Monday, November 5, 2012

On the pecan road in Whiteville

I'll admit it: Whiteville, N.C., on U.S. 74 about 60 miles before Wilmington, is usually known to me for two things: Speeding tickets (see "60 miles before Wilmington," above - and yes, the locals do joke about that), and the classic chili dogs at Ward's Grill.

After this weekend, I have a few more things to add to my list of Whiteville experiences. I took my book, "Pecans: A Savor the South Cookbook," to Whiteville for the annual N.C. Pecan Harvest Festival:

1. Whiteville now has a notable restaurant, the Southern Kitchen. The Southern Kitchen, 606 S. Madison St., has been a number of kinds of restaurants over the years, but because the building   has a lovely old neon sign that says "The Southern Kitchen," they've all had the same name. Now it's called The New Southern Kitchen, and it features French/Southern/Asian food cooked by Sokun Slama.

Slama is a native of Cambodia whose family had to flee the Khmer Rouge. They ended up in Paris, where she trained as a chef. Slama and her husband, Guilliame, first opened two restaurants in Washington, Ga. In 2009, a supporter offered to help them if they would come to Whiteville and open a restaurant. Now they have the New Southern Kitchen and a more casual lunch place, Sophie's Bistro, next door.

Slama is trying to use as much local produce as possible, including locally sourced fish, sweet potatoes (and pecans, of course). One  special  Friday night included an osso bucco-inspired pork shank with pomegranate molasses sauce and spinach gnocchi. I had the Cambodian beef, similar to Vietnam's shaking beef -- thin slices of seared beef on jasmine rice with lots of lemon grass. Not at all what I expected to find on a Friday night in Whiteville, N.C. If you want a look at the menu and pictures of the restaurant, go here.

2. Like every town in a rural area, Whiteville is working hard to get a local-food economy up and running. So while the Byrdville Farm Market, 721 S. Madison St. wasn't completely open yet, I found it fascinating. Owner Susie Rockel is creating an interesting hybrid of a produce store, where she'll stock locally grown produce, and a small cafe, where she'll make a small menu of soups, salads and sandwiches using local ingredients. She even has a cooler labeled "Slow Food Fast," where you can pick up things like pimento salad and other things. Just the thing on your way to the beach, right?

3. Whiteville farmers love their pecans. At the pecan festival, my table of books was right next to the tent to the N.C. Pecan Growers Association. That meant that I spent a lot of time listening to explanations about tree girdlers (they chew a band around small tree limbs until they break them off from the tree) and pecan weevils (they have very long snouts that they stick in a pecan nut when it's green and lay eggs that eventually hatch and destroy the pecans).

There wasn't quite as much pecan stuff at the pecan festival as I had hoped -- I could use a good pair of pecan earrings -- but I did buy a 5-pound sack of new-crop Stuarts, a pecan pie and a paper sack of cinnamon-glazed pecans. And yes, I heard more nut jokes than any Saturday in November ought to involve.

I'm learning that the fun part of having a book is that it gives you a driving tour of your state. At regulation speeds, of course. No tickets, not even in Whiteville.