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Few cities have grown faster in the past 25 years than Charlotte, N.C. But waves of new residents are also challenging the culinary cultures that have defined popular perceptions of the American South for decades. We explore what food says about regional identity in Charlotte and other rapidly-changing parts of the “New South.”
- Tom Hanchett Historian, Levine Museum of the New South
- Kathleen Purvis Food Editor, The Charlotte Observer
- John T. Edge Director, Southern Foodways Alliance, Center for the Study of Southern Culture, University of Mississippi; Columnist & Contributor, New York Times, the Oxford American and Garden & Gun
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWe're joining you today from Charlotte, one of the fastest growing cities in the United States. For the past several decades new residents have flooded the city to work for its booming financial sector and waves of new immigrants have come with them. Many of these new residents are channeling the culture and the cuisine people typically associated with North Carolina and the South. They are indeed challenging that culture, which typically invoke images of barbecue, biscuits, sweet tea and the like.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut in Charlotte and the so-called New South regional identity is rapidly changing, as are the recipes that go with it. Joining us in studio to discuss this is Kathleen Purvis, food editor at the Charlotte Observer newspaper. She's also the author of "Pecans: A Savor of the South Cookbook." Kathleen Purvis, thank you for joining us.
MS. KATHLEEN PURVISThank you for inviting me.
NNAMDIAlso with us in the studios of GROUNDCREW in Charlotte is Tom Hanchett, staff historian at the Levine Museum of the New South here in Charlotte. Tom Hanchett, thank you for joining us.
MR. TOM HANCHETTGreat to be here. Thank you.
NNAMDIAnd joining us from studios at the University of Mississippi is John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, an institute of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. He's also a columnist and contributor for the New York Times, the Oxford American and Garden and Gun. John T., thank you for joining us.
MR. JOHN T. EDGEMy pleasure.
NNAMDITom, I'll start with you. Convention goers this week may have been surprised to find themselves in a city where they're almost as likely to find a banker who grew up in New York chowing down on Asian Fusion as they are to find a totally local Carolina man feasting on pulled pork and okra. But the museum you work for is dedicated to studying the so called New South that's evolved since the Civil War and the Gone-With-the-Wind era and the stereotypes associated with that.
NNAMDIBefore we get into food, how would you define the New South?
HANCHETTDifferent people define it different ways when they come to Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte. The scholarly way is right after the Civil War southerners started talking about the need for a New South because slavery was gone, the economy was in shambles, the South had to reinvent itself. And it's basically never stopped reinventing. We've gone from fields to factories to finance and we're still trying to figure out who we want to be when we grow up.
NNAMDIKathleen Purvis, I'll start this time with you. How important is our food to defining our regional identity, the identity we carry for the rest of our lives? And where do we see that dynamic in a place like Charlotte?
PURVISI think that is hugely important. It's almost like the language that you speak. When you're with your family or with your friends you may speak a different language than you would around other people. Our food is how we express who we are. And I notice in my job as a newspaper food editor, especially now that we have blogs and all of these other things, people get tremendously emotionally wrapped up in their food. and I have learned to be kind of careful but also, you know, I learned to expect it and welcome it if I write about anything.
PURVISPimento cheese is one of those things that, you know, people identify who they are as a southerner by their pimento cheese. And by golly will they get furious if you describe this being any other way. I've had my parentage questioned. I've been called names over pimento cheese, which does sometimes, at the end of the day, feel kind of absurd. But I'm always telling my editors, this is just proof of how much people care about what I do.
NNAMDIIt's one of the reasons why we started this Food Wednesday segment because we realize just how involved and emotional people are with their food. John T., is there a level of centrality to the place of food in defining culture?
EDGEI think that we're beginning to realize that like music, like literature, like art and like religion food is a totem of people and place in the South. And for the longest time we defined the South as a very rural place and our food traditions rose from that reality. And now in cities like Charlotte we see the urban south and we see the foodways of the urban south. And to Tom's point we kind of puzzle over that and we try to figure out Charlotte's place within the grand and long and tortured and troubled and arguably ultimately triumphant story of the South.
