Geographically, North Carolina is just south enough to have good ‘ol southern barbeque and now-legal moonshine in its flavor pocket. But it has more than BBQ to brag about. Here are eight foodie items that have to be tried while you are in the “Tar Heel State” because some of them cannot be found anywhere but here…
North Carolinian Surry County sonker is a syrupy, satisfying dessert that has been passed down for generations. A cross between a fruit crumble and a pot pie, at its best it is a fruity, gooey burst of freshness sandwiched between a homemade biscuit or pie crust, served with a healthy dollop of cream. Usually baked, it can also be made on the stove and, depending on the season, you’ll find it in flavors ranging from blueberry to peach to grape.
Some of the best I found were Miss Angel’s Heavenly Pies’ perfectly-made peach moonshine sonker—with the fruit not crispy, not mushy, but spot on and the bottom dough soft from the fruit and booze with a crispy brown top; the scrumptious strawberry sonker at Old North State Winery, whose chef got the fruit and sugar balance just right and served it with a good amount of whipped cream; and the pear and ginger sonker with muscadine wine at local hangout, The Living Room Coffeehouse and Winebar, where you can find sonker that’s a bit more adventurous from chef Niki, whose roots are in Chicago.
While wine may, indeed, cheer you, Cheerwine is not a wine at all, but a locally-made soft drink. The cherry-flavored brainchild of LD Peeler, the drink’s been around since 1917 and is still owned by the family whose granddad started it all. You can get the “nectar of North Carolina” at restaurants and stores who proudly announce, “Cheerwine sold here.”
3. Pimento Cheese
For the uninitiated, pimento cheese is a cheese dip-slash-spread and is used in everything from greasy-good grilled cheese sandwiches to gussied up grits at the impressive Spring House Restaurant, Kitchen & Bar in Winston-Salem, headed up by award-winning chef, Tim Grandinetti. Sometimes referred to as Carolinian caviar, all you need to know is this: it’s made up of mayo, pimentos and cheese—and lots of it.
4. Moravian Sugar Cookies
First, a five-second history lesson: Coming from the Czech Republic the Moravians were the first Protestants, predating Luther by about 100 years. They were led by Jan Hus, considered a heretic by the old guard and burned at the stake in 1415. Fast forward 300 years, and the Moravians were looking to spread the word to the New World. Colonists landed in America in 1736, and a particularly hearty bunch of 15 settlers from Pennsylvania made the trek on foot in 1753 to North Carolina, establishing Salem about a dozen years later.
Along with giving us an interesting, liberal-minded culture and a well-ordered society, they also brought with them the paper-thin—the thinner, the better—Moravian sugar cookie. Available in flavors that include ginger and chocolate, I say don’t mess with the simple goodness of flour, sugar and butter for the ultimate version. Visiting Old Salem is a must to not only learn more about the Moravians, but to hit America’s oldest baked goods shop, the Winkler Bakery, for these crispy, tasty treats.
5. Moravian Sugar Cake
Not content to only make sugar cookies, the Moravians prized their ooey-gooey sugar cakes as well. These yeast cakes include potato as part of the ingredients as well as butter and cream so it’s not for waistline watchers, but if you don’t mind ingesting more than your fair share of fat and sugar, this cake is for you.
Part of the custom when making the sugar cake is to dig your thumbs into its doughy delightfulness and fill the holes with a combo of butter, sugar and cinnamon to create satiny, glistening pools of rich, sweetened melted butter. It is said that, in olden times, a man could be wooed by the size of a potential partner’s thumbs: big thumbs, big heart, big sugar rush?
6. Stone-Ground Grits
Speckled with black, white grits ground in a stone mill have a subtle texture and yet will be the creamiest, nuttiest grits you’ll ever have. They should be in their own food group: not quite vegetable and not quite starch; not rice or potato or oatmeal, not even cornmeal or polenta. Southern stone-ground grits were a revelation to me, full of flavor and still rich with all of their inherent goodness intact, unlike commercially-ground grits that degerminate the corn, leaving its natural nutrients on the factory floor. Any Southern restaurant worth its grits will have them on the menu.
7. Biscuits and Gravy
Because—hey—you’re in the south and it’s the only time that food this gray and lumpy tastes way better than it looks. At Mary’s Gourmet Diner in Winston-Salem you get the best of all worlds with a flaky biscuit, mouth-watering pork gravy and stone-ground grits on the side.
8. Muscadine Wine
Who knew that, before Prohibition, North Carolina was the largest wine-producing state in the country? When Prohibition hit, helped along by some persuasion from the local Baptists, most of these wineries became tobacco farms. But coming full circle the tobacco farms are now being turned back into grape-growing estates.
There are over 175 wineries in North Carolina—some personal favorites include Raffaldini Vineyards, RayLen Vineyards, Jones von Drehle Vineyards and JOLO Winery & Vineyards — but to get a unique North Carolinian wine experience, you should also go to Old North State Winery in Mount Airy or Herrera Vineyards in Dobson for a taste of an original: wine made from the native muscadine grape. Some may say that muscadine is too sweet and a bit cloying, but I loved it for its pure grapey, uncomplicated flavor. It isn’t for every day, nor is it meant to accompany filet mignon, but on a sunny patio shared with a good friend, it would be sublime.
Where to stay
The Kimpton Cardinal Hotel in Winston-Salem is one of the newest kids in the Kimpton hotel family and is a stylish boutique-type hotel with good access to North Carolina’s yummy food and attractions.
To stay in the heart of the Yadkin Valley wine country, the Hampton Inn & Suites in Dobson, NC is a good choice.