The Wild Plums at Core Creek– or, In Praise of Slow Cooking


Sunny Side Oyster Bar, Williamston, N.C. Photo by Roger Winstead. Courtesy, News & Observer

Sunny Side Oyster Bar, Williamston, N.C. Photo by Roger Winstead. Courtesy, News & Observer

I wrote this piece 22 years ago when my children were little. It seems a little dated today in some ways, but not in the most important ways, and I thought it might make a nice gift for today– reading it now certainly reminds me of how much I have to be thankful for. Happy Thanksgiving! 

When I finished school at Harvard and set out to write history, I never considered writing about any place other than where I grew up: the eastern part of North Carolina. I discovered that the rural and small town landscape of my childhood was more than enough window for me into the larger realm of American history.

Here I found the world in a grain of sand and more than enough history for a lifetime of writing and storytelling. Without leaving home, I have been writing about topics as far ranging as slavery and the American Revolution, maritime life during the Civil War, women’s work on the World War II home front and the black freedom struggle of the 1960s.

This essay first appeared in Carolina Comments, the N.C. Division of Archives and History’s newsletter, in September 1997. It was later republished in the Raleigh News & Observer. 

A later version of this essay was the Lehman Brady lecture at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University in 2003.

I admit that so single-minded a focus on one’s home is rather unusual among professional historians, and some of my historical writing has been justly faulted for being too parochial. Several colleagues, in fact, and at least one close relative consider me an eccentric.

On the other hand, I believe that my homegrown perspectives have given me certain insights into American history that might prove more elusive to a scholar possessed by less narrow-minded demons.

By writing about my home, I have also enjoyed a few satisfactions not so readily available to other historians. Among these pleasures is spending many days traveling the back roads of a native land that I care for a great deal.

My research requires me to visit local archives, public libraries, small museums, private manuscript collections and county courthouses throughout North Carolina. I have also interviewed hundreds of elderly people here about their memories of the past.

Often accompanied by my 5-year-old daughter, Vera, and my two-year-old son, Guy, I spend months every year in remote fishing villages, tobacco belt hamlets and piney woods crossroads.

And as Bud Midgette, my barber, chides me, I talk to everybody.

Homemade Biscuits and Cornbread

Vera and Guy and I share an ardent enthusiasm for country cooking, and we seek out its finest purveyors during our travels. We are on the road so often that we have developed a large and every growing list. Because of keen competition from national restaurant chains and fast food joints, there are not as many locally owned eateries as there used to be—and fewer yet that honor the old ways—but I still find a few splendid throwbacks to our culinary past.

Guy, Vera and I at Ed "Mitch" Mitchell's BBQ in Wilson, N.C. Photo by Candice C. Cusic. Courtesy, News & Observer

Guy, Vera and I at Ed “Mitch” Mitchell’s BBQ in Wilson, N.C. Photo by Candice C. Cusic. Courtesy, News & Observer

Several of the best come right to mind—the Seven Springs Restaurant near Goldsboro, the Trent in Pollocksville, Bum’s in Ayden, Ventner’s in Greenville, the Butcher Block in Newport, the Broad Creek Diner near Swansboro, the Whole Truth Lunchroom in Wilson.

They are places with homemade biscuits and cornbread, fresh seasoned collards and butterbeans, savory chicken and dumplings and spring shad stew. Fit for royalty, the fare is served humbly: a meat or fish dish, two or three vegetable side dishes, fresh biscuits, yeast rolls or hushpuppies, and sweet tea or coffee—all for less than six or seven dollars.

Vera, Guy and I recklessly try every place we pass and keep a mental list of the best. Rest assured that their proprietors will get to know the hungry stranger with the radiant daughter and the awfully sweet but a little bit mischievous son.

