, but buttery and crisp. The waitress brought fries by mistake, but I held out for the baked beans. They had an apple flavor that was almost reminded me of pie filling but was on the right side of too sweet.

Cook's BBQ is a simple place, very country style, with a big dining room. There are other things on the menu, but with chopped pork like that, I'm sure I'll never get around to trying them. It's tucked back off a country road, about an hour from Charlotte, but it's not that hard to find: From I-85, take N.C. 8 (Exit 91). Turn left and go about 4 miles, to Rock Crusher Road. Turn right and follow it back about a half mile. Turn left on Valiant. It doesn't look like there will be a restaurant back there, but there is -- just look for the smoke. Or the patrol cars.

Cook's BBQ, 366 Valiant Drive, Lexington. 336-798-1928. 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 3:30-8:30 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Fridays. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Barbecue road trip, Part II: Port-A-Pit

Port-A-Pit? It sounds like something I avoid at outdoor concerts. But I've passed the sign so many times after leaving Keaton's outside Statesville, I finally had to stop and figure it out.

It's not easy. When you spot the sign on U.S. 64, right next to the Cool Spring Fire Department and just before the John Deere dealership, there is no obvious sign of a restaurant. Just the sign and a gravel road leading into a field. But the field is full of trucks with "Port-A-Pit Barbecue" painted on their sides. So there's got to be something in that building at the back, right?

Is it in that machine shop on the left? No, that's just the whine of power tools. Wait, the right side of the building, where the steps are -- ah, that's it.

You still have to go all the way around to the back and through the door. And you're still puzzled: You're in the small office of Koala-T-Katering. The guy on the phone in the back doesn't even look up. But if you turn right, there's the catering kitchen. A line of women are rapidly dealing cups of sauce into take-out boxes on one side. On the other side, there's a line of steam trays with chicken, pork, ribs and the day's vegetables, and a couple of tables lined up to herd you toward cash register. Takeout is the only choice.

Since I was on my third lunch of the day, I just opted for a pork barbecue sandwich for $3.25. That brought a very generous pile of already sauced, shredded pork, a hamburger bun, a large serving of coleslaw -- choice of mayo-based or red -- and two little cups of barbecue sauce. There are a few benches outside, but your car is the most comfortable place to sit.

The barbecue is smoky, moist and already sauced, the sauce on the side is dark, sweet and tastes strongly of liquid smoke.

Port-A-Pit must operate on the Smucker's theory -- with a name like that, they have to serve something good.

Port-A-Pit BBQ, 119 Marshall Forest Lane (behind Cool Spring Fire Department on U.S. 64 East), Statesville. 704-872-9778. 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Wednesday and Friday only. Prices range from $3.25 for a barbecue sandwich, $5 for a barbecue tray, $4.75 to $8.25 for chicken, rib or pork plates with two sides and bread or hush puppies.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Barbecue road trip, Part I: Keaton's

Taking a trip to Keaton's BBQ in Cleveland, N.C., outside Statesville, isn't really about the food. It's about the journey.

There's figuring out a way to get out of the office and play hookey at a time that actually matches their hours. (The hours change by season or whim, so after you check the Web site,, it's still a good idea to call 704-278-1619 just to make sure.) There's the 30-minute run up I-77 to I-40 to U.S. 64. There's the drive down long, winding Woodleaf Road, past the farms and corn fields until you cross into Rowan County, head into the trees and finally spot the place.

There's the look on the face of whichever first-timer you're taking along when they first see the rusted sign stretching along the roof, the hand-scrawled notes on the windows and doors. Maybe they look with trepidation, or hesitation. If they look with a big smile, you have the satisfaction of knowing you picked the right traveling companion.

I made my fourth or fifth visit to Keaton's last week, by myself this time. Not much has changed. "No smoking" signs have replaced the old "no guns" sign, which is cheering. There's still the portrait of founder B.W. Keaton by the front door inside, big smile and cigarette dangling from his mouth, long ash eternally caught by the camera just before it falls.

The counter service is just as chaotic and confusing. The side dishes are just as negligible. I've been enough times to know to stick with baked beans and the crusty-on-top mac & cheese and avoid the potato salad. They have pork barbecue, I've heard. But I never get around to trying it.

The real star of the menu is just the same: Half-chicken fried, dipped in sauce and grilled. The meat inside is a little dry, but the skin is the point, peppery and just a little chewy.

Maybe it's not the food. Maybe it is the journey.
Keaton's Barbecue, 17365 Cool Springs Road, Cleveland, N.C.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Charlotte gets a fresh-fish market

Look Ma - blue prawns.

Bill Ryan is mighty proud of those blue prawns. And his big hunks of tuna, dry-pack scallops and John Dory. Ryan, a Bostonian-turned-Charlottean, is the owner of Clean Catch Fish Market, the long-awaited fish market that is finally open at Selwyn Avenue and Colony Roads.

Look for my story about Clean Catch's sustainable policies, chef service -- and its prices -- in Thursday's Business section.

For all of you who have complained over the years because Charlotte doesn't have a serious fish market for serious fish fans, consider your hook baited.