NNAMDIAre there ways that we talk about food or foods that are part of our daily lives that are dead giveaways for where we're from and where we grew up, John T.?
EDGEI think there are. You know, if -- to Kathleen's point, if you're willing to argue about the style of barbecue sauce that's used or not used then chances are good you're from the South.
NNAMDISame question to you, Tom Hanchett.
HANCHETTFood is very much who we are and finding a common language in this New South has been a real challenge. One of the things the Museum of the New South wants to do is use history and culture to build community because we're such a region of newcomers here. And so we do a New South Barbecue bus tour each fall. We go to the Vietnamese barbecue place, we go to the Mexican barbacoa place, we go to the Salvadoran place with the papooses and getting people to speak a little bit of each other's language.
NNAMDITom Hanchett certainly knows how to build community with this broadcast. You bring food. What did you bring?
PURVISJohn T., we're going to torture you.
HANCHETTWe have -- yeah, yes indeed. Well, Kathleen said we should stop at Price's fried chicken and so what did we get, Kathleen?
PURVISUh, we got the thighs and we got the legs. We got two -- we got a whole chicken white and a whole chicken dark. And of course, we have the required tater tots, I believe, and the pickle on top of the coleslaw.
NNAMDIAnd a variety of beverages, which we'll both describe and consume later. But if you'd like to join the conversation, you can call us at 800-433-8850. What role do you think food plays in establishing a place's regional identity? Have you ever lived in a place where that regional identity or culture has evolved rapidly along with that place's economy? 800-433-8850. You can send us a Tweet at kojoshow, email to firstname.lastname@example.org or you can simply go to our website kojoshow.org and join the conversation there.
NNAMDIKathleen, North Carolina is certainly barbecue country . People from this state would like to say it's the barbecue capital of the world. But when it was announced that Charlotte was going to be the host city of the Democratic Convention and Michelle Obama praised the city for having great barbecue, even your newspaper's editorial board conceded that to get the best stuff you have to go elsewhere in the state. Where do you feel Charlotte exists in the barbecue spectrum of Carolina?
PURVISOkay. First of all, do I get a guard later today for expressing any opinion on barbecue, 'cause it gets dangerous around here?
NNAMDIWe're calling security even as you speak.
PURVISOkay. Here's the thing about that. North -- Charlotte is a city. As such it is not really a barbecue place. Originally in North Carolina barbecue was a small town thing. It was a world thing. It was something that was done in the country. Michelle Obama actually had probably been to one of the great barbecue restaurants around. It's not a traditional barbecue place but it's outside of Asheville. It's called 12 Bones and she and her husband had gone to the Grove Park Inn and they -- it's fabulous barbecue but it's a great example of the sort of nouveau barbecue that's out there now.
PURVISYou know, in North Carolina you kind of have this split these days. You got the old places that were started in the '40s and the '50s and they all follow a kind of pattern. You know them when you walk in the door. They're the places like Wilbur's in Goldsboro or SkyLight Inn in Ayden. Those are old traditional Carolina barbecue places. If you come to a place like Charlotte or Asheville what you're going to find is much more nouveau, newer metro barbecue.
PURVISAnd these are people -- younger restaurateurs who really appreciate making smoked pig and doing it slowly and taking care, but they're not the very old places. They're much newer and they're sort of designed to please people who are coming from other places. So they'll have Memphis style ribs and they'll have Texas brisket and they'll have pulled pork. And they're not really traditional Carolina places. They're still wonderful and we've got lots of those in Charlotte.
NNAMDIWell, that said, John T., there's a blog post at Southern Foodways that suggests Charlotte may have been the home to the state's first barbecue restaurant.
EDGEWe've been, over the summer, celebrating a summer of barbecue, of historical research that we've unearthed. And worked with a number of colleagues, including a gentleman named Robert Moss who wrote a wonderful book called "Barbecue: The History of an American Institution." And over the course of his research he discovered the story of Levi Nunn who in 1899 his wife took out an ad in the newspaper of that day advertising his barbecued stand wherein he sold barbecue in Charlotte.