Backbone Stew and Corn Dumplings

Beyond my everyday favorites, there are also country style restaurants that I seek out mainly for a special dish or a rare delicacy. I will detour many a mile for a bowl of Core Sound-style clam chowder at the Seaside Restaurant on Harkers Island. I like the fresh May peas and asparagus served every spring at Johnnie’s on State Road 158 near Sunbury.

I cherish the scrambled eggs and shad roe at Pam’s Diner in Little Washington. I welcome a research trip to Williamston for the crispy, pan-fried cornbread at the R&C Restaurant downtown and the steamed oysters at the Sunnyside Oyster Bar on Highway 70-business.

For great barbecue roasted slowly over hickory coals and basted with our region’s classic hot pepper and vinegar sauce, I go to Wilber’s or Scott’s in Goldsboro, Moore’s south of New Bern, Mitchell’s in Wilson, B’s in Greenville or Simp’s between Roper and Creswell.

You can’t go wrong with the seasoned dry butterbeans at the Scuppernong Inn in Columbia, with the backbone stew and corn dumplings at Bonnie’s in Farmville or with the fried catfish at Holland’s Shelter Creek Restaurant in Holly Shelter.

My daughter Vera's grape hull pie. My great-grandmother's grape hull recipe lives on. Photo by David Cecelski

My daughter Vera’s grape hull pie. My great-grandmother’s grape hull recipe lives on. Photo by David Cecelski

And I would reroute an entire trip for a slice of grape hull pie—a remarkable dessert that balances the muscadine’s firm, tangy hulls with a delectable meringue- at the Chinquapin Diner in southern Duplin County. My great-grandmother, Lula Hardesty, was the last cook that could bake a grape hull pie that good.

I am likewise always thrilled when one of my research trips by the Roanoke River coincides with the spawning runs of shad, herring and rockfish. Once harvested by the ton in mile-and-a-half-long seines, these fish have nearly disappeared as a consequence of overfishing, pollution and river damming.

But the diminished schools still swim faithfully up the Roanoke to spawn for a few weeks before Easter. Only for that brief season does the Cypress Grill in Jamesville open its doors, serving the herring lightly battered in cornmeal and fried crisp, bones and all, moments after they are caught. And on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the cooks also serve an extraordinary rockfish stew: tender whole fish simmered with potatoes, onions and a bit of salt pork.

Eating our supper while watching the last of the Roanoke’s fishermen spreading their seines, I tell Guy and Vera about the raucous celebrations that once greeted the fish’s arrival from the Atlantic.

We talk too about the thousands of families through the ages for whom a barrel of salt herring staved off hunger through a hard winter.

Sweet Potato Biscuits

I travel so much that I have begun to memorize which restaurant serves which specialty on what day. I never forget that the humble BJ’s Restaurant in La Grange serves one of the state’s finest fish stews, but only for Friday dinner.

And I need no excuse to visit Ventner’s, a glorious sanctuary of slow cooking and evangelical dining in Greenville, but the fact that the cooks bake not only their daily batch of sweet potato biscuits but also cheese biscuits every Friday cannot escape my consideration.

Other specials can be discovered only by showing up hungry for dinner. At the Hobucken Marina, a fisherman’s grill at Goose Creek Island, there is a new and wonderful home cooked special every day—it’s the only offering of the day. But even the chef doesn’t know what her special will be until she measures both her inspiration and her ingredients.

I take particular pleasure in discovering a cook who excels in preparing winter’s special delicacies. Even some of my favorite warm weather restaurants disappoint me after the first frost. I suppose it is tempting, and probably practical, to fall back on canned vegetables and frozen foods from commercial wholesalers.

But the really fine cooks make a winter meal a feast. They draw first on locally made preserves and vegetables canned or frozen fresh from their own gardens. They adorn dinners with spicy pickled beets, piquant pepper relishes and luscious fig preserves. They counter the cold winds with fresh smoked sausage, hearty Brunswick stew and tender cured ham with red eye gravy. They warm cold souls with angel biscuits and yeast rolls.

