Southern hospitality is legendary, but in an ever-changing southern landscape, it is increasingly hard to find. There’s an old saying,
There are no strangers in the south, just friends we haven’t met yet.
Travelers well know the charms of iconic southern spots like Savannah, Charleston, and New Orleans. Beyond the pages of the well photographed plantation homes and the gentile invitation of historic coastal row houses, I rediscover southern hospitality on a recent weekend getaway. In the process I realize that the south has many surprises to offer in unexpected places. Fear not, the south is living up to that famous saying, and then some.
A new baby nephew sparks the family to pile into the car and head from Atlanta to Charlotte, NC. Save a few glimpses of beautiful Lake Hartwell just across the Georgia-South Carolina border and numerous billboards promoting a burgeoning moonshine industry – yes, this is the south – the drive between Atlanta and Charlotte is largely unremarkable. The first sign that we are getting close was the Peachoid, a gigantic water tower that is both shaped and painted to look like an over-ripened peach.
We plug on, and eventually arrive to the outskirts of Charlotte where we are greeted by our family at their new home and set in to spend time with their new baby boy.
Babies are cute, and as the father of three girls I am fascinated to play with my three year old nephew (and his toys – sadly my girls aren’t into Iron Man) while my wife held the new little guy. With the new baby and all, we decide to order in. “Barbecue?“ I’m asked by my sister-in-law. Um, Yes, please! It isn’t a grand to do, nor a special search for the best barbecue in North Carolina. We just seek out the nearest local barbecue joint – and those are just the kind where you can discover something unexpected.
Peace N’ Hominy
My brother-in-law and I head to pick up the order from Peace N’ Hominy, where they describe their love of barbecue as “the peaceful coexistence of all bbq and corn, be it hominy, maize or grits,” a clear tout to their corn bread, creamed corn and cheesy grits. Here I discover the first great surprise of the overnight trip. Barbecue, generally speaking, is a culinary conundrum. Styles and variations pervade this great country from east to west and each has their own signatures that should not only be appreciated, but outright honored. North Carolina’s take on southern barbecue, has two predominant styles: Eastern style and Lexington style. True to their name, Peace N’ Hominy throws the rule book in the smoker, and pursues fantastic flavor, the rules be damned.
In the world of southern barbecue, preparation, cooking style, and serving are each, on their own, relatively straight-forward (although not easy to execute). Taken together though, they present a challenge that can only be conquered by someone who’s earned the pitmaster title through years of blood, sweat and smoke. The quality of the ingredients used is paramount to good southern barbecue and their absence can be detected, even by a novice, more so than almost any other style of cooking. Fortunately, Peace N’ Hominy has us covered.
We arrive to Peace N’ Hominy, an unassuming little building with patrons buzzing about (a good sign to be sure). We walk in the rear entrance, a little back porch offering a spot in the shade with a few small tables. Maybe on my next visit during the fall, I think. Making our way inside, the small interior is full and we saunter up to the counter to secure our order. After the usual pleasantries, payment, and a brief exchange inquiring about an extra side of hot barbecue sauce, we thank them and are stopped by a young man as we turn for the car.
Nevermind that we’re two capable, grown men, he informs us that he will carry our takeout box to the car, no, he insists. While walking to the car we explain that we really can carry the box, that it is an unnecessary jesture. We are quickly informed that their policy is both clear and strict – customers with large take out orders are to be helped to car. There is no room for interpretation. We thank him again and I can’t help but wonder if this would happen back home in Atlanta. Sure, Atlanta is still most certainly the south, but it is increasingly an international city (mostly for the good). While there are pockets of old southern charm, it isn’t something you encounter everywhere you go. This experience at Peace N’ Hominy is the south – and I like it.
We make the quick drive home, the smell from the backseat taunts us to press the pedal a little faster. Into the house and a quick impromptu buffet setup later, it is time. The amazing spread is anchored by pulled pork and carved brisket (that’s beef for those of you in Bar Harbor), smoked in a blend of apple and hickory wood. The mains are surrounded by a heart-stopping assortment of side dishes: creamed corn, 6 cheese mac & cheese (um, for the kids, just for the kids), an additional style of chili-mac, because in the south one mac & cheese just won’t do, bourbon beans, and crowned with a pan of corn bread and rolls.