EDGEAnd that predates the narrative that we now know that places, kind of the beginnings of Texas -- of North Carolina barbecue in Lexington just up the road. One of the places that North Carolinians and those of us who travel to eat hold up as one of the citadels of barbecue. Moss established that at one point Charlotte was a barbecue town as we might define it traditionally. But Charlotte grew up. Charlotte got bigger and I think what Kathleen's describing now, these barbecue revivalists of a new generation...
PURVISGood way to put it.
EDGE...I see that across the country. I see that in Atlanta. I see it in New York, a whole generation of people who are revivalists of what was.
NNAMDIAnd the newspaper in which Mrs. Katy Nunn took out that ad that you described as the newspaper at that time, why? The Charlotte Observer, of course.
NNAMDITom, Charlotte's modern economy is defined by its banking sector. This is the financial center of the South. The Bank of American building towers over everything else in this city. But you've written that back when this area's economy revolved around mill life, the food culture revolved around fish camps. What were fish camps?
HANCHETTFish camps. Yeah, I moved here from elsewhere and people kept saying, you got to go to the fish camps. And I wanted to go see the little fish with their backpacks and...
HANCHETT...and all of the rest. And fish camps were started when millworkers along the Catawba River would have a break during the day and somebody would pull some catfish out of the river and salt and pepper them and turn them into a wonderful thing that they could share with the other mill folk. And that became the national food of Gaston County which was right next to Charlotte and has more looms and spindles than any other county in the world. And the first catfish fish camp there...
HANCHETT...the Lineberger's, there you go. And there are now a dozen or so.
PURVISAnd there is still one -- yeah, well, there's still one really good fish camp left. It's in Belmont, N.C. It's called Twin Tops.
NNAMDIWhat kind of fish do you find at the fish camps?
PURVISGenerally catfish, and it is usually -- it's salt and pepper catfish is that they call it, and it's kind of split down the middle, so it's wide in how it's fried, and you kind of -- it peels off the bone. And the other thing about fish camps that I truly love, because I grew up around them as a child, we had them in Georgia as well, you know, in the '50's and '60s, and it was where you went to dinner on Friday night. You know, dad got off work and maybe got his paycheck late in the week and so you went to the fish camp.
PURVISAnd the great thing about fish camps is they have the world greatest collection of candy. If you want to find old candy, go to a fish camp, because they'll have like a whole wall full, and I think it's to bribe the kids to eat their fish, you get to pick some penny candy on your way out. So like if you want really nostalgic candy, go find a place like --there's another one up near Lake Norman, Captain --oh, what is it? It's in Denver. Is it Captain Rick's?
EDGEI can't remember.
PURVISThey've got great -- but Twin Tops has it, too. Every one of the fish camps has good candy.
HANCHETTIf it's a real fish camp, you don't want to go for lunch because the fish camps are opening in the evening...
PURVISOh, yeah. Always at night.
HANCHETT...toward the end of the week because folks didn't get off the mill in the middle of the day, and so the -- the first time I went over, I went over Friday lunch. I figured it'd be hopping and everything was closed.
PURVISUnh-unh. Oh, no, they're all closed. Yeah.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll be continuing this conversation on food and the new south. If you have called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your call. The number is 800-433-8850. What kinds of food and drink preference do you think are dead giveaways for where someone's grown up here in the U.S.? 800-433-8850, or send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're coming to you from Charlotte, North Carolina, where the Democratic National Convention is taking place, and we're talking with Tom Hanchett. He is the staff historian at the Levine Museum of the New South here in Charlotte, and Kathleen Purvis is the food editor at the Charlotte Observer newspaper. She's also the author of "Pecans: A Savor of the South Cookbook." John T. Edge joins us from studios at the University of Mississippi. He is the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, an institute of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. He's also a columnist and contributor for the New York Times, the Oxford American, and Garden & Gun.
