Letter from the Editor: Quirky Cooking and Cliché-defying Chefs Define the Carolinas Vol: 103

November 2013

They don’t cook Southern food in the Carolinas. They cook their food. Ever heard of Tom Thumb? This Christmas season treat is a celebration sausage. Just stuff a hog appendix with spicy ground pork and fat at Thanksgiving and hang it in the smokehouse. Then poach, slice, and pan-fry. Don’t forget to save the cooking liquid for the peas and collard greens. It’s a tradition that could have been lost had North Carolina Chef Vivian Howard not come home to cook down east in Kinston. You can read about her journey. Recognizing the huge responsibility of a Southern chef, she revived the heirloom sausage by talking to an old country butcher and by probing her father’s memories.

Out west, in the Appalachian highlands, they scramble eggs with hog brains and sometimes smother them in red-eye gravy, which Justin Burdett has transformed into a fine-dining worthy dish of red-eye gravy consommé and hog brain ravioli. “Farm-to-table is such a cliché,” he says, “but I feel like the South has been doing it forever—out of necessity, not because it was a cool thing to do.”

This deep seated respect for the culinary heritage of the Carolinas has seeped into every part of the industry. Down in Charleston, South Carolina, Mixologist Brooks Reitz of The Ordinary is serving a nearly forgotten rum cocktail called the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club that celebrates the relationship and shared nautical culture of Charleston and Bermuda.

Inland, in Durham, North Carolina, Charcutier Justin Meddis of Rose’s Meat Market and Sweet Shop is re-popularizing sausage and other prepared meats that have fallen out of fashion. North Carolina Potato Sausage and Carolina Red Hots are becoming staples once again. Pastry Chef Katie Meddis, who puts the sweet in Roses Sweet Shop, is bringing the entrenched Carolina farm-centric cooking into the bakery, a combination that’s new for the area.

Escazú Artisan Chocolates in Raleigh is using a recipe for one of their bean-to-bar chocolates that predates the Carolinas. Escazu’s 1631 Chocolate Bar is an awakening, and it’s part of the new American Chocolate movement that is gaining momentum in the Carolinas and the rest of the country. Escazú uses modern flavor combinations, too, such as hibiscus-green peppercorn, and the unexpected and superlatively North Carolina flavor: tobacco-ribbon cane syrup.

Chocolate makers are collaborating with the forerunners of the other boom in the Carolinas: beer. Videri Chocolate has worked with Deep River Brewing over in Clayton. It exemplifies the spirit of collaboration that defines the Carolina craft brewers.

The Carolinas are also an emerging place for wine. Especially if you work with Chef Travis Grimes of Husk in Charleston. The whole hog is often the mascot for Carolina cuisine, and Grimes’s pig-glorifying charcuterie program has been the perfect back drop for Sommelier Matt Tunstall to showcase his pairing skills and idiosyncratic knowledge of varietals.

The unhinged creativity of Carolina cooking brought us dishes like Two Textures Trout “Marrow” from Nathan Allen of Knife & Fork in Spruce Pine; and potato skin brodo from Brian Canipelli of Cucina24 in Asheville. We also saw tried and true techniques brought back and reinvigorated. Also in Asheville, Jacob Sessoms of Table is poaching delicate and decadent halibut in a vat of spiced whole butter not a sous vide bag. Aaron Siegel of Fiery Ron’s Home Team BBQ in Charleston, is reaching further south, adding technique and his populist touch to the humble chicken wing. He smokes the wings and douses them in Alabama white sauce—creating more than a hankering for Home Team wings, but a hysteria .

Beer, chocolate, wings ... even Tom Thumb, they’re all proof of the pride and excitement taking hold in kitchens throughout the Carolinas. New regional Carolina cuisine is being forged every day, by this year’s Rising Stars and chefs across the region, making these stately sisters of the North and South, one of the most creative, forward-thinking, culinary scenes in the country.

Antoinette Bruno