Best of all, they refute winter’s reputation for bland side dishes by slow cooking great pots of mouthwatering collard greens, sweet potatoes, cabbages, turnips and rutabagas.

One of my neighbors' collard patches, Harlowe, N.C. Photo by David Cecelski

One of my neighbors’ collard patches, Harlowe, N.C. Photo by David Cecelski

A few blessed restaurants, such as Bum’s in Ayden, even go to the trouble to raise their own collard greens, our most revered winter delicacy, and to prepare them in the old fashioned way: simmered an hour and a half or two, seasoned with cured side meat or fatback, stewed with potatoes and served with pepper vinegar and corn dumplings.

It was greens fixed that way that inspired North Carolina boys, when they went overseas to fight in World War II, to leave a trail of collard patches from Anzio to Okinawa—just in case, I suppose, the army forgot to feed them.

Miss Beadie’s Pickled Green Tomatoes

Recently I thought about the creating of fine winter dishes out of necessity while I was canning pickled green tomatoes. This is one of my favorite delicacies, a pungent relish that I can compare only to fine Indian chutney. I learned how to prepare the dish from my 97-year-old neighbor, Beatrice Mason. The recipe is the elegant solution to a gardener’s plight—namely, what to do with the unripe tomatoes about to be caught on the vine by autumn’s first frost. The gardeners of Miss Beadie’s youth fixed this glorious dish to keep from wasting the green fruit and to clutch a memory of summer’s taste all winter.

Mrs. Beatrice Mason (Miss Beadie) making biscuits like she did everyday, Harlowe, N.C. Photo courtesy of her family.

Mrs. Beatrice Mason (Miss Beadie) making biscuits like she did everyday, Harlowe, N.C. Photo courtesy of her family.

After picking and slicing the tomatoes, they bathed 2 quarts of them for 3 or 4 hours in saltwater along with 2 cups of green pepper, 1 cup of onion, 4 medium sized hot peppers and a tablespoon of turmeric. Then they drained the tomatoes and covered them once more with cold water for another hour before draining again.

Tying ½ cup of black pepper, 2 tablespoons of mustard seed and 2 teaspoons each of whole cloves and allspice in cheesecloth, they set the mixture in the pot with the tomatoes and added 2 cinnamon sticks, 1 and ½ cups of brown sugar and a quart of apple vinegar. They simmered the green tomatoes until very hot, bringing them finally to a boil and then sealing them in sterilized jars. The pickles will easily keep a year and can be eaten plain or added as a relish to meats or greens.

Some of the green tomato pickles I made 2 weeks ago with Miss Beadie's recipe. Photo by David Cecelski

Some of the green tomato pickles I made 2 weeks ago with Miss Beadie’s recipe. Photo by David Cecelski

This recipe would never have been created today. Now that we can buy fruits and vegetables all winter at national grocery chains, there is little imagination invested in preserving summer’s produce. Today the store-bought tomato in winter will be imported from Mexico or Chile. Fertilized and ripened with chemicals, it has a texture like sawdust and a flavor like stale air—but it is a red tomato. Going to the trouble of raising and pickling green tomatoes can seem like a needless hardship in today’s hectic world, and I do not expect to see many new dishes as good as pickled green tomatoes.

Pierogi at the VFW

Some of my favorite restaurants are open only a night or two a week, but the reward for remembering them I great. Several are located in remote parts that I suppose cannot support a regular eatery. Many are operated by local women who one or two nights a week open to guests their church’s community center or even one of their own home’s dining rooms.

I am especially partial to the Little Pink Supper House near Beulaville, where local churches serve a lavish country supper every Friday and Saturday night. I also keep a special lookout for a dinner prepared every Tuesday at the Bogue United Methodist Church near Swansboro. How thankful I have been on those occasions when I was driving Highway 17 and thought I would have to settle for a Hardee’s or a Bojangle’s, then realized that it was Tuesday and I could sit down to chicken and dumplings with fresh local vegetables and scratch biscuits.