NNAMDIJohn T., Charlotte's modern economy is built on banking. You noted in a piece you wrote for Garden & Gun that a few decades ago, Charlotte's chamber of commerce tried to make this the slogan for the city. Charlotte, it's a great place to make money. Do money and food mix, John T.?
EDGEI think they do, and that's one of the ways that people who disparage the food scene in Charlotte dismiss it, and they say that bankers have naugahyde palates in the words of Mr. Calvin Trillin. And, you know, the way I think about food is I think about food being the privilege of the wealthy, the money, the industrialists, and indulgence for them. And you think about money driving the food scene in Atlanta, or driving the food scene in Houston, and I wonder in this piece why it is that bankers are set up to be the culprits when people criticize the Charlotte food scene, and I don't come to a conclusion.
PURVISJohn T., I will throw in one that we have noticed. During the late '90s, and from about 1995 to about 2005, when the banks were really booming, we started to really notice a very fast growth in high-end chains. Chain restaurants. And the reason for that, of course, is, this is a business town and this is a place where you come to do business, and when you back to wherever the home office is, you want to be able to tell them, oh, well, they took me to this place or that place, a place that they would recognize and be impressed, and so that's, you know, I'll get in trouble for naming names, but that may be one reason why we are so heavy in things like Ruth's Chris, McCormick Schmick.
PURVISI mean, so, you know, fine chains in their own rights, but if you go back to the home office from a town that nobody else has been to, and you say, oh, well, they took me to one of those places, they're going to be impressed to know that someone here wanted your business. So we think that's kind of one reason for that.
NNAMDITom, how important do you think it is for politicians to be literate with these culinary traditions? Some people poked fun at Mitt Romney when he was in Alabama and Mississippi earlier this year and he professed his love for cheesy grits.
PURVISHad cheesy grits. I wondered if he meant cheap grits, you know?
NNAMDIIt's -- go ahead.
HANCHETTKeeping up with all of these different foods must be awful if you're trying to be a national politician. It's like having to...
NNAMDII wonder about that.
HANCHETT...kiss every baby in the United States. Interesting thing is that the food scene is changing so fast that I don't think anybody can keep up with it. Here with all of the newcomers who are coming from around the U.S. and around the world, Charlotte had about half a million people in the surrounding county in 1990, and it's about to hit a million. All those people are bringing food traditions and, you know, how do you keep up with all of that stuff? So I have great sympathy, and I will go out personally and try as many as I can.
NNAMDIWell, when you order tea at a restaurant in this part of the country, you're going to get sweet tea, not iced tea with sugar packets for you to sweeten it on your own. Dolly Parton's character in "Steel Magnolias" called sweet tea the house wine of the south.
NNAMDIBut to so-called sweet tea line that used to divide the northern and southern parts of this country is disappearing. McDonald's sells sweet tea nationwide. Honest Tea, which is popular with the Whole Foods set, makes a version of a sweet tea now. What do you make of how some of these lines of regional identities seem to be blurring, starting with you, Kathleen.
PURVISI would say people can be taught.
PURVISI actually have in my hands sweet tea from Price's Chicken Coop right now.
NNAMDISee there? What do you say, John T.?
EDGEI think that I'll take my son as an example. I've got a boy age 11 here in Mississippi, and I grew up with sweet tea and Mountain Dew. Those were the two hyper sweet things that I craved as a boy. And my son, exposed in small town Mississippi to this emergent south, this new south, my son would prefer horchata, the cinnamon-flavored, rice water drink popular and tacquerias here in Mississippi and there in North Carolina. That too is shifting -- is changing.
HANCHETTAnd I think one of the reasons that it's shifting is that the south has become this economic engine. We are a couple of blocks from the home of the original Bojangles chicken restaurant which specializes in sweet tea, and Bojangles pioneered -- the folks that started Bojangles came out of the Hardees chain where they had pioneered the notion of breakfast biscuits. It used to be fast food restaurants were closed in the morning, and about 25 years ago, they figured out that you could open the restaurant in the morning and sell another meal, and now you can get breakfast biscuits all over the United States. And so this is to a certain extent, the southernization of America.
