Sunday, December 26, 2010

White Christmas 2010
My Lamp Post, Early Morning
Snow on Christmas Day in the South is a big deal with a capital "B".  Surprised, and inspired by the beauty, I spent the afternoon visiting some of Lincoln County's oldest and most beautiful historic properties for a glimpse of them in the snow.
Vesuvius Vineyards, Circa 1792
Beautifully restored by the long time owners as a venue for wonderful events, this is one of Lincoln County's oldest residences.  I remember playing on the front lawn of Vesuvius as a small child.
Ingleside Farm, Circa 1817
One of North Carolina's finest five-bay Federal mansions, Ingleside is attributed to Benjamin Latrobe, the famed architect of the United States Capitol building.  Lovingly maintained and restored, and on the National Register of Historic Places, it is today a working horse farm.
Shadow Lawn, Circa 1826
Gracing the historic Main Street of our town, Shadow Lawn is also on the National Register of Historic Places.  For many years it was the home of six-term Congressman Charles R. Jonas.
Boyd Residence, Mid-Twentieth Century
Not as historic, but every bit as beautiful, this stately Southern Colonial sits on the site of a former resort, Lithia Springs Inn, whose therapeutic waters attracted visitors from all over the world at the turn of the century.

What a beautiful way to wind down the holidays.  Now back at home in front of the fire, a bowl of my sister's Shrimp Gumbo is calling my name.

Countdown Friday Was Lost in the Christmas Eve Rush
But just for the record, the Count was 281

Wishing you all Blessings, Peace
Love, Health and Prosperity in 2011  

Friday, December 17, 2010

Tangled in Holly

House decorated...check.  Outdoor illumination up and running...check.  House cleaned...I'm working on it.  Shopping  Christmas Eve party plans under control...not even remotely.  As my friend Mitzi the Duck is fond of saying, "Tangled in holly and fresh out of jolly".

Today is Countdown Friday
A good time to remember that
It isn't about me, and it isn't about you.
It's about HIM
Today's Count is 288

