A Philly Yankee in Dixie’s Food King

Getting ready to post some contemporary articles in February 2019—meanwhile, here’s one from my Way Off the Beaten Path B&B Bulletins

Being southern isn’t as simple as affixing a geographical location—it’s more like uncovering the hidden meaning of a secret handshake. It’s about shared cultural affiliations; it’s a way of looking at life through faux colored glasses. The South is an indefinite dimension between two lines that touch at a particular angle of perception. Though I’d lived in the South as a teen and was acquainted with its celebrated writers and actors, I didn’t understand what made the South distinctive—beyond the obvious. While considering retirement options when I turned 50, I bought an antebellum Greek revival plantation at the foothills of the Uwharrie Mountains in central NC. My Tennessee born significant other and I renovated it and opened a B&B. It was there, strolling—rather than scurrying down aisles of the local, slightly scruffy Food King I began to comprehend the South’s magic and draw, though I remain confounded by its drawl.

I’ve been told I am a sentient being. A native of Philadelphia and daughter of first generation Irish/Welsh parents, we moved across the U.S. during years when my father consulted on complex, classified projects.  As the oldest of four, I’d explore on my own and entertain my siblings with regional ghost stories, or show them offbeat, interesting places. However, my experiences living in Maryland, Virginia, and Georgia during 60’s & 70’s did nothing to endear me to Southern ways. I had the usual complaints—people were slow, colloquialisms seemed backwards, it was too hot and humid, the food was greasy, folks were still arguing about ‘that’ war, country music was twangy and corny, and was it too much to ask to be served toast and marmalade, instead of jelly biscuits at breakfast? My mistake was that where the South was concerned, I wasn’t using my senses at all; I was looking through clouded glasses.

Granted, it was a different time then. Mortgage rates soared to 20 percent, gas lines were a norm, an unpopular war ended awkwardly, and a president resigned in disgrace. We did elect a Southern born president, but he was replaced by a former actor who told everyone life was beautiful. I didn’t give a thought to settling down or buying a house. Pragmatically, I assured myself one day I’d find a spectacular house in a perfect location—somewhere above the Mason Dixon line.

In my senior year, my parents finally made a permanent home atop a mountain in Maryland, a few miles from famous civil war battlefields. I began to sojourn abroad. I felt at ease, if not at home in England, Ireland, France, Italy, and Spain, and married a Frenchman that appreciated US comforts so much, he refused to move with me to France. He taught me more about America than I ever would have learned on my own, including an appreciation for jazz and country music (experiencing a renaissance), regional food specialties, rural accents (I’d mistaken for backwardness), and local artisan crafts that demonstrated individual uniqueness and hinted at foreign connections.  He said the music of the South—gospel, blue grass, Appalachian folk, country, and jazz—was the very soul of Dixie—and of America. It was a shame to ignore it, or worse, to discount it. While I was mulling this over, we divorced. A few years later, I met the man from Tennessee.

Over the years, I turned down opportunities to move to South Carolina and Texas, but did spend a year in sunny, tropical Key West, Florida. While I enjoyed Key West for being ‘far from normal,’ I was relieved to return to four seasons, rolling hills and evergreens, and cuisine that included New England Clam Chowder, Philly Hoagies, NY Oysters Rockefeller, and apple pie. A persistent feeling of non-belonging followed me, and restlessness and curiosity inevitably uprooted me again and again. Just what did it mean—to belong? Was this to be my life—from nowhere to eternity?

Our bodies, regardless of where we live, have more than 10 million sensory receptors, which we use to experience physical reality, while our brain has 10 billion synapses, with which we imagine what might be. Theoretically, we’re better equipped to experience worlds that don’t yet exist. In the late 80’s, I vacationed in the Smokies, with a side trip to Knoxville; I thought it was a small, pleasant town. Driving through Gatlinburg, I drove through a rounded tunnel. I recall looking in the rearview window—the tunnel resembled the last letter of the Greek alphabet, Omega. I waved goodbye, not realizing I would return. Curiously, if you show a group of people the words ‘IAMNOWHERE’ run together, most will say it spells ‘I am no where.’ A few people, however, will see ‘I am here now.’

When I got fed up with big city traffic, crowds, and bad manners, I went B&B scouting in NC. After making several wrong turns, I stumbled upon a plantation we bought and renovated. It sat on prime farmland, had Tara’esque pillars, and smelled of pine, magnolia musk, and beeswax. It was time to put aside perceptions formed in my teens when I debated high school classmates about the value of technology in winning the ‘altercation between the states.’  This was the modern world. The US had a 3+ trillion dollar deficit, gas prices were rising, and Martha Stewart (the domimatrix of domesticity) was sent to Camp Cupcake.