NNAMDIBefore I go to the phones, it's important to know that the flood of new residents to Charlotte this past generation was more than just bankers. Waves of immigrant communities have come as well. How are they changing the food culture here, Kathleen?
PURVISOh, man. It's making it so much more fun to write about food. You know, I've been writing about food now for a little over 20 years, and for the first ten years of it, I had to be very careful when I would and write about something say from California, or, you know, if I used a cookbook from another state, because there would be things that you could not buy here. You could not buy lemongrass. You could not find kaffir lime leaves. You couldn't find all of these things.
PURVISNow we have these really wonderful supermarkets that are just terrific. We have a great chain called Compare Foods that I believe is national, that's a Latino supermarket chain.
PURVISWe've got another one called Grand Asia that's one of the nicest Asian supermarkets I've ever been in. I mean, it's just, you know, non-Asian customers are flocking to the place. You know, there's nothing you can't find here now.
HANCHETTAnd it's all mixed up. It's not like there's a Chinatown someplace...
HANCHETT...or there's a barrio some place. I live on Central Avenue in East Charlotte, and I can park one place near my place -- I could do this several places in Charlotte, but I can park one place where I can get Salvadorian food, there's a Vietnamese grocery, there's an Ethiopian bar, there's a Somali restaurant and grocery, there's a Lebanese Moroccan place, and then Mexican seafood.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones. Here is David in Arlington, Va. David, thank you for waiting. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DAVIDThank you, Kojo. First of all, to John, I wanted to tell you I'm a huge fan of the work that Southern Foodways Alliance does. Actually I used to work at a restaurant in Chilhowie, Va., called Town House, and we had a repeat diner named -- going by the moniker Rathead, and...
NNAMDII just heard John T. gasp when you said that.
PURVISNo. You heard me gasp. I wanted to go to the Town House so badly, and I never got to go there. I'm so envious of you.
DAVIDI'm sorry. But I did want to ask how fine dining has kind of played a role in sort of the emergence of the new southern cuisine. Obviously, I mean, John Shields of Town House did a lot of work for Virginian cuisine. Sean Brock, I think is probably the biggest name in the field with what he's done at McCrady's and Husk, and really bringing, you know, heritage southern breeds of crops back to the forefront of dining. And then there's obviously Donald (word?) , John (word?) , the list goes on and on. And I'm wondering what kind of molding that has done for the -- for southern food as a whole, and certainly for fine dining in that area.
PURVISI would think -- I would agree with everything you just said. I think you just answered most of your own questions. You were talking about chefs like Sean who is, you know, he has this huge cookbook collection, and he actually does take the time to go and look into the origins of something and figure out how to do it. And then Tom was just reminding me, of course, we have a culinary institution here called Johnson and Wales and they do wonderful job of making sure that the sort of, you know, young and budding chefs get exposed to so many different things.
NNAMDIJohn T., you want to add anything to that?
EDGEYeah. I think that for the longest time, southerners had an insecurity complex about our food, just as we had an insecurity complex about many of our cultural outputs. And, you know, some of that is tied to our really troubled past, and some of it was we allowed others to frame our food and cultural products for us, and I think we've seen this ongoing renaissance in southern food wherein chefs have helped us see the value of foods like greens and cornbread and black-eyed peas and chow chow, and that begins arguably in North Carolina with Crooks Corner, the Chapel Hill restaurant founded by Bill Smith, one of the first people to do strong…
PURVISYeah. That's the real deal.
EDGE…library-based research on southern food culture. And it continues with Highlands Bar and Grill which was also founded in 1982 in Birmingham, Alabama. I think chef's have put traditional southern food on a white tablecloth and taught us, you know, to in essence knock that chip off our shoulder and appreciate the food of our forbearers.
