Reading Matters

N.C. writers recall shelling beans, frying fish, crumbling cornbread in ‘The Carolina Table’

Oh, yum. Here’s a new book about food – with 30 N.C. writers on their memories of family reunions, shad fries, tilling the soil, shelling beans, crumbling cornbread in buttermilk, vying over the best pecan pie and more.

Or, in one case, food reminds the writer of an old boyfriend who grew so plump on her homemade pies... well, you must read the essay in “The Carolina Table: North Carolina Writers on Food,” edited and with an introduction by novelist Randall Kenan.

Kenan’s early memory of the death of his great-uncle in rural Duplin County is one with the memory of folks streaming up the walk with platters of homecooking. “In the end,” writes Kenan, “we are talking about expressions of love, not the sentimental, Hallmark-card version, but material, immediate, unambiguous demonstrations that you care, that you are there.”

Among other memories, Mebane poet Jaki Shelton Green shares one about a meal she prepared for a lover she was “kicking to the curb.” Lenard Moore, who grew up in Jacksonville, remembers a “silver pan piled with fish, smelling of the sea, on the long wooden table in the backyard.”

John McElwee talks about the Blue Monday shad fry tradition in East Arcadia. Nancie McDermott writes about “renting the grange,” in Orange County, for family reunions. Paul Cuadros makes me want to head straight for Durham for pollo a la brasa (grilled chicken), a dish served at Alpaca’s Peruvian Charcoal Chicken restaurant and one that recalls Cuadros’s Peruvian roots.

Heather Newton offers a lively piece on the old Plantation Inn in Raleigh, a fancy restaurant attached to a motel, where her parents took their children to learn “how to behave in public.” Jill McCorkle writes about a mixing bowl she fixated on as her grandmother made Annie Collins Pound Cake (recipe included.)

Chapel Hill poet Michael McFee writes about John Parris, former long-time food columnist for the Asheville Citizen-Times. McFee says Parris’s last book, “Mountain Cooking,” “ a feast, a God’s plenty of how his and my hungry unfancy tenacious ancestors cooked, and ate, and talked, and pleasured their palates.”

It was Chapel Hill novelist Marianne Gingher whose pies fattened her boyfriend. Years after they part, she treats herself to a chicken biscuit at Sunrise Biscuits in Chapel Hill. “There are tears in my eyes as I chew,” she says, “abandoning myself once again to the sensation of gusto. ...The chicken tastes as tender as a cloud.”

It’s a gusto of a book, too. One gripe: it’s heavily weighted toward the Triangle, with – so sad – not a single Charlotte offering.