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Culture magazine, Winter 2012
Hams and yams and the quirks of Johnston County
Perched above racks of hand-sewn sweaters and silkscreened T-shirts at a clothing store in Wilmington, I recently came across the story of my life. It was The Sweet Patootie Doll, written by Mary Calhoun, illustrated by Roger Duvoisin and deconstructed in the form of a journal.
Published in 1957 by William Morrow & Co., the children’s book is about a small girl named Lucy who could be almost any child from my home in Johnston County. Lucy saw much more in a sweet potato than a casserole or pie, which are pervasive this time of year.
From the shape of a dusty old vegetable, she imagined a doll, with a bump for a head, “two specks, just right for eyes, and a brown, curvy scratch, just right for a mouth.” My neighbors and I used to have the same visions. In Johnston County, a place that harvested 181.6 million pounds of sweet potatoes in 2011, we are groomed from an early age to appreciate the nicks and nobs on potatoes, seeking faces and shapes in them the way most children do with clouds. The twisted tail of a yam is coveted for making a cow or hog. Prickly whiskers are cherished just the same.
We officially started crafting potatoes in 1985, when Smithfield held the first Ham and Yam Festival. The event was initiated as a challenge from ham producers in Johnston County to those in Smithfield, Va. Along with tons of orange potatoes, Johnston County also boasts an abundance of hogs: 175,000 in 2011. Such swine would show up at the initial event in the form of barbecue, sausage and country ham biscuits, plus the bright red hot dogs for which the town is known. (Andrea Weigl of The News & Observer once called Smithfield “ground zero in North Carolina for the fire-engine red dogs.”)
Sensing that pork would thus hold the spotlight through such dishes, several sweet potato farmers rallied to bring attention to the yam (which is actually a different, white-fleshed vegetable entirely, but a common name often interchanged with sweet potatoes). A Miss Yam contest was planned, along with a potato bake-off.
Most notably, “What’s That Yam Thing?” was born. The competition called for potatoes dressed as a person, thing or animal. According to The Smithfield Herald, I entered the second year under the pre-school division and took third place for my “Thing.” The actual entry isn’t named, but reportedly I won $2, which must have been plenty to set me on my way for years to come. Potatoes were mostly free.
We fell in line before 8 a.m. with hopes to meet the tan man with the tall white hair. Years of watching television told us to go in bold colors for this taping of The Price Is Right and a hokey but genuine saying for Bob Barker. “Childhood Dreams Do Come True” read our neon green T-shirts with iron-on, velvet pink letters.
Barker had recently announced his impending retirement, and the five-hour-long row of folks that swooped around the show’s southern California locale, The Grove, teemed with talk about what people would say to Barker if given the chance. There were thank yous and I love yous and proclamations about pets. I felt confident I could wing it; after all, earlier in the week, I’d introduced myself to Delbert, my estranged grandfather.
*Read on in the Indy Week.
[I’m in the idiot in the center with my hands raised. Why, yes, I did snap this picture from my clunky, big TV.]
Where cotton candy comes from
Clouds should have been the obvious choice. But for the source of cotton candy, my 4-year-old self looked into the dark corner of a gym beyond the bleachers and royal blue tumbling mats, where I spotted a wad of light gray fluff. I crammed a fistful of the billowy stuff in my mouth and learned that it was not sweet, would not melt and, as explained by my gym teacher, was actually a dirty thing that went by the deceivingly cute name dust bunny.
Decades later, I still was unsure of the origins of cotton candy (though acutely aware that it doesn’t occur naturally). So in preparation for the cotton candy season—when one vendor churns through 1,400 pounds of pink sugar during the 11-day North Carolina State Fair—I settled in at the library to find its roots.
The details resided in the Journal of the History of Dentistry, which reports that in 1897, William James Morrison, former President of the Tennessee State Dental Association, co-created a machine capable of producing cottony strands of crystallized sugar. (The dentist with a law degree also penned several children’s books and made a substitute for lard out of cottonseed oil.)
*Read on in the Indy Week
[Early advertisement found in Triangulating Peace by Bruce M. Russett and John R. Oneal]
Real Pimento Cheese
The short, stocky, thick-skinned jalapeño needs no label: its shape is identifiable to even the most novice pepper eater. Equally familiar is the triangular black-green poblano, and, of course, the large, lantern-like bell. What causes confusion among Kevin Meehan’s customers at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market are small, heart-shaped peppers that blush in late summer.
"I put them on the table because they are a conversation piece," Meehan says. "You’d be amazed at how many people pick [them] up because [they’re] unusual looking." But while most folks think they’ve come across something new, they’ve actually found something quite familiar: the pimiento. It’s the stuffing in pitted green olives. It’s the pretty dot in cheese. And it’s one of a two-part item ordered often in the South and increasingly beyond.
Pimento cheese would be nothing without it. Try imagining any level of fanfare for a mix of plain old mayonnaise and grated cheddar. Pimientos provide a welcome sweet and sour flavor, one that’s more complex that their ubiquitous first cousin: the red bell pepper. They also make the spread look good. As an early Kraft advertisement once described, they gave the spread the appearance of being “studded, like rubies.” But most importantly when it comes to pimento cheese, it’s the pepper that rooted the spread in this region.
*Read on in Edible Piedmont.
Photo courtesy of Nancy Vandiver
Ben Crawley hates heights. But he loves bees, which is why one night in the spring of 2010, he found himself installing a beehive on the roof at Market Restaurant in Raleigh. To hoist the hive—a 200-pound colony—Crawley says he “pulled a platform on a rope, hand over hand.”
"Thank God one of the girls that helped us move it used to perform in Cirque du Soleil or whatever," says Chad McIntyre, Market’s chef and owner. "Ben’s all on the roof like this," McIntyre says, cowering, "and she’s literally like another ladder [over with] a foot hanging off. I was like, ‘It’s all you, sister.’"
McIntyre and Crawley, who owns Mr. Buzz beekeeping service (and whose Ford F-150 sports a personalized license plate that bears his business’ name), knew that despite the difficulty of moving the hives, placing bees on the restaurant roof would pay off.
*Read on in the Independent Weekly.
It’s nothing new for me to eat cheese at every stop in the Triangle, but this time I did it for Culture.
A woman steps up to the cluttered counter at Farm & Garden in Cedar Grove wearing pajamas. She’s quick to clarify she wouldn’t go to the grocery dressed that way. “Just the Farm & Garden.”
But the gray store with wood siding on N.C. Highway 86 is something of a grocery, and a pretty good one. Though it operates two fuel pumps and sells what has become many gas stations’ standard fare—bagged chips, cheap beer and neon-colored Slush Puppies—it also stocks its coolers with lamb and bison from nearby farms. There’s local milk, mini pies made by neighbor Mary Justesen, and an extensive selection of regional beers.
The Farm & Garden is one of many filling stations to offer food that’s a step above tired, twirling hot dogs or packaged Pop-Tarts. It is also one of the easiest spots to find: A row of squat white signs spells the store’s bounty along both sides of the two-lane road leading there. More often, billboards reveal fuel brands and prices over specialty fare; it’s BP, not biscuits.
*Read on in the Independent Weekly.