The pulled pork is well prepared and very good. Though, in a head-to-head battle, the carved brisket delivers a knock out and takes home the title. The flavor of the bourbon beans oozes with brown sugar molasses and pork. The contents of my plate begin to intermingle as the meal moves on and the brisket, beans and the sauce unite in an exceptional song of southern barbecue goodness.
I like corn bread, sure. It isn’t a food that I would normally write about though. This cornbread, however, makes we wonder if Aunt Bea from Mayberry might have been squirreled away in that kitchen (interesting note: the real town of “Mayberry” made famous by the Andy Griffith Show is located a little more than an hour up the road in nearby Mount Airy, NC). Sweet, not overly dense, and full of real corn flavor, it is a great execution of an old favorite. So skip the rolls and go straight for the corn bread.
The Southern Barbecue Surprise
The big surprise of the meal is the chili mac & cheese. My brother-in-law insists we try it and I oblige. I’ve had chili mac before mind you, and it has never been my cup of tea. Like Jack Nicholson’s show-stealing performance over lead actor Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men, this side dish, turn superstar, takes the spotlight. No kidney beans or thick tomato sauce here, this is more aptly titled Beef Mac. The ground beef is beautifully minced with a wonderful blend of spices, and just a hint of heat, then chunks are slightly layered into the mac & cheese. Enough to get a good bite of the beef, but not enough to overpower the penne-style noodle. It is simply fantastic.
To a purist, the spread from Peace N’Hominy isn’t traditional carolina southern barbecue, but I am never one to get caught up in rules and formality, and besides, this sure is darn good barbecue.
One evening in, a few great southern barbecue surprises, delightful southern hospitality, and a sleeping baby. This is shaping up to be a great weekend.
We wake to a nice breakfast of homemade cinnamon rolls, bacon and Davis Special (a simple traditional family recipe from my wife’s side of the family consisting of pan-friend sausage and scrambled eggs that undoubtedly goes by a thousand different names in a thousand different families, but is nevertheless tasty). We spend the morning with the kids at the pool, sit and talk some more, then pack into the ol’ family truckster around noon to head back to Atlanta for work on Monday.
Remember the big Peach-looking water tower?
Apparently the kids didn’t get enough to eat at breakfast, and okay, I am hungry again too, so we stop about an hour into our drive back for lunch at a chain restaurant that sat underneath the Peachoid. We put the car into park, and well, it doesn’t park. The car is stuck in gear and the gear shifter just flops around (if this is happening to you right now, it is a broken shifter cable, yes, that’s a thing). Making this doubly frustrating, we had this exact problem repaired in Atlanta just three days earlier. On the verge of a hangry group, we decide to put the parking break on, turn off the engine and head in for lunch. We’ll sort it out while we grab a bite.
The small town of Gaffney, SC sits about half way between Charlotte, NC and Greenville, SC. Not to be the condescending city folk type, but there isn’t a lot going on in Gaffney, especially on Sunday. We walk into the restaurant with limited expectations, just glad to be in the air conditioning, and inform them of our car trouble. The manager greets us genuinely, and warmly, assuring us it is no problem, that we should come on in and sit down. Our minds race with worries of rescheduled appointments, canceled kids’ activities, and figuring out how to get our car fixed and it and us both back home. The manager’s gentleness helps to diffuse the stress of the situation.
We sit down and our server picks up where the manager left off, bringing us some cool drinks with a warm smile. We order and begin to make phone calls. First, the repair shop in Atlanta explains that they can’t do anything about their shoddy work unless we get the car back to them. Unfortunately, that is 180 miles away. We quickly discover that in Gaffney, SC very little is open on Sunday.
Meet Warren, Southern Hospitality Personified
My wife connects with the owner of a local repair shop, Warren, who can’t help us at the moment (because it is Sunday, and they are closed, and he is about to into a movie with his family – and we remember why all businesses used to be closed on Sunday). Warren gives us the name of a towing service that can take the vehicle to his shop and promises to check back in with us in a few hours to make sure everything is worked out. We aren’t interested in a local tow, we need to get the car to Atlanta (so the local mechanic can fix his errors). We call the towing service, who again, is very kind, but unable to tow it that far. They give us another name and we call. They’re open, but it sounds pretty clear that they don’t have full staff on Sunday. A 180 mile tow job would be a stretch. They kindly ask if they can check with their staff to find a driver and call us back. Pinned down like Davy Crockett at the Alamo, but resigned to get home, we have little choice but to agree and hope that we fare better than Davy.
