Food and Drink

My Destiny

IMG_0089 If you read this blog and think I do nothing but cruise around the State looking for local places to eat, you'd be partially right, only I have lived here so long that I know where many of them are already.  Passing through Winston-Salem today on my way back from Asheville, I couldn't resist stopping at an old haunt of mine: George's Grecian Corner Restaurant, a place I have eaten at for 25 years.

In the early years I would see George himself in the kitchen giving orders to others of Greek descent (his sons?), but lately I have not seen him, and the folks in the kitchen don't appear to be Greek but of some more recent immigrant wave.  Yet the food has remained the same --- tasty souvlaki, gyros, and chopped salads with excellent blue cheese dressing. There's more, but that's what I always eat.

George's is a small place.  Today when I visited I had to wait for a table, but it was worth it.  While waiting I perused the framed memorabilia on the wall (which I have seen many times) of the restaurant when it served as a set for scenes in the 1990 movie "Mr. Destiny," which starred James Belushi, Linda Hamilton, and Michael Caine.  In a story somewhat reminiscent of "It's a Wonderful Life," Belushi, who is convinced that his life would be much different (and better) had he not missed a hit in a high school baseball game, meets a stranger who offers to let him live that life.  Only he discovers that it's not what he idealized.  When I first saw the movie, I didn't know George's had been used as a set, but I recognized it immediately, even shorn of its sign and decorated differently.

As I ate my lunch today, I remembered another storied restaurant in Winston-Salem that used to be just blocks away from George's, the Rose and Thistle.  It was a very laid back, bohemian sort of pizza parlor, with plenty of old magazines to read and plenty of interesting people to watch, and it was a date place in the early years of my relationship with my wife.

Another thing I like about George's (beyond the food) is the clientele.  These are not the noveau rich or the college crowd, but they are blue-collar and middle class and old upper class Winston-Salem folks that need not act like they are rich but will eat good food wherever they find it.  I'm eating alone, but I don't feel alone.  These are my people.  These are like my parents' friends.  They are the people I grew up with.

George's is not a pretty place, as you can see.  The odd, octagonal building sits practically under the freeway.  I used to worry that a truck would lose control and come careening through the roof, wrecking my meal.  Yet it hasn't happened yet.  If you need a restroom, you have to go outside and enter the single, unisex restroom from the exterior.  I suspect this lack of indoor facilities is grandfathered under the health codes.  But pretty doesn't matter much.  Like people, it's what's inside that counts, and the soul of George's is welcoming and good.

I didn't have to stop at George's.  It's not the fastest way through Winston-Salem any longer.  (It's on I-40 Business at the Cloverdale Rd. exit, in the shadow of Baptist Hospital.) But places that remind you of home, that have history, that have people who you like hearing talk because they sound like home --- those places are worth a detour.  Remembering them, I guess, is my destiny.

The Disappearing Landscape: Why the Meadow Restaurant Remains

Photo "The way to love anything is to realize that it may be lost." (G.K. Chesterton)

There's no billboard on Interstate 40 East hawking the Meadow Restaurant. You won't find a website for the restaurant. And most people in Raleigh I tell about it don't know of it, much less of the community of Meadow. And yet this jewel in the rural landscape of eastern North Carolina is an important stop between Raleigh and Wilmington or the beaches of the southeast part of the state. Slow down or you'll miss it.

During the last 25 years I've travelled the road between Raleigh and Wilmington hundreds if not thousands of times. At one time, there was no Interstate 40 east of Raleigh. I took a two lane road, NC 50, through Garner and Benson, with a short jog on NC 242 over to US 421, which took me into Wilmington. I tried to time it right for lunch or dinner at a corner restaurant in Benson, name now lost to me, that had great home cooking. Unfortunately, it was bought by Hardees and demolished. That's the fate of most such local restaurants. I'm always looking for the kind of food I ate growing up, and it's hard to come by. That's why I'm glad for Meadow.

Meadow is the first exit off I-40 East after its intersection with I-95. That makes it about 45 minutes east of Raleigh. From the highway, it's about ½ mile to the community, which consists of a crossroads with a gas station, volunteer fire department, and the Meadow Restaurant, a one story, non-descript concrete block building with minimal signage. A feed building is located immediately behind the restaurant, gaping doors open to traffic.