My awesome oyster shucking crew-- David, Zora, Tom, Bland and Michelle-- at a recent fundraiser that we held for the Stagville Historic Site. Photo by David Cecelski

My awesome oyster shucking crew– David, Zora, Tom, Bland and Michelle– at a recent fundraiser that we held for the Stagville Historic Site. Photo by David Cecelski

Other such meals can be found somewhat less often. When I am in Carteret County, for instance, I always try to remember when the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Newport holds its monthly fundraising supper. Newport, located between two military bases, has a population with far more diverse national origins than most parts of eastern North Carolina.

Last year Vera and Guy and I happened to be in town when the VFW’s Polish families prepared a wonderful dinner of pierogi, kielbasa and other traditional Polish dishes that harkened to that side of my own ancestry—and Vera and Guy were charmed by the polka band as much as the food.

I travel many places where absolutely none of the best local cuisine can be found in restaurants. I find this situation nearly universal along the seacoast. Since the popular tourist restaurants feed thousands of people a day, I would never expect them to use fresh produce or time consuming recipes. (I am thankful, though, for the fine hushpuppies that one can still find at the best of them.) They can no longer find local fish or oysters for many dishes.

But even when dining at smaller local establishments along the coastal bays and barrier islands, I never find the hearty fish or crab stews slow cooked with sweet potatoes, okra carrots, corn and other vegetables that are so fundamental a part of local cooking. To my knowledge, not one such stew can be found on a coastal restaurant’s menu.

Neither can one find in a restaurant such glorious local delicacies as oyster fritters, stewed hard crabs in gravy or clam bake (the savory Harkers Island rendering of bouillabaisse).

Such dishes require time, individual attention and very fresh seafood, all ingredients increasingly rare in this modern age. Instead of drawing from or building upon the local culinary genius, today’s coastal restaurants are more likely to serve steamed Alaskan king crabs, New England clam chowder or Pacific salmon in a white and cheese sauce.

It is a pitiful state of affairs.

Suppers at Soule United Methodist Church

I am not deterred when I cannot find a decent restaurant, for I often discover dishes far more extraordinary in local kitchens. Every fall I visit an old friend in little Washington who always seems to keep a delicious venison stew waiting for me. I visit Vera and Guy’s great-great aunt in Beaufort when I crave the finest collards and dumplings on earth. I have a friend near New Bern who every winter fills the children’s arms with jars of magnificently sour pickled watermelon rinds.

I try to pass Lake Mattamuskeet once a winter for a taste of stewed duck with wild race and gravy, a frequent dinner offering from a hunting guide we know down there.

And until last year, when a company acquired our fishing beach on the Northeast Cape Fear River to build a golf course, I used to join my brother for an annual weekend’s camping trip when the spring’s first shad made their way up that waterway. The freshly caught shad, baked in earthen hearths and stuffed with new greens, were good beyond belief.

Drying mullet roe at my house. Photo by David Cecelski

Drying mullet roe at my house. Photo by David Cecelski

I feel most fortunate when I am invited to church homecomings or other church suppers. I still remember with great fondness the hospitality of a Hyde County friend, a wonderfully gracious host with whom I often stayed during trips to conduct research for a book on the civil rights movement. My friend often invited us to the most magnificent suppers at Soule United Methodist Church.

Every cook in the congregation prepared their finest dish: heaping pots full of delicious collards, steaming plates of pole beans and mashed sweet potatoes, great piles of fried and baked chicken, cured hams direct from a local farmer’s smokehouse—and too many homemade pies, custards and puddings to count.

I not only enjoy such good food shared so graciously but, as always at such affairs, I also find great pleasure in exchanging a few recipes.