I fell in love with piney woods, bullfrog serenades, and the trill of whippoorwills. I wasn’t as enamored with the bats, hummingbird sized mosquitoes, or creeping kudzu. The huge boiler clanked and floorboards moaned. We replaced bathrooms, the entire duct and gutter systems, installed storm windows, and converted 5 of 7 fireplaces to gas. To hang a picture, we had to use a masonry bit as plaster walls were reinforced with steel. It snowed an unprecedented 13 inches that first year, and a freak wind storm took out power lines for two days, downed dozens of trees, and blew slate shingles off the roof.

The B&B was a success, though I worked harder than I ever had at my corporate job. And I made some mistakes; I held a gothic’esque “Gone with the Whim” tongue in cheek party that neighbors thought was rather cheeky, and posted silly signs like ‘cut through these woods for free, but remember the bull charges,’ and ‘In case of fire, don’t use stairs, use water’  (the B&B inspector didn’t find this amusing). During our Dead and Breakfast theme week in October, we offered rooms with a boo and goodie bags filled with homemade taffy and spirited whisky mini’s.

I was frustrated that people booking events chose the same menu—slow cooked mustard-spiced dense barbeque; mounds of biscuits and platters of ham; tart slaw, laced with vinegar, pepper, onion, and confetti sized tomato; bubbling crocks of slow simmered molasses rich beans; and pies, cakes, and other sweets. I’d envisioned providing sophisticated catering—bourbon marinated pork loins with pesto broiled tomatoes and fire roasted potatoes, and wine soaked peaches with crème anglais. I did make scones, tea cookies, and five tiered wedding cakes. The world kept changing. Charles and Camilla wed, the BTK killer was sentenced, gas prices escalated, and I rationalized it wasn’t that bad—after all Evian water was $1.49 for a 9 ounce bottle (or $21/gallon) and mouthwash was nearly $30 gallon.

When last minute guests called and booked all the rooms one weekend, and asked me to cater several gourmet meals, I gulped. My pantry and fridge was bare, and my checkbook was nearly as empty as my gas tank. I required items like mace, tropical fruit, a leg of lamb, four kinds of cheeses, and pre-baked ladyfingers for a quick tiramisu. My significant other was out of town; there was no time to drive to the modern grocery store 20 miles away. I’d been avoiding the local Food King, just two miles down the road. Was it because of the sign outside: try our SPAM pie (squirrel, opossum, alligator, and mole?) I charged inside; there was no air conditioning. Was I in third world country? No one understood what I wanted—or what Mascarpone cheese was? Why did the produce section contain mounds of sweet potatoes and twelve kinds of greens?  Shrieking that paprika was a spice, not a foreign language, and grabbing what I could recognize, I fled the Food King. Back at the B&B I raided the freezer to create passable fare—ham and cheddar puffs; a cranberry, apple, and pecan salad with blackberry dressing picked from a back yard bush; low country shrimp and grits with wilted greens I couldn’t identify, and a locally made meringue pie with the most delicious chocolate filling, supplemented with a plate of homemade chocolate bourbon balls.

During my next visit, a grocery clerk greeted me as if I was blood kin, and mentioned there was a special on berries and pigs feet. Gradually, I realized this very basic store had a unique personality and sold wonderful things—English walnuts, seven kinds of rice, 250 kinds of seeds, a drink called boiled custard around the holidays, and local produce that could be turned into delicious dishes if you knew the difference between collards, rhubarb, and loose cabbage. You could also buy ammunition, rat poison, crayfish (not lobster), and chicken parts for bait. I spent quality time in the baking goods aisle. Shyly, I asked people how to cook and can seasonal produce, and what was the secret to making mile high scratch biscuits? Through the language of food, we found commonalities. I hosted Red Hat, Realtor, and Golf brunches, mixed international recipes with local flavors, served banana raisin bread pudding laced with dark rum; crab and spinach/ collard quiches, plump with local tomatoes; seven layer cakes with five different fruit fillings, and Italian roast coffee scented with cinnamon and pecans. My favorite flower became King Arthur’s unbleached self-rising.

After the plantation was sold, aka the Inn of 1000 Chores (another story entirely), I moved to the Knoxville area. There was concern whether a Yankee born world traveler could retire in Tennessee—or adjust to the tempo of southern living. However, the Food King had changed my angle of perception. There were also compromises to make. There would be no stocking the koi pond with catfish, calling all women darling, or using my sparkly $50 drop earrings as a fishing lure. I was not to ever refer to that period of ‘Northern Aggression’ (old times here are not forgotten…), and must learn the difference between a conniption fit (the lst you pitch, the 2nd you have), and the Southern recollection of time. “I’ll be there directly” means between 1 to 3 hours later.

Perhaps that’s how great love affairs begin, being in awe at something as simple as the aisles of the local Food King. As a Southern native recently reminded me, ‘say what you must about the South and its eccentricities—but just how many people do you know that retire and move to the North?’

Rejected B&B names, as well as Sam & Ella’s B&B and Hoof Hearted B&B!