Even with the different options available from east to west and back again, Bob Garner has learned that man cannot live by North Carolina barbecue alone.Since he wrote his first book in 1996, North Carolina Barbecue: Flavored by Time, Garner has become one of the state's best known bbq experts. He's written extensively on the passions of those who choose vinegar or tomato sauce - or vice versa - and featured hard working, traditional pit masters in countless WUNC television programs.
In his new book, Foods That Make You Say Mmm-Mmm (Blair Publishing), Garner takes readers along for a journey that stretches from the coast to the mountains - with plenty of pit stops in-between to fill up on local specialties."I decided to focus on foods that really are special to North Carolina, as opposed to things that are loved throughout the South," Garner says. "We all eat a lot of mac and cheese and chicken and dumplings, and wash it down with sweet tea. But there is a kind of cabbage collard grown here that is limited to the coastal plain. It's so good that has its own festival in the little town of Ayden, which calls itself the Collard Capital of the World. Now that is truly special."
The pale yellow leaves of the cabbage collard and sweeter and more tender than its stiff, dark-leaved cousin. It's also more precious giving its limited growing season. "I do get a little sad when you can't get them anymore," Garner says, "but then all the spring and summer produce arrives. In North Carolina, there is always something to look forward to."Garner strived to introduce readers to some traditional foods that are less well-known outside of their native habitat. Ocracoke Fig Cake, which is generally available up and down the Outer Banks when figs are plentiful, is one such example.
"It's perfect for the winter holidays," Garner says of the cake, which uses a jar of fig jam for its rich flavor and distinctive texture.
"I don't think most people know about that, but they should," he says with a trace of the familiar "mmm-mmm" he uses to accentuate foods he adores.
And while many North Carolinians are familiar with Brunswick stew, Garner would like to see them boldly try some Neuse River fish stew.
"It's a very localized fish made in no more than four counties along the Neuse," he says. "Unless you live there or know people - or are a food historian or a really clued-in foodie - you've probably never tried it."
Garner includes a recipe for Authentic Eastern North Carolina Fish Stew in the book. He warns that it's an ugly bowlful of often boney rockfish, layered with potatoes and onions, and topped with eyeball-like poached eggs slipped in at the last minute. The stew is not to be stirred while cooking - typically outdoors, or in a sheltered garage if it's too cold and windy - to ensure that fish stays in large chunks."It's been going on for years and years, but it's a little known dish outside of the immediate area," Garner says, noting that some renegades doctor their stew with crushed saltines . "There are only a couple of places where you can get it commercially, like Ken's Grille on Hwy. 70 in LaGrange. But only on Fridays."
Another fish Garner originally thought to leave out but couldn't resist in charcoal mullet. Once dismissed as bait fish, sustainable oily mullet - especially jumping mullet - has become popular inland thanks to providers who rush fresh catch from the coast to grateful local consumers."Charcoal mullet is food for the common people, a thing locals always ate when others wouldn't," he says. "There's a lesson here. If you eat what the locals eat, you're going to eat well."