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Barbecue Primer

To be clear, the word "barbecue" in the South is not a verb.  It is a noun, defined as a dish of smoked meat as tender as melted butter, smothered in a sauce so good it makes grown men cry.
We Southerners are funny about our barbecue.  We'll lock arms against an outsider who casts aspersions on it, but when we begin to discuss the same subject among ourselves, all the wheels fall off the wagon.
We disagree on everything connected to the word - from the type of wood required for smoking it to the best way of cooking it, not to mention the proper way to remove the meat from the bone and serve it.  And on the question of whose sauce is best - well - you might fare better slapping your mama than you would throwing that topic out into the middle of a Southern gathering - and we all know not to slap our mamas.
Since this is a blog and not a book, I'm limited for space, so I'll narrow my perspective and talk a bit about North Carolina barbecue.  And, really, is there any other kind?  Don't misunderstand.  Even within the confines of the state line, the variety of barbecues and sauces is vast.  Seeking to identify a clear winner has been known to cause fist fights, protracted court cases, family estrangements and even the occasional divorce.
About the only thing North Carolinians will attest to is that there are two general cagtegories of barbecue around here - Eastern and Western - and we'll grudgingly agree that the line of demarcation seems to fall somewhere between Raleigh and Charlotte - and we'll give it to you that smoking a pig over hickory wood is generally a good idea.  However, there is no road sign that says "You Are Now Entering The Eastern NC Barbecue Zone", no line on a map that says "Western NC Barbecue Continental Divide".  So stop looking.
Way down east (past Raleigh sort of) they smoke their pigs and baste them in a sauce made from vinegar and red pepper and not much else.  Then, coming back toward Charlotte (but well before you get there) the sauce begins to take on a little color.  Right about Lexington you reach a sort of barbecue equilibrium - a near perfect balance between Eastern and Western styles that has resulted in the famous "Lexington-Style Barbecue" - a delicious happy medium that seems to cause the least amount of friction among us all.  We're even content to let the rest of the world come to Lexington and leave thinking they've tasted the real NC BBQ deal.  They have...until they cross over into the next county.
West of Lexington (for the most part) all bets are once again off.  We still love our hickory smoke, but the sauces are thick, brick-red, sweet, spicy, hot, sour and savory - all at the same time.  The recipes vary from county to county, even family to family.
I know a set of brothers who won't let their wives know the secret to the family recipe.  I have tasted their sauce, too, and I fully understand why.  I once saw it served for lunch in a corporate board room in New York City.  The prospective client held a multi-million-dollar advertising account in his hands.  Going in, the odds were against the sales team trying to land that account, a sales team that was headed by my sister.  She knew it was do or die, so she called me from New York and had me buy a plane ticket for several pounds of barbecue with fixings, plus a pint or two of that sauce.  We flew it into Newark, she had it couriered into the city, and she served it all on a red check tablecloth.  After lunch, the account was hers - won by a little bit of pluck and a Mason jar full of barbecue magic.
You notice, too that I'm only talking about smoking pigs - for good reason.  Here in the Carolinas, we aren't real impressed with that whole Texas business of barbecued beef - well - except for the beef served by the famous Mr. Sims in Dudley Shoals, NC - but, see there - I'm proving my own point.  As my husband would say, boiling us down to one style or flavor is about as easy as nailing jello to a fencepost.
And just when I find myself declaring that there is no such single thing as NC Barbecue, a timely trip below the state line into South Carolina jolts me back to reality.  Down there, they tragically fill their sauce full of mustard and don't know any better than to brag about it.  All of a sudden, the North Carolina picture once again comes into focus.  It's like an Impressionist painting that makes perfect sense from a distance but loses all capacity for definition when viewed at close range.
And, of course, the people in South Carolina get just as worked up over the obvious ignorance of the people in Georgia who claim a special dispensation from the barbecue gods.  And the people in Georgia laugh out loud at the people in Alabama who pride themselves on how to pick a pig.

My best advice?  Come see us and enjoy it all.  But if you don't agree at the end of the day that North Carolina barbecue in all of its many forms wins the trophy - well - you'd be wise not to let that out until you're at least ten miles across the state line into either Virginia or Tennessee.

Tomorrow is Countdown Friday, by the way...
The count will be 295 

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Breakfast with Junior

Before sunrise this morning I walked into a garage shop in Yadkin County, NC and discovered one of my favorite living legends in a kitchenette in the corner of the shop, calmly tending to a pan of sizzling bacon.  He was cooking my breakfast.

Junior Johnson is one of a small group of men who actually helped invent a professional sport.  We know it today as NASCAR.  As a driver, he won 50 races.  As a team owner, his drivers won 139 races.  Two of his drivers, Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough, brought him a combined 6 Winston Cup Championships.  The list of drivers who worked for him could fill the NASCAR Hall of Fame, and undoubtedy will - one of these days.  The names are Waltrip, Yarborough, Foyt, Pearson, Allison, Bonnett, Labonte, Elliott, and many more.  Junior personally invented the technique known as "drafting" on a race track.  His life was the subject of a movie.  When they opened the Hall of Fame, his name was in the first class.

And there he stood, scrambling eggs and frying sausage and tending to a pan of hot biscuits.  He stopped long enough to extend his hand to me with a big smile.  "Thank y'all for stoppin' by this mornin'."  We moved around the shop, talking to the other dozen or so visitors for the next few minutes, and then Junior gestured to the pair of long tables set up for us and said "Food's ready.  Y'all find a place and dig in."

Junior and two or three helpers laid on a breakfast that would put any Cracker Barrel to shame.  I counted at least 18 different items.  They passed around platters of fresh cantaloupe, sliced fresh tomatoes, bowls of hot grits, scrambled eggs with sausage, scrambled eggs with salmon, hash brown potatoes and fried livermush.  A big steaming bowl of sausage gravy made the rounds, followed by a bowl of stewed apples smothered in apple butter.  I asked Junior if he does this very often.  "Five days a week" he said.  They passed a platter of pork chops, country ham, bacon and three different varieties of sausage - and hog jowls - and streak-o-lean.  And the platter of hot biscuits never stopped moving until it was empty.