Yesterday I pulled my car in right between two pick-up trucks (two of several in the lot) and felt immediately at home. For whatever reason I have the sense that a parking lot full of pick-ups means that ordinary people, people who know the taste of good home-cooked food, country people, must eat here, and they continue to eat here because it's at least as good as it is at home.

"You want the buffet, sweetie?

I'm sold. They even know how to address a man here.

"It's $7.25, all you can eat."

Heck, that's less than the fare at Café Carolina in Raleigh, and the spread here makes the yuppie food of the Café look paltry.

"Yes, ma'am. I'm having the buffet."

"Sweet tea?"

"Is there any other kind?"

Sherilee smiles and pours my glass full and leaves a two quart pitcher of tea on the table. I realize I have definitely made a good stop today.

Mike, an associate now retired, told me about Meadow 20 years ago. Usually, however, I'm in a hurry, whizzing by the rural farms and towns of eastern North Carolina, not thinking much about Meadow. But that's going to change.

I walk over to the buffet and have the overwhelming sense that my grandmother might walk out of the kitchen. There's every kind of home-cooked garden vegetable: limas, corn, collard greens, string beans, pintos, squash, yams. There are three or four meats as well, including fried shrimp (which was fresh and tasty), trout, pork barbecue, and fried chicken. They even had pork rind!I loaded up my plate, set down, and started in. Looking around, there were a lot of middle to elderly men, with John Deere hats on, some couples, and two elderly ladies sitting alone at their lunch.

"Everything OK?"

"It' better than OK," I say. "It's great. How long has this place been open?"

"28 years."

"I don't think I've been in here for several years or so."

"Well, we changed some."

"Not much. It's like I remembered."

"Well, enjoy it."

Finishing the main course, I walked over to the dessert buffet. My goodness. I should have started here. There's nowhere in the city you can see a spread like this. I reach for the pitiably small dessert plate about the same time as another man. We look at each other and at the plate. We both say, at about the same time, "That ain't gonna do," and we walk over and get a dinner plate.

There is a four foot square tray of homemade banana pudding, the meringue two to three inches in height. I take a generous portion. I fill the rest of the plate with chocolate pie --- not icebox pie, mind you, but the real stuff, with a meringue covering that looks like the topography of the Rocky Mountains. I had no more room on the plate, so I had to leave the six different homemade cakes untouched. But I'm only one man. There's only so much I can handle.

I understand what they mean when they say this is "comfort food." I feel amazingly comforted that a place like this exists, that people like I grew up around are still around, rural people who go to small country churches of less than 100 people, waitresses that are still "waitresses" and not "servers" and who unabashedly call you "sweetie" and "honey," establishments where the focus is on the food and not the ambience. Meadow is a good restaurant because I could take my Mom here, and she'd be happy. In fact, listening to the waitresses here talk to the older customers, I realize that they are being honored.

The Meadow Restaurant is still with us because some people still remember the taste of a home cooked meal. On our way between cities, we urbanites just need to slow down and get off the interstate long enough to see what the rest of the world is like. If you do that, you might discover a hidden gem. You might just realize how much poorer we'd be without such places. Next time I may even skip the interstate and drive the rural back roads for a while and get a good look at what we might lose.

[The Meadow Restaurant is located 11 miles east of Benson, just off I-40 at the Meadow exit, #334. Take a right at the stop sign at the end of the exit ramp and go about a half mile to the stop sign at the crossroads. Take a left and then turn right into the restaurant parking lot. The lunch buffet is $7.25, dinner $9.50. I recommend lunch, both for price and freshness of food, and coming no later than 11:30. The banana pudding is still warm!]

Dirt & Sky & Barbecue

Wilbers-Sign When I turned into the parking lot at Wilber’s Barbecue, I felt immediately at home.  Most of the vehicles in the lot were American-branded trucks, some new and some old, all sidled up to the side of an unassuming one-story brick building that has been there as long as I have been traveling this road.  “Local flavor,” I said to myself, getting out of my car, sandwiched between two oversize trucks that must now cost a fortune to fill up.

“Sit where I like?” I asked the hostess, even though the small brown sign said "seat yourself."  It felt polite to ask.

“Anywhere, honey.”

Wilbur’s is one of those places where women I don’t know can call me “honey” and “baby” and my wife won’t mind one bit.  In fact, she’d be appreciative that these ladies are looking after me, making sure I get fed.  Mind you, these women are not necessarily attractive, but even were they, it wouldn’t matter much.  They’re more like surrogate grandmothers or aunts looking after me, and I feel like a 50-year old kid being doted on, my grandmother standing over me asking repeatedly "what can I get you? you had enough? what else do you need?"

