Zooming In and Laughing a Little

Some thoughts on the Carolina scene

Lawrence Barbecue was one of the notable new arrivals on the Triangle's BBQ scene
Lawrence Barbecue was one of the notable new arrivals on the Triangle's BBQ scene (Anna Routh Barzin)

By Robert F. Moss

On Monday we posted a reflection from the always-insightful Kathleen Purvis on the 2021 Southern Foodways Symposium, the annual gathering of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. She recounts the turmoil and challenges the organization has navigated since 2020 as well as her impressions of this year’s rebooted event, and she ends her piece with this question: “Is Southern food really such a thin world that there is nothing left to explore?”

I’ve been thinking about that question ever since Kathleen submitted her copy last week, for I’ve had similar thoughts as I’ve watched the food scene evolve over the past few years. My answer to that question—for now, at least—is a guardedly optimistic, for I believe there are plenty of more things left to say about Southern food.

Or perhaps I should phase it, “to say about food in the various parts of the South,” for I’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable with the concept of “Southern food” as a singular thing. How we came to lump a bunch of disparate sub-regional foodways under the single umbrella of “Southern food” is a topic for another day, but perhaps one way to get beyond the “thin world” it seems to be today is to rotate our collective lens tighter and zoom in.

That’s one reason we’ve decided to focus The Southeastern Dispatch on the two Carolinas, for there’s a wealth interesting things going on in the two states right now, and it’s not the same as what’s happening in Atlanta or New Orleans or Texas. At a time when market conditions are relentlessly driving media coverage to become national in scope, great swaths of territory that were once the domain of local beat writers—on politics, on business, and, yes, even on food—are now conspicuously under-covered.

Here are just a few of the things that I find exciting, curious, and noteworthy in the Carolinas these days.

In just the past few weeks, there has been a small but definite shift in tone in my conversations with various restaurateurs and other culinary professionals. Everyone is still tired and stressed out from the past 18 months, but cautious optimism is finally starting to return after being cruelly crushed by the Delta-variant surge in July. New restaurants keep opening their doors, and old established ones are starting to gradually shift back into forward gear.

The food festival scene in the Carolinas seems to be at an inflection point, too, though it’s not exactly clear what the future holds. Long-established events like the Charleston Wine + Food Festival are rethinking their missions and making adjustments for the future. We’ve seen some notable new festivals arriving on the scene, too, like the newly-launched BayHaven Food & Wine Festival, which was held last week in Charlotte and is the first such event in the region to celebrate Black chefs and restaurants. (Matt Lardie will have a recap of BayHaven for you later this week.)

The Culinary Village will be returning for the 2022 Charleston Wine + Food Festival but not to its former home in Marion Square
The Culinary Village will be returning for the 2022 Charleston Wine + Food Festival but not to its former home in Marion Square (Leigh-Ann Beverley/Charleston Wine+Food Festival)

As we explored a few weeks ago, oyster farming is returning to Carolina waters, and local shellfish are once again gracing oyster bars. Tasting menus, which once seemed doomed to extinction, are starting to pop back up, offering some interesting new spins on fine dining and a hint at where things may be going.

New things are happening in beverage world, too. Craft breweries are now ubiquitous throughout the state, but new entrants are seeking out their own unique niches in the crowded market, like the neighborhood “pocket breweries” that Matt McKenzie explored a few weeks ago. From hard seltzers to canned cocktails, new products and categories keep appearing on the scene.

Craft distilleries in the Carolinas have now grown past the stage where they were all spinning tales of moonshiners to sell white whiskey. In just the past few weeks I’ve picked up some very intriguing new releases, including High Wire Distilling’s aged peach brandy distilled from South Carolina peaches and a Smoked Jimmy Red Corn Whiskey made with heirloom corn that was smoked by country ham master Allan Benton. Asheville’s Eda Rhyne Distilling is producing delicious amari using herbs from the Appalachian mountains, and the new Burnt Church Distillery, which opened in Bluffton in March, is now bottling a whiskey made with Carolina Gold Rice as a secondary grain (though the aged whiskey for now is contract distilled in Kentucky.)

Carolina distillers are producing a range of intriguing new spirits these days
Carolina distillers are producing a range of intriguing new spirits these days

The pandemic era has brought significant changes to alcohol regulations in both North and South Carolina that will likely have long-lasting and positive benefits for the still-maturing craft distilling industry, and we have pieces coming soon that will delve into the details and what it means for consumers in the Carolinas.

One other line really caught my eye in Kathleen’s piece on the Southern Foodways Symposium: “I missed the laughing.” I’ve been missing the laughing, too—the silliness, the irreverence, the wit, the sarcasm—in so many aspects of the food world. Yes, it’s been a tough couple of years, but that doesn’t mean we have to be dour and serious about everything. In fact, a little levity might be exactly what we all need right now.

I like it that Brandon Plyler opened his recent feature on canned cocktails by invoking the illicit “gentlemen’s magazines” of his youth and their glorification of “new wave vices.” I chuckled when Stephanie Barna couldn’t help but work in a “that’s how she rolls” pun in her profile of Carrie Morey of Callie’s Hot Little Biscuits fame.

I’ve made a note to myself to work in more bad puns and lame jokes into my own upcoming features, too. I’m pretty sure I’m up to the task.

We shouldn’t take it too seriously, after all. It’s only food.

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About the Author

Robert F. Moss

Robert F. Moss is the Contributing Barbecue Editor for Southern Living magazine, Restaurant Critic for the Post & Courier, and the author of numerous books on Southern food and drink, including The Lost Southern Chefs, Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, Southern Spirits: 400 Years of Drinking in the American South, and Barbecue Lovers: The Carolinas. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina.

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