I suspect that even at the church suppers held after funerals, mourners are unconsciously aware of whose recipe for hoppin’ john or lemon pie they are eating. We taste the deviled eggs and remember that our long dead great-great aunt Jane fixed her deviled eggs just like that, perhaps with a striking splash of horseradish or mustard. Then we dimly recall how Jane passed her recipe to her niece, who gave it to her daughter, and now here the deviled eggs appear, a palpable gift to the grief stricken from great-great aunt Jane.

At such moments one cannot help but sense the proximity of the ancestors. That may be why we feel so powerfully comforted by these old fashioned foods whether or not we are at a funeral supper. Every dish evokes the past and connects us in a way to other difficult times that have somehow been endured.

Thus we find sitting at a table full of traditional dishes a mysterious source of peace and repose. And one never forgets the first evening home after a funeral, when one’s friends and family have finally departed and left you to face death in solitude, how consoling it is to be surrounded by all the home cooked dishes sent that evening by your neighbors.

One realizes that no matter how dark the night, you are at least not alone.

Soft Crabs and Dandoodle

I also keep in mind the roadside shops at which one can still buy fresh meats and other local products. They are a rare and dwindling few. National grocery chains and corporate agribusinesses have replaced nearly all of our small farms and neighborhood slaughterhouses. Even the high arts of preserving and cooking hogs have been endangered by corporate hog farms with their malodorous sewage ponds and factory-like ways.

Every rural neighborhood used to have a small slaughterhouse, and most farmers kept at least a sow or two. With the first cold snap arrived fresh sausage finely seasoned with red pepper and sage, followed by cured hams and smoked bacon. Inherited folk wisdom could even turn the hog’s less prestigious cuts into wonderfully tasty delicacies, including, up around the Great Dismal Swamp, an unimaginably rich dish of stomach stuffed with tender meats called dandoodle.

Felicia Crooms serving a plate of backbone, cabbage, boiled potatoes, hushpuppies and sweet tea at Ed Mitchell's BBQ restaurant in Wilson, N.C. Photo by Roger Winstead. Courtesy, News & Observer

Felicia Crooms serving a plate of backbone, cabbage, boiled potatoes, hushpuppies and sweet tea at Ed Mitchell’s BBQ restaurant in Wilson, N.C. Photo by Roger Winstead. Courtesy, News & Observer

Yet, I still stumble upon the proud, iconoclastic souls who insist on the old ways. I know a Gates County farmer who would not think of selling a ham until it had been carefully cured and aged in his smokehouse. I buy sausage at a little butcher shop between Cove City and Clarks where the proprietor grinds his own pork and tells me which local farmer raised the hog.

I know an elderly man in North River, a gentleman I interviewed many years ago, who has kept his little slaughterhouse open even though for years he has done no better than break even. These days he butchers more deer for hunters than hogs.

And by the brackish marshes of the Newport River we know a fisherman who has a small soft shell crab business. His family lets Guy and Vera wander among the saltwater tanks in which they monitor the blue crabs shedding, a subtle art requiring a careful, practiced eye and round-the-clock watchfulness. The children, who have never been squeamish eaters, pick out the living soft shell crabs that they will eat with glee an hour later.

Wild Persimmons

Gathering the wild ingredients for country cooking is at least as enjoyable to us as eating it. I think Vera and Guy often enjoy the adventure more than the flavor. As we travel through North Carolina we bear in mind which wild foods are in season and which locale is best known for them.

We collect the tastiest pears, the most succulent figs, the saltiest oysters. Every January we visit an old hardwood stand tucked between the Trent River and Catfish Lake to gather black walnuts for Lenten shortbread.

Part of our fig harvest this summer, and a couple cakes too. Photo by David Cecelski

Part of our fig harvest this summer, and a couple cakes too. Photo by David Cecelski

Not every winter, but now and then, we paddle into a remote bog near the Alligator River to harvest wild cranberries.

At first frost we head to a copse of persimmon trees near Clubfoot Creek. Prepared in a pudding, the wild persimmons cannot be rivaled for a musty sweetness better than ripe tropical mango.

