As is my habit – yea, my quest — I have a habit of planning trips around the food I want to eat when I get there … and on the way. This summer was no exception. We spent this vacation visiting family in North Carolina, in the foothills of the mountains. At least that’s who we went to eat with.
North Carolina has its own special menu, known especially for a proliferation of barbecue joints (eastern and western varieties) and fresh trout from the mountain streams. In the fish department, I did enjoy one interesting swimmer – Ginger, our server at “Larkin’s on the Lake” in Lake Lure described the special as a blackened whitefish, and I decided at the moment not to inquire further. Later after we’d eaten it, we did ask for more specifics, and it turned out to be a striped pangus – a what?? All I could get out of Ginger was that it was a freshwater fish, and it didn’t come out of Lake Lure. But it was the best striped pangus I’d ever had – and the watermelon salsa that it was topped with was decent, too.
When it comes to nutritional intake in North Carolina, though, I can be happy just enjoying the liquid refreshment. The Carolinas are also famous for their wine and ale. Now wait! Don’t worry, brothers and sisters – I have not veered from my Baptist-ness. Cheerwine and Blenheim’s Ginger Ale are the libations I speak of. Cheerwine is a red soda that can only be found in or around the Carolinas – to me, it tastes kind of like a cherry soda with a touch of cola, rather than a cola with a splash of cherry. The website defines it as essentially a wild cherry soda with a rich history. Blenheim’s is actually made in South Carolina, and again I’ve never seen it anywhere outside the Carolinas. This is a real ginger ale – you can actually taste the ginger. And it comes in 3 varieties: regular, diet, and hot. My brother had one in his fridge the last time I visited him, and I wasn’t sure if it was the regular or hot, so I took a decent-sized slug. It was the hot. Some people like this, but I like my ginger ale like I like my Mexican or Cajun food: a little kick is alright, but I prefer to feel my tongue between bites. So I went for the regular.
We also had the pleasure of visiting an old-fashioned soda fountain in Forest City, at Smith’s Drugs. Smith’s is a full-blown pharmacy with home health and everything, but they do a thriving lunch and breakfast business. My father-in-law and I took the kids originally for breakfast – they had the usual fare: omelets, muffins, biscuit-and-gravy, etc. But there was something I noticed on the menu that I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen at the Starkville Café: livermush. Paw-in-law is from upstate New York, and he mentioned he enjoyed liverwurst – but this was different, and neither of us had tried it. I ordered a side of livermush just to try (thankfully, we’re not talking more than a buck-fifty lost if we didn’t like it). I asked the waitress how it was cooked, pretending that I would have a clue what difference it would make. She said they deep-fried it, so already I am feeling better – I AM a son of the south – and she added, when we let on we hadn’t had it before, “Oh, it’s goo-ood”. But I was still curious and asked what other way it might be cooked. I wanted to try it, I confess, in a way that I might actually like it, which I knew deep down would be a way that made it as least liver-y and least mushy as possible. She said, “Well, they can cook it on the griddle, too – some people like it that way – but it’s still soft.” I said, oh no, let’s keep it crunchy— bring us the deep fried. And we ate it – well, most of it. Between the three of us who tried it (my daughter opted out), we got about three-fourths of it down. With a bite of biscuit and dipped in gravy, it was tolerable. I don’t need to try it again for my own sake, but if it is ever laid before me (in deep fried form, of course), I know that I can mostly enjoy it. One other little note about Smith’s: as we left, I noticed their homemade pimento cheese sandwich had made the front cover of a North Carolina magazine touting the top 100 things to eat in NC. So after we visited the antique car museum, we went back for a grilled pimento cheese sandwich and a couple of root beer floats. Good stuff. Good thing they were closed for dinner.
We didn’t make it to any county fairs this trip, which is unfortunate, because I am a fan of fair food. Not “fair” as in “not quite good” – but “fair” as in “battered and fried and probably on a stick”.
Let me issue this disclaimer, though – I am not endorsing fair food as a daily nutritional requirement. Once or twice a year is plenty. But I digress – remember, I didn’t find any fair food, anyway. What I did find was a gourmet cousin of the ultimate fair food: the deep-fried twinkie. A chocolate shop in Black Mountain, NC had just about everything you could imagine covered in chocolate, including a Twinkie. I had to have it. I invested. I saved it for later, because I had just had a cup of gelato and most of Lauren’s ice cream (too rich for her – I don’t know what that means). And I was disappointed. It wasn’t bad – it just wasn’t worth the investment. Good chocolate on the outside, blandness on the inside. The two flavors did not complement each other in this case. But I do need to let you know about another flavor combination that did work, since I mentioned the gelato – one of the available gelato flavors was chocolate with chili – Lauren, who at 9 years old can tell you about proper plating but will only happily eat about 4 things – asked for a sample. And she didn’t make a face! She also graciously let me try it. I must say it worked well together, but the small sample was so spicy, I don’t think I could have handled an entire scoop. As I say, I like to taste my food without having to chase every bite with a glass of milk. That’s especially true with frozen deliciousness.
I do need to make mention that we got a chance to eat at one of my all-time favorite mountain pizza places – My Father’s Pizza in Black Mountain. Melissa had a chicken Caesar salad that she said was one of the best she’d ever had – that’s high praise from someone who ALWAYS gets the Caesar. I had a Stromboli that I would have sworn was a calzone, had I been blind-folded, but it was a quality product nonetheless.
Okay, we went back to Smith’s Drug Store. I am a hungry pharmacist, after all. The day before we came home, the ladies in our traveling party wanted to explore town and I chauffeured – since we were exploring the downtown area around Smith’s, it didn’t take much convincing to go back. The highlight of this lunch was the homemade potato chips – thick but crunchy, seasoned just right with some kind of mixed salt – and ranch dressing for dipping. The second blessing to the lunch was actually afterwards and did not involve food – I was exploring the actual pharmacy area and reunited with one of the first pharmacists I worked with in North Carolina, who was now working at Smith’s. Big fun!
My goal on the way home was to try to find a Red Robin and try one of their burgers. Didn’t happen, but we did stumble upon a 5 Guys Burgers in Commerce, Georgia – and it was well worth the substitute. My eating buddy Spence had told me about this place – very limited menu – burgers, hot dogs, and hand cut fries. It was all a burger should be – actually, it was twice what I thought the burger would be – two patties! Just a bit further down the road, around the bend from the American Girl store (a surprise for Lauren) I reunited with another old friend: Orange Julius. Very nostalgic, and I’m sure about 3 times what I used to pay for one back in the early 80’s! The upside was that nobody else in the family was too crazy about it, and I got to drink nearly all of it.
Now we’re home, and I’m trying to get motivated to start walking again, for obvious reasons. I brought home a case of Cheerwine and half a six-pack of Blenheim to keep the love alive for a bit longer. But I left the liver mush for the Carolinians.
Jay Reed is a local foodie and pharmacist. The culinary tastes expressed here are his and do not necessarily reflect the appetites of the Starkville Daily News or individual members of its staff. He welcomes your comments at email@example.com .