Edward To The Rescue
A short while later we receive a call back. Edward, the owner of the tow service would make the trip and get us home, personally. Relief, we’d be late, but we’d get home tonight, much to the childrens’ disappointment who thought that a night in a hotel sounded like a great adventure. Note: To be fair, my 13 year old daughter wanted absolutely nothing to do with us or another night away from home and her laptop.
We enjoy our lunch and the great service and conclude just as Edward pulls into the lot with his honking big F-450 flat bed tow truck. The rescue is here. Introductions complete, Edward positions the truck as we explain that the car is stuck in gear. After a few head scratches he simply says “well… they didn’t tell me that.” Uh oh. Long story short, this throwback to a time when men were men puts his body on the line to manually disengage the gear under the car while I stand on the brakes. He states without emotion, “the worst that will happen is that it will roll over my arm.” This is insanity. My wife is near panicked at the thought of him being crushed. We all pray the car doesn’t roll down the slope of the parking lot, crushing Edward, once the gear is released.
The breaks hold. Once he is free from the undercarriage, I slowly guide the car, rolling backwards to line it up with the tow truck bed.
We all cram into Edward’s hulk of a truck and say goodbye to the Peachoid, the odd peach water tower landmark that many have passed, but few have actually sat underneath (for several hours). Wanting a bit more space for the family to make the drive home, we plan to stop at the Greenville-Spartanburg Airport about 35 miles down the road where a rental car is hopefully waiting for us (again, nothing open on Sunday in Gaffney). Barreling down I-85 in Edward’s black beast, the smell of Marlboro 100’s is thickly fused into the upholstery. While brave, and courteous, Edward wasn’t much for conversation, simply responding to my wife’s curiosities with a polite Yes, Ma’am or No, Ma’am.
The Wizarding World of Car Rentals?
Normally, the prospect of going to the airport to pick up a rental car ranks somewhere between a root canal and watching your wife try on clothes. You have to do it, but you aren’t going to like it. I’m sure this will be an hour long exercise in frustration. Yet another surprise – this airport isn’t a nightmare – at all. A lovely tree-lined drive that easily, and without fanfare, brings you to the terminal building marks the approach to Greenville-Spartanburg Airport. We approach the terminal and I jump down (literally) from the massive truck and head into the parking garage to find the rental car counters while my wife settles up some payment details with Edward. The distance from where I launch myself from Edward’s truck to the rental car counter is about a 40 second walk. Wow, that was easy.
I approach the Enterprise Car Rental counter and Drew, the Manager, offers a friendly welcome. Drew pulls up my reservation as I share some of our misfortunes, thankful a vehicle is available on such short notice. As if a graduate from a some mysterious school of wizardry and manners, Drew couldn’t be nicer or more engaging. Sometimes, plain old friendliness, is the hallmark of southern hospitality. He lists a few vehicle choices that he can make available to me for the same rate, and one sparks my interest. Yet another surprise. He happily and efficiently completes the rental and directs us to our vehicle – a Ford F-150. Awesome, I’ve always wanted a pick up truck, but have never bought one. The day is finally looking up. Our car is being towed home and I’m sitting in big, bad, slightly jacked up pick-up!
Southern Hospitality In Action
We cruise down I-85 in our sweet pickup (that is surprisingly smooth) and meander through town towards home. The phone rings, uh oh. Phew, it’s one of my daughter’s friends asking if our car is on a tow truck. Good, Edward still has it! Just as we turn onto our street the phone rings again and my stomach sinks a touch. My wife answers and it is Warren, his trip to the movies with his family no finished. He wants to check back in to make sure everything is under control. We thank him for the follow-up and assure him all is now well.
We make it. The family piles out of the Ford and into the house, the welcoming sound of barking dogs signal the road trip is complete. Just as we begin to settle in, Edward pulls up to the house. As he lowers the car into the drive, we offer thanks for the bad day that turned into one full of good surprises .
Southern barbecue, southern hospitality and two kick-butt trucks. I do love the south. If you are ever rolling down I-85 between Charlotte and Atlanta, I recommend a visit to Gaffney, SC, even for a quick bite, to enjoy what southern hospitality looks like in the real world.