North Carolina is an interesting place to live for more than just the spectacular scenery and friendly people. It is a mixing pot of traditions and people that is never boring.
That North Carolina is an attractive, diverse area was confirmed by “Which of the 11 American nations do you live in?,” a recent article in the Washington Post.
You will find North Carolina to be one of the few states to have three of the nations within its border. Greater Appalachia, the Deep South, and Tidelands are all well represented in North Carolina. Beyond that we have a healthy representation of people who have moved in from Yankeedom and the Midlands. More people are moving in here than are leaving.
Our area, the Crystal Coast, is more than just a popular vacation area. It is a home to many of us and a place where we enjoy the mix of traditions that are North Carolina. While there are some unique holiday traditions like Christmas Flotillas here on the coast, many like neighborhood caroling are familiar to everyone. We do have some interesting food traditions that have a long history.
The cultural tidbits we see the television show, A Chef’s Life add weight to my view that people just don’t come here for the pleasant weather. The Chef and the Farmer Restaurant tries to make use of locally grown food prepared with an eastern touch. North Carolinians have a long history of great food which I like to think comes from being close to the soil. Some of those old traditions come out in the television show and many of them are part of our family’s life.
Much like some of the characters in a Chef’s Life, I still have cousins in their late seventies who continue to grow and preserve food much like their parents did at the turn of the last century. Almost everyone that I know grows a few tomatoes. While none of our older relatives are still killing hogs in the fall like I remember from my youth, they still enjoy their country sausage and sugar cured country ham.
In a certain sense we are defined by the traditions that we treasure and often in a place like North Carolina those traditions go through a lot of cross pollination.
Our family grew up in the western part of the state with most of our family history centered around Yadkin, Surry, and Forsyth counties. Even in the days when that was area was a long way from the North Carolina coast, my father used to enjoy a barrel of oysters each Christmas. My wife’s father used to enjoy salt fish from the coast. As soon as I could drive I was making summer pilgrimages to the coast and returning with fresh shrimp and flounder.
Now that I live here on the Crystal Coast, I enjoy attending oyster roasts. An oyster roast is coastal tradition where you feast on all you can eat steamed oysters. The last steamed oysters that I enjoyed came from the Boiler Room, a sister restaurant to the Chef and the Farmer. While oysters are popular and shrimp are never far from our plates, there are many other Southern foods that form the basis of our family holiday meals in North Carolina.
One of the holiday traditions in our family is to have country ham for one of our breakfasts. It goes back to the days when a treasured ham was cut to celebrate the season. We also try to have some country sausage during the holiday week. This course is a throwback to the days of killing hogs in the late fall. Instead of killing hogs, we usually we settle on Neese’s Sausage as the closest thing that you can get to homemade sausage from a grocery store. It is appropriate that Neese’s is a North Carolina company and the distribution of Neese’s does not go much farther north than southwest Virginia. I have killed hogs but not since I left our Nova Scotia farm many years ago. However, I still make my own sausage regularly. I was never successful in curing my own bacon, but I certainly know how to cook it.
During the Christmas season my mother always made some sugar cake which I suspect had something to do with all the Moravians in the Winston-Salem area where we lived. My wife and I had our sugar cake early this year. We bought one from Dewey’s Bakery in Winston-Salem.
We try to do something a little different each year, but it usually revolves around pork and sometimes beef. They were the cold weather meats in the early days. Chicken was hot weather food.
Along with all the meat, our meals always have plenty of vegetables including either Irish potatoes or sweet potatoes. Each area has its favorite greens, but it turns out that collards are enjoyed in both the east and the west. There appears to be something of a cultural divide on green beans. Few folks in eastern North Carolina have even heard of white half runner beans, but many folks from the west will not eat anything but white half runner beans. Greensboro seems to about as far east as you can buy them.
There is no doubt that cornbread probably united the whole state and any corrupting sweet cornbread probably has a Yankee origin. Then there are grits. I grew up in western North Carolina and was unfamiliar with grits until I went away to high school in Tennessee. Grits are a staple in the east and I enjoy them with any dish but they are especially tasty in shrimp and grits.
I would be remiss to not discuss one of our comfort food winter favorites, Chicken and Dumplings or Chicken and Pastry as it is called in the east. There is a fair bit of disagreement on whether western Chicken and Dumplings has flat noodles or puffy biscuits, but I will live by the rules put down by my mother who called the chicken dish with flat noodles Chicken and Dumplings. Life is simple on the coast, the dish is without debate Chicken and Pastry.
I like to think that one of the most unifying treats is peanut brittle. It is a great challenge to make in the east but in the west with its colder temperatures and slabs of granite, candy making is a natural thing during the holiday season. Peanut brittle made in the mountains would not be the same without those fresh peanuts from eastern North Carolina.
I could talk about how the western chicken stew is roughly equivalent to an eastern chowder party, but it has been so long since I have been at either that I will let that topic pass until I can attend some to refresh my memories.
Our state is very ecumenical with its hush puppies and rolls. Hush puppies go with barbecue or fried fish and rolls go with everything else.
North Carolina is a wonderful spot for enjoying some great holiday traditions beyond food. We have even shipped a few crab pot Christmas trees to the west where Fraser firs seem to reign supreme.
As Christmas 2014 slides away, we will remember some wonderful meals and family time. Maybe we even added a new tradition, the flying of the drone. My son gave himself a drone and we got some amazing pictures of our beautiful area with it. The one included with the post is courtesy of my son’s drone.
The Crystal Coast is a wonderful place to spend the holidays. You can even back off your social media activities a little since you will be surrounded by friendly people and scenery that is hard to top. If you are lucky you might be eating some of our traditional holiday meals.
Several more of our family recipes including one for shrimp and grits are in our Emerald Isle Travel Guide available as a Kindle book for $3.99 or as a color picture filled paperback for around twenty dollars.
We also send out an almost monthly newsletter. Our most recent newsletter was sent out on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. It is available here on the web. You can read our October newsletter online at this link.
We are a week late sending out our next newsletter but we hope to get it out the week before the New Year.
Sign-Up for monthly Crystal Coast Life Email Newsletter