Order a dog "all the way" at downtown's Green's Lunch, established 1926, and you'll get a hot dog smeared with a beanless chili and a mayonnaise-based, finely chopped cole slaw.
But is that Charlotte's signature dish? Slaw on dogs -- and burgers -- is not unique to Charlotte (Green's started the slaw in 1975). However, the Queen City -- and the state, for that matter -- are known for slaw on sandwiches: hot dogs, burgers, barbecue. In fact, Wendy's sells a burger with slaw regionally known as the "Carolina Classic."
When you ask people from Cincinnati about serving chili on spaghetti noodles, they shrug their shoulders and answer, "It's a local thing." Boston has baked beans and a cream pie. New York has pizza and Chicago has those dogs with the kryptonite green relish. St. Louis serves up fried raviolis and gooey cake. Even Winston-Salem has Krispy Kremes and Moravian cookies, while tiny Shelby owns livermush (even if their annual Livermush Expo is currently on hold).
Local historian and UNC-Charlotte professor Dan Morrill noted that the Charlotte region was "overwhelmingly rural until well into the 20th century" and that "Charlotte was not the cultural heart" of the region. In layman terms: We were poor and ate what we had. He added, "Dishes were very [utilizable] and pragmatic. They centered around things that were picked -- like peaches and blackberries and blