“Oh, you’re from North Carolina. Have you eaten at The Chef & the Farmer? I just love that show,” exclaimed our dinner companion as we cruised the Erie Canal in July. Her question and the ensuing conversation about the PBS show “A Chef’s Life” confirms Edward Felsenthal’s recent Time Magazine editorial, in which he stated, “Distinctive Southern music, food and to borrow from Julia Reed, a certain ‘never met a stranger’ civility, are also alive and well…the South has become a net exporter of culture – and a net importer of people.”
Have you ever thought about the questions we ask when talking to someone who recently returned from a trip? Invariably, “Where did you eat?” comes up. Food helps define a locale’s culture. According to Kristy Tolley, writing for AAA.com/GO “…a recent AAA travel survey that revealed 75% of Americans believe food and dining are an important part of their travel experiences…” And her colleague Sarah Hersall, VP of AAA Carolina's Travel & Branch Operations, adds, “Culinary travel is one of the fastest growing travel trends today.
How does one define culture in the 21st century? When writing about the difference between a “tourist” and a “traveler” earlier this year, I noted that while the “tourist” sees, the “traveler” experiences. Experiencing the cultural food scene of a place opens up a whole new world of tastes, smells and glimpses not only into local cuisines, but into the lives of its residents.
So what are the cuisines of North Carolina that have influenced its culture? There are many answers to that question. And, of course, it depends on who you ask. Here in North Carolina, the food scene has never been more vibrant than it is today. Vivian Howard and Ashley Christensen have elevated the food conversation in our state over the past 10 years, receiving numerous awards and accolades within the industry and beyond. These two women were the recipients of the News & Observer's “Tarheel of the Year” award in 2018. This honor highlighted their contributions not only to the world of fine food, but also their economic impact on their communities. Vivian and Ashley are two of many award-winning chefs across North Carolina, from the mountains to the coast.
Favorite Food Memories
Conde Nast Traveler recently spotlighted each state’s favorite food and where to find it, naming barbeque pulled pork with vinegar sauce as North Carolina’s most famous dish. For me, the foods that top my favorites list include what I refer to as “the taste of summer” – heirloom tomatoes, succulent corn, butterbeans, Dixie Lee peas and peaches. And, like Conde Nast Traveler's writer, Eastern North Carolina barbecue with its tangy vinegar-based sauce, is at the top of my list in the meat category.
While living in Philadelphia, my husband and I would time our trips up and down I-95 to visit his parents in Fayetteville so that we could eat at Parker’s Barbecue in Wilson. Today, multicultural culinary delights abound across the state. With approximately 50 percent of residents born outside the state’s borders, North Carolina exemplifies Mr. Felsenthal’s observation that “the South has become a net importer of people.” Mexican, Asian, Greek, Indian, Thai and many more ethnic restaurants can be found across the state’s landscape. Agriculture and agribusiness lead North Carolina’s economy. Organic farms, producing fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy products, are no longer an anomaly. Discriminating “foodies” will find culinary tours in cities throughout the state. In Asheville, one can even take a tour to go “wild food foraging” to discover exotic, edible mushrooms that local restaurants will prepare for your evening meal! Food unites us, inviting us to share our culture with others.
No discussion of food in North Carolina would be complete without including the ever-expanding craft beer and wine industries. Prior to Prohibition, North Carolina was the nation’s leading wine producing state. Today, North Carolina’s wine industry continues to evolve, playing a significant role in the state’s tourism growth.
So, you see, the next time you’re traveling, think about ways to explore the culture of your destination through its local culinary scene. It will connect you to the people and the place in unexpected - and delicious - ways.
Also, I hope you'll take some time on September 28th - National North Carolina Day - to celebrate our state's wonderful history and culture.