NNAMDIAnd David, thank you very much for your call. We got this email from Allie in Nashville. Oh, I know is Allie is. Allie is our former intern. Allie says, "My aunt loves to tell the story of bringing her husband from Florida to East Tennessee and asking him to stop so she could buy some cheerwine. He assumed it was a kind of wine. So when he saw the cans, he made a comment about being in the backwoods, because only in Tennessee or the Appalachians can people buy wine out of a can."
NNAMDIWell, Kathleen, we would be remiss if we had a conversation about the food and drink that defined life in the Carolinas and we didn't ask about cheerwine. Exactly what is cheerwine, and...
PURVISCheerwine in a soda.
NNAMDI...because I'm about to take a sip of it.
PURVISAnd it's red as you can see. No. It is not a wine. In fact, early on, their original packaging -- the cardboard six-pack that the bottles came in had vines and sort of a straw look to it. It was supposed to look a little bit like, you know, sort of chianti holders. But then things got a little bit more politically correct, and they made a real point of playing down that wine part of that name. They like to think of the cheer not so much the wine. It's a little bit cherry-like. It's like a cherry soda. It has a little cherry flavor.
HANCHETTIt comes out of Salisbury which is just down the road from us.
HANCHETTAnd it's part of this textile mill belt and as the mills grew up here, it's a long, hot, humid day inside that textile mill, and so this area became known for caffeinated soda pops, and Mountain Dew got its start in this area, Sun Drop, Pepsi Cola has its first regional franchise here, and cheerwine is a caffeinated cherry beverage.
NNAMDIWell, you brought several other beverages. Please describe what I'm holding up here.
HANCHETT(word?) ginger ale. It actually goes back even further to the beginnings of soft drinks when the ginger flavor was a natural flavor because they didn't have anything else. And does that get your attention?
NNAMDIYes. Got a strong ginger flavor.
PURVISWell, it's also the hot ginger ale. It's old number five. It's got -- you can spot it because of the red cap on it.
HANCHETTUp next we have basil seed with passion fruit. This is one of the Asian soda pops that you can get in my neighborhood, and it's really indicative of the fact that we have immigrants from all over. Folks who are from India, from Korea, from Southeast Asia, are very numerous in the Charlotte area, and this is remarkable because 20 years ago there were hardly any immigrants here.
NNAMDII taste the passion fruit. I'm trying to taste the basil. And this?
HANCHETTSenorial Sangria. And non-alcoholic.
HANCHETTMade in Mexico, and you can find it in all of the tiendas, all the of the little Mexican grocery stores and Latino restaurants all up and down ….
NNAMDIAll beverages which we will be continuing to sample even after this broadcast ends. Here is Susan in Alexandria, Va. Susan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SUSANHi, Kojo. You cannot leave the subject of barbecue without mentioning Arthur Bryant's in Kansas City, which was described by Calvin Trillin as the best restaurant in the world. It is -- there's one location, it's not a franchise. It was run -- old Mr. Bryant ran it until he was way up in his 90s when he died. Then he left the secret recipe to his niece, and she made -- they made all the sauce themselves. None of it -- nobody knew what was in it, although many people tried to buy it, offered them great amounts of money for the recipe, and you just go there ...
NNAMDIWell, Susan, you should know that there are many people in North Carolina who say that North Carolina has the best barbecue in the world, and we'll be prepared to challenge you to a duel to prove it.
PURVISSusan, can I say that I am not one of those people. I have been to Arthur Bryant's, I have been to Gates, I have been to barbecue restaurants all over the country, and I am non-partisan on barbecue.
NNAMDISusan, thank you very much for your call.
PURVISI love Arthur Bryants.
NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have. Kathleen Purvis is the food editor at the Charlotte Observer newspaper. She's also the author of "Pecans: A Savor of the South Cookbook." Kathleen, thank you for joining us. Tom Hanchett is the staff historian at the Levine Museum of the New South here in Charlotte. Tom thank you for joining us also.
NNAMDIAnd a special thanks to you and Kathleen for bringing us all of the goodies. John T. Edge is the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance. John T. Edge, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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