Eat North Carolina

Where local is almost always on the menu.

By Hope S. Philbrick

Speaking solely in terms of food culture, I’ve come to the personal opinion that North Carolina is the California of the East Coast. Several states, including New York, would argue differently in their zeal to seize the culinary crown. But I’m not talking specific chefs’ accomplishments. I’m referring to the more elusive quality of how food is ingrained into the collective human experience.

Whether I’m dining out in my hometown of Atlanta or anywhere during my extensive travels, I prefer to eat at independent restaurants. I like to support local businesses and I like to eat dishes that convey regional flavors. The Southeastern United States does “farm to table” well. We get it. (As a food writer based in the Southeast, I can speak to regional trends.) And yet nobody is doing it better than North Carolina.

Any history of the farm-to-table movement, a.k.a. the Slow Food approach to eating local, cites California and even more specifically Chef Alice Waters’ kitchen as the birthplace of locavore dining in the U.S. Nowadays standard dining in California (at least barring an apocalyptic drought) means eating local, seasonal products to the extent that even something as simple as the mustard on a straightforward burger is likely made by the chef in the kitchen or a culinarian down the street using mustard seed grown in that county. And the meat was probably ground in the kitchen of a cow that had grazed nearby.

The ‘eat local, eat seasonal’ craze has spread across the nation and become so commonplace that the phrase “farm to table” has grown almost meaningless in its widespread overuse: Yes, unless it was whipped up in a lab all food comes from a farm or garden or ranch. But a foodie’s intent when calling an eating establishment a “farm to table” restaurant is that the chef can tell you from which farm an ingredient originated. In North Carolina, odds are higher than average that the chef will tell you that nearly every item on the menu is from North Carolina. Any exceptions are typically still regional, like Vidalia onions, which grow exclusively in Georgia.

It’s not just food: More often than not North Carolina restaurateurs will proudly tell you that everything from the tables and chairs to the plates and glassware on those tables to the artwork on the walls is produced in the state. The average North Carolinian doesn’t merely shop at a farmers’ market, but can name a favorite cheese maker, bacon smoker and brewer, often within a short distance from wherever you happen to be standing while having the conversation. And they kind of look at you funny and wonder why you’re asking, like, “Isn’t everybody best buddies with their coffee bean roaster?” Starting with the stickers on restaurant front doors that proclaim “Got to be NC,” North Carolina can scream “yay rah” for its food culture like no place else. (Some regions are even more specific.) The enthusiasm that North Carolinians have for their home state is akin to that of students for their high school during spirit week leading up to homecoming of their senior year: It’s intense, and it’s infectious.

Unless you seek out a national chain restaurant, odds are good when you dine in North Carolina that you’ll be eating local, seasonal fare. It’s a tasty prospect.

HopeP_144Hope S. Philbrick is founder and editor-in-chief of Getaways for Grownups. Her work has appeared in dozens of publications nationwide. She’s reviewed restaurants for several Atlanta-based newspapers and magazines for more than 10 years. When not writing, she can usually be found on the road or savoring something tasty.


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