I’ve got one thing on my mind.  Pork.  Pork barbecue.  Eastern Carolina–style barbecue—whole hog smoked over an oakwood fire, chopped and dressed with a peppery vinegar sauce.  Wilber cooks as many as 30 pigs every day in what must be a hot-as-hell smokehouse out back.  Pray he lives to be a hundred, because when Wilbur dies the restaurant has to come into compliance with the a city ordinance and shift to gas cooking.  But I digress.  I want a large, not-good-for-you portion of savory barbecue, with a cole slaw side and a basket of hush puppies.  And don’t forget the very, very sweet tea over crushed ice with a big slice of lemon.  Right there.  Top of the menu: "Pit Cooked (Oak Wood) Barbecue Pork Plate, Includes: Cole Slaw, Potato Salad and Hush Puppies."  I look on down the menu and realize there are only three things on it I won't eat: fried liver, fried gizzards, and stewed oysters.  I don't remember having tried gizzards, but I also don't want to try and remember.

I’m by myself today, and I don’t regret it at all.  I don’t want any distractions.  I’m soaking it all up.  I don’t want to make any decisions either, so I'm thankful for the limited menu.  The biggest decision I had to make was determined by something primal, as in how hungry I would be and when.  It was either going to be Wilber’s Barbecue in Goldsboro or Kings in Kinston.  I couldn’t make it to Kinston.

I firmly believe that if you’re going to be somewhere you need to be there.  What I mean is that if you’re traveling in Eastern North Carolina or anywhere for that matter, you need to stop, get out of the air-conditioned car or hotel room, and soak up a little of what it is to be in a particular place.  There are precious few places like Wilbur’s left, as homogenized as city business corridors have become.

I look around the room.  Kitty-cornered to me is a local businessman sitting alone.  I know this because he’s dressed in what we big-city folk might call “casual business attire,” only his has a lived in look, his face broadcasting a “I'll sell you something but I'm not in a big hurry to do it" look.  I like that.  But for my barbecue, I might even strike up a conversation.  But I don't want to talk.  I want to listen.

Behind him there is a table full of antediluvian women, seven to be exact, and one probably seven-year old girl with a round face and stringy brown hair, someone's granddaughter.  (Hold on now, no one around here uses big words like antediluvian!)  I can't hear what they're saying, but it has to be about recipes and children and men, just as the elderly men behind me at the table are talking about the price of gas and big oil companies and the state of the economy.  These are local people.  I feel like if I needed anything I could ask any of them and they'd find a way to help me.  Mind you, I know that small towns and rural areas have drug dealers, violent crime, and divorce, and maybe I have an idealized vision of small-town life, but still I think it more likely I'd be helped here were I to need it.

"You want some 'nana pudding, baby?"

"Is it homemade?"

"This morning.  It's good."

"Bring it on."

I could kiss her. . . almost.  I feel like I've been sojourning in a foreign land and stumbled on kinfolk and been invited in for a meal.  In the city, I'm not even sure where I could get homemade banana pudding, served room temperature or even slightly warm, with whole vanilla wafers and homemade meringue.  I want to stop writing about it and eat some right now.  I just ate it slowly, savoring the moment, thinking Jesus would enjoy this meal just as much as I would.  He had such a way of enjoying food and drink and yet never clutching it like a glutton but recognizing it for the good gift that it was.  Scripture so often places him at a meal, reclining at tables, eating fish on the seaside, eating with his disciples.  Sure, He'd be right at home here.  It's no sin to appreciate good food.

"Everything alright?"

"It was great," I said, paying the bill, and I said I'd be back.

Outside, I pause for a moment and look around, adjusting to my new girth.  It's 95 degrees and the heat is radiating from a dusty asphalt parking lot a little less truck-heavy now.  Wilber's is just a hole in the wall.  But it's a little piece of pork heaven right here by the side of US 70 and a comforting reminder that some things don't change. 

For today, you can have your malls and fast food chain restaurants.  I'll take a very hot eastern North Carolina and Wilber's Barbecue --- just dirt and sky and barbecue. 

As I drive away, I let the windows down, let the heat pour in and the wind drive away the last lingering smell of barbecue.  That's when I said grace.