Back in May I was given the incredible opportunity to go down to North Carolina (and parts of South Carolina) to interview a few of the Piedmont blues legends on the Music Maker Recordings label. Music Maker have just released a compilation album made up of songs entirely about food: from greasy greens to chicken pie. I wrote about the musicians I spent time with for Bandcamp Daily but I want to go into the food I ate a bit more.
There is an intense debate in North Carolina revolving around barbecue. There’s tomato-based sauces and vinegar based sauces and with the wars about southern food heritage raging, things have gotten out of hand. I met with Bill Smith, the chef at Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina who explained, “Traditionally, you roast a whole pig, and then it’s either chopped or pulled. It’s cooked enough that you can take it apart with your fingers. In modern places, they just use the shoulders and don’t even use wood anymore. That starts fights, too. My preference is wood-cooked with vinegar.” His enthusiasm is echoed by the sentiment of Drink Small’s song on the compilation “Living in a Barbeque World”: I eat barbeque every day of my life/ and I’m gonna eat till the day I die.
You can read the full version of the story on Bandcamp Daily, but for now, here is an excerpt.
The song “Biscuits for Your Outside Man” has a simple premise: only please the man who treats you right. Cook cornbread—the cheap, everyday bread—for your husband, and biscuits—decadent and fluffy—made with expensive, refined white flour and rich buttermilk, for your man on the side, the one who makes you happy.
That song, by Piedmont blues legend Algia Mae Hinton, is the title track on a new food-themed compilation released by the Music Maker Relief Foundation. Food and music are a natural pair.
Both are required for sustenance, and both represent, to varying degrees, the pursuit of pleasure. The compilation, 17 blues songs about everything from cherry pie to greasy greens, was compiled by the Music Maker group, which has been working for the past 22 years to preserve the Piedmont blues sound and assist the people creating it…
Every artist the Foundation has worked with over the past 20 years—most of them the last remaining practitioners of Piedmont blues—is given whatever medical attention they may require. Help often comes in the form of purchasing heating oil, or paying electric bills. But Tim and Denise Duffy aren’t just writing checks. The small staff at Music Maker is constantly driving across the South to check in on their musicians, sit with them for hours and play music with them. One musician, Boo Hanks, who sadly passed away earlier this year, was a tobacco farmer who played a unique style of Piedmont blues strictly within his community. He met Tim Duffy at the age of 79 through a chance encounter, and Music Maker was able to get him on stages at Lincoln Center and the Newport Folk Festival. “For the last 10 years of his life, from age 79 to 89, he got his dream,” Tim Duffy says.
Denise Duffy describes a Blues Festival in Paris where several Music Maker artists were invited as guests. “It was amazing to see these people who had lived their lives as second-class citizens get a standing ovation from 2,000 people.” Most of the musicians the Foundation works with are close to 80 years old, and not all of them can travel. Drink Small is blind, Algia Mae Hinton can’t walk on her own, and John Dee Holeman is hard of hearing. But put a guitar in their hands, and their eyes light up, an immediate vigor returning. Even at 80, there’s a career for these musicians: John Dee Holeman was getting ready to play a festival the morning I met with him, and because Music Maker is also a record label, their songs get a second life on compilations like Biscuits.
Because both are tied to the pursuit of pleasure, food and music go hand in hand. The blues were built to document the pleasures and heartbreaks of the everyday and, in the communities of the rural South, food was a pleasure worth singing about. (So was sex.)
Where to eat in and around Chapel Hill
Though I didn’t make it for a meal this trip, I’ve had the decadent southern breakfast at Crook’s before. Chef Bill Smith scours local farms for things like honeysuckle for sorbet. In the summer, when the tomatoes are ripe and juicy, Smith serves a cold fried chicken brunch that’s extremely popular with the locals.
Tim and Denise Duffy who run the Music Maker Relief Foundation took me to a famous barbecue joint called Allen and Son. The thing to get is the vinegary chopped pork plate and every single desert. If you’ve ever loved Momofuku Milk Bar’s “Crack Pie,” you’ll love Chess Pie, made from a similar combination of butter and sugar in lethal amounts. The hushpuppies and sweet tea are also phenomenal. I’m a convert to the Carolina style.
For Fast Food Barbecue: Smithfield’s
Smithfield’s is nowhere near as good as Allen and Son but if you need your fried chicken fix on the way to airport definitely stop at Smithfield’s. Also, more sweet tea.
And in Durham…
One of the best tapas bars I’ve been to…ever. From an inventive Scotch egg to a killer fideuá, everything I tasted felt fresh from Spain with a spicy freshness. Order: the olives, the huevo diablo, the pato de aroz and several glasses of delicious dry red wine.
Stay at the C21 museum hotel…you won’t be sorry.