We search that same time of year for the old fashioned, thick-shelled pecans, for we find them far meatier and more flavorful than the more recent breeds hybridized for ease of cracking—and we know just where to go.

We have our favorite blackberry thicket, of course, and no grocery store fruit has ever tasted as sweet as the wild plums at Core Creek. They make ice cream, cobblers and puddings too good for words.

A Disappearing Age

I have long realized that my daughter, my son and I are traveling through remnants of a disappearing age, and I have begun to wonder if any part of this world of slow cooking will be left in a few years. Even some of our favorite home cooking restaurants have begun to make regretful concessions to modernity. Nowadays their cooks may serve store-bought collards, canned biscuits or instant gravy. They use national brands and imported produce.

More than ever, one sees at their backdoors a wholesaler’s truck instead of a local farmer’s pickup. Likewise, cooks more rarely have enough time to prepare for real home cooking. The slow cooking so favored for these old fashioned foods was developed for wood-burning stoves that blazed all afternoon to warm an entire house and for an age in which farm women worked around the kitchen enough during the day to return to the stewpot now and then between children and chores.

Of course I do not blame the young for adopting new ways. Times have changed. Many of the conditions that nurtured our traditional cooking are gone, and with good riddance. Slow cooking does not fit into a hurried world when preparing food must occur quickly after coming home from the factory or office. Cooks must rely on instant or frozen foods, quick casseroles and microwave cookery.

Our friend Perri Morgan's banana pudding. Undeniably the best in the world. In my fridge now, but not for long! Photo by David Cecelski

Our friend Perri Morgan’s banana pudding. Undeniably the best in the world. In my fridge now, but not for long! Photo by David Cecelski

Raising hogs or tending a large garden may have made sense on a farm—but today? Even farmers can often buy bacon and beans cheaper than they can raise them.

Then, too, a new diet consciousness has led us to look warily at salted, seasoned and high cholesterol dishes, a trend that bodes poorly for a cuisine wedded to pork seasoning.

Church suppers remain a smorgasbord of traditional fare, but even at them I increasingly see buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The Wrens Singing

I suppose it is hardly surprising that country style cooking has more and more become the domain of elderly men and women. Vera, Guy and I peek in avid curiosity into our most cherished restaurants’ kitchens and nearly always see a woman who is already a grandmother. And behind every great cured ham is an elderly man who has remained steadfast to his principles or at least stubborn in his habits.

But food is hardly all that we are losing. As you travel through North Carolina, try to recall, for instance, when you last passed a modern house that inspired a sense of reverence or beauty. It almost never happens. Instead, we admire the older homes built before the Second World War. This is no less true of many small shotgun houses and tenant houses than it is of antebellum manors. When air conditioning came in, our architects and builders stopped framing graceful houses with high ceilings and front porches.

Stirring the pecans into my fruitcake batter yesterday. My grandmother Vera's recipe. Photo by David Cecelski

Stirring the pecans into my fruitcake batter yesterday. My grandmother Vera’s recipe. Photo by David Cecelski

They forsook an elegant simplicity designed to circulate the prevailing breezes through our homes. They put aside the coolness of wooden planks and the gentle ventilation provided by wooden walls for boxy brick homes in which one cannot breathe and where from within one must strain to hear the wrens singing or smell the first narcissus.

They gave up too the dark resinous wood stains—some honed two centuries ago by our turpentine distillers and pitch makers—that gave a lamp lit home a lustrous beauty and a cool air of serenity.

When television became the centerpiece of living rooms, we abandoned our front porches and withdrew from our neighbors. We began to watch soap operas and football games instead of stitching the elegant lace embroidery or whittling the beautiful waterfowl decoys that our region was once famous for.

Losing such things may seem trivial when compared to all we have gained in the modern age. But consider that out of our eagerness to be modern, we have lost in this one instance—if you will pardon me for stretching the point—beauty, grace, comfort and community.