As soon as everyone had been served, Junior sat down across from us.  "Junior, are you not eating this morning?" I asked.  "Naw - once you've cooked it, you ain't real hungry.  I don't eat a lot these days anyway."  The rest of us more than made up for his good behavior, eating like we had never seen food before.  And all the while, Junior sat back in his chair and kept us company.

He is a reserved man - soft spoken and to the point.  Having grown up in these parts, I have known men like him my whole life - smarter than ten other men combined and also smart enough not to let it show.  For the next hour we relaxed, we laughed, and we talked about everything from the birth of NASCAR to the merits of white corn grits over yellow.  He prefers the yellow, and buys his from a local grist mill.

He spoke of the early days in NASCAR when he and Richard Petty and Ned Jarrett would stick around and sign autographs until the last fan had exited the gate.  When I asked if that didn't get tiring, he grinned.  Ever the innovator, Junior had a crew member who looked a lot like him - a crew member who sometimes got pressed into the duty of signing autographs, posing for photos and shaking hands.  Nobody ever caught on.

We heard first-hand how the sport was born.  He explained how you couldn't fill the back of a 1940 Ford with a load of bootleg liquor and take the curves on those mountain roads, so they started tinkering with the cars.  If something broke, they decided they'd better not build it that way next time.  Full-floating rear suspensions, reinforced wheels, hubs and spindles were all brought into the world on the back roads of North Carolina.  He said they had no choice but to figure it out.

Over the years, he remained way out in front of everyone else in "figuring it out".  Darlington was his favorite track.  He said you never raced the other cars at Darlington - you raced the track and hoped that you beat it.  He got tired of wrecking down there and decided he needed to figure out a way to hit the wall without tearing up his car.  So he came up with the idea of springs inside his rear fenders.  Every time he hit the wall after that, the springs kept the fenders from shredding his tires.  It worked like a charm.  Soon, the rest of the sport came begging for his secret.  He was using carbon fiber for years before most in NASCAR even knew what it was - a little trick he picked up from the aviation industry.

We spoke of other things - things like the difference between California wines and fledgling wines being produced in North Carolina's Yadkin Valley.  Someone asked if Darrell Waltrip should have been nominated for this year's class in the Hall of Fame.  He said yes.  My husband asked if there shouldn't be a "Run What You Brung" series in NASCAR - a back-to-the-roots series that might happen on Friday nights when the Cup Series is in town.  Absolutely, he said.  He'd love to see it, but doesn't hold out much hope.
And then we began to disperse.  We posed for a picture.  I tried to put Junior in the middle, between the two of us.  He would have none of that.  "No - you get in the middle", he said, and we all smiled for the camera.
We thanked his business partner, Tim, who had read my previous blog post about Junior, which is what prompted the invitation to breakfast.  The name of this blog, "Sweet Tea Gazette", caught his eye.  I had no idea that Junior is also in the Sweet Tea business until Tim told me.  Small world.  You can buy Junior Johnson Sweet Tea at any Lowes Foods store.
You can also buy Junior Johnson Morning Rolls, Country Ham Biscuits, Sausage Biscuits.  And then there is Junior Johnson Country Ham, and, of course, Junior Johnson's Midnight Moon, a totally legal version of the brew that started it all - if you're able to handle the stuff.

At age 78, he's a busy man yet.  You might ask why anyone with as many accomplishments as Junior wouldn't just want to sit back and rest on his laurels and enjoy being a legend in his own time.  Well, there is that.  But people like Junior who are born with the gift of figuring it out, never stop racing and most always find their way to the top, no matter what the arena.  I do know this:  If his other ventures ever go south on him, he can always go into the breakfast-cooking business.  I'll be his best customer.