The Contemplation of Faith’s Mysteries

Consider too our sacred places. We have never been given to ornament or grand architectural displays in our sacred structures, but the builders of our early churches achieved in a way far better than any cathedral a sense of our intimacy with both the land and the spirit. This quality reached its height in the Methodist, Presbyterian, Free Will Baptist and Primitive Baptist churches built in the late Federal and early antebellum periods. Small wooden edifices erected long before electric lights, they have glass windows that reach from pew level to the tall ceilings so that sunlight fills their white interiors.

Within their walls you feel as if you have nearly remained outdoors, so bright and open are the churches, yet there remains an overwhelming sense of being on hallowed ground. What few shadows remain—cast by the pews, the altar, the corners near the sun—soften the contemplation of faith’s mysteries.

Stepping within these country churches bathes the soul like the startling coolness one sometimes encounters in a low place on a hot summer day. If you have not done so already, visit the Rehoboth Methodist Church near Roper, the Croatan Presbyterian Church between Havelock and New Bern or the Bear Grass Primitive Baptist Church in Martin County. You will see what I mean. Rarely do our modern churches capture any hint of the sacredness or beauty of everyday life.

Modern Ways

No wonder so many of the elderly people whom I interview and with whom I am sometimes fortunate enough to share meals feel so estranged in their own land. Everything has changed since they were young. This is a complaint commonplace among the elderly of every generation, but the men and women who grew up here 70 or 80 years ago have lived through changes more profound than in untold centuries before them.

Not only does the food seem too bland to sustain the spirit, but the churches appear strange and the old hymns are no longer sung. The speed of technological change and the pace of daily life are disorienting. The materialism that rose with the nation’s prosperity after the Second World War seems incomprehensible to those who grew up blessed to have an orange and a few nuts for Christmas.

And nothing seems stranger than the growing irreverence toward the elders in our society. Children have to move away from home to find jobs and cannot care for their parents. The elderly move into rest homes and retirement centers that no matter how well adorned still have the abandoned, condescending air that in their youths they associated with the county poorhouse.

As a society, we tolerate inhumane conditions in many of our nursing homes, choosing whenever possible to look the other way. More and more our elders pass away in isolation or nearly alone, in remote hospitals and nursing homes.

“I am not a modern woman, and I do not have modern ways,” Beatrice Mason, my 97-year-old neighbor from whom I got my recipe for pickled green tomatoes, often tells me—and she says it with pride.

But do not think that old people are the only ones to find fault with modern ways. What young person wants to live in countryside so pockmarked with factory hog farms’ manure lagoons that the stench can be smelled for miles? Now, instead of lingering among local produce stands, one must close the car windows tightly and drive quickly through much of North Carolina.

Shucker Floyd Spruill's pile of shells, Sunny Side Oyster Bar, Williamston, N.C. Photo by Roger Winstead. Courtesy, News & Observer.

Shucker Floyd Spruill’s pile of shells, Sunny Side Oyster Bar, Williamston, N.C. Photo by Roger Winstead. Courtesy, News & Observer.

Brightly lit billboards increasingly mar the serenity of our beautiful rural roads. New highways are trampling old cemeteries and ravaging some of our most historic neighborhoods. The growing popularity of unseemly strip malls and fast food districts makes our once lovely small towns appear to be only poor cousins of cities rather than last redoubts of community and simpler living.

On summer nights Guy and Vera and I pass through these small towns with their old fashioned squares and more and more often see their residents closed behind their doors watching television instead of sitting on the front porch visiting with neighbors. Nobody, young or old, can feel good about such matters.

As a historian, I am especially disturbed when the fervor for discarding old ways leads unnecessarily to erasing the visible remnants of the past. I have a newspaper clipping from the mid-1980s that describes how a regional planning agency in Greenville developed an industrial recruitment program that encouraged farmers to tear down their old tobacco barns and tenant houses.

Ricky Moore stirring his fish stew at our Stagville Historic Site fundraiser last spring. He's got Harlowe roots, too, so you know that stew was good. Photo by David Cecelski

Ricky Moore stirring his fish stew at our Stagville Historic Site fundraiser last spring. He’s got Harlowe roots, too, so you know that stew was good. Photo by David Cecelski


According to the agency’s economists, the dilapidated buildings gave visiting executives the damaging impression that eastern North Carolina was too backward and poor a locale in which to locate one of their branch plants. However one may feel about our region’s devotion to tobacco—Greenville itself was for many years the world’s largest tobacco market—bright leaf tobacco is at the heart of our history.

And no matter what industrial planners believe, many of those old tenant houses remain occupied to this day.

This sort of thing is not unusual. Think, for instance, of how Rocky Mount’s leaders recently cut down the beautiful old elms that shaded downtown because the trees interfered with a Hollywood movie company’s plans to film a scene there.

Or how one highway after another demolishes the last remnants of the old slave village of James City, surely one of the most historic sites in America. Or last year how our state legislators banned menhaden boats—once the mainstay of the state’s fisheries—from seining within sight of ocean beaches because the soaring numbers of tourists who visit our coastal beaches might consider them an eyesore.

Nowadays we try so hard to lure outside companies to invest or build a factory here that we have grown accustomed to conceding them anything. We seem intent on concealing all signs of our past no less surely than we relegate the elderly behind the walls of rest homes and retirement centers. I do not see how younger people can develop an appreciation for the elderly or their ways under such circumstances.

The Best of the Old Ways

I realize that I am grumbling. But I am not a sentimentalist pining for the return to some mythical golden age. No honest historian could be so misguided, and particularly not with a past so fraught with hardship and injustice as ours.

I am thankful to have our former extent of soul wrenching poverty behind us. I appreciate how humiliating a homemade country ham biscuit looked in 1940 next to a baloney sandwich made with store-bought white bread. I am grateful that we have made important strides, no matter how shaky, to overcome our vindictive and self-destructive legacy of white supremacy.

Another look at Ricky Moore's stew. Photo by David Cecelski

Another look at Ricky Moore’s stew. Photo by David Cecelski

Of course I believe that women should have every possible chance to develop their genius for endeavors beyond the kitchen. And I am partial, I must admit, to modern plumbing.

What distresses me is not that we have cast out so many of our demons (quite the opposite: we have not cast out enough) but that in embracing this modern age we have also forsaken so much of what was finest in our traditional culture.

You must think me a disgruntled old historian bent on living in the past. But I am not advocating for a renaissance of wood-burning stoves or an end to store-bought bread. Modern life is, for better or worse, here with us to stay. But I have written all this because I believe that there might still be, somewhere beyond our own kitchens and the roadside cafes my children and I frequent, a place where something of the best of the old ways could be saved and adapted to this new day.

We would not abide for a second the revival of ancient oppressions or intolerance. One can believe that the struggle against oppression and social injustice is at the core of what it means to be human, as I do, and still love a good mess of collards and a plate of sweet potato biscuits.

But if we kept that conviction steadfastly in mind, perhaps we could call back a few pieces of this waning world of slow cooking. We could give up our incessant drive to make North Carolina pleasing to tourists and industrial site locators. We could let go momentarily of our craving to have more highways and bigger malls. We could at least for a night abandon our modern conveniences and sit out on our front porches and see who we are without them.


5 thoughts on “The Wild Plums at Core Creek– or, In Praise of Slow Cooking

  1. Born in Hyde County and spent my teenage years between Pitt County and Virginia . This article brought back so many wonderful memories, especially many of the foods that I don’t get anymore. My mom prepared most of them as described. I could almost taste them. Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Check out Ricky Moore’s wooden spoon there. I bet its “origin story” and lineage/history is an essay in itself. For his skill level of culinary artistry, you know plastic ain’t gonna cut it! This essay is a treasure David in its heart felt truths and breadth.

    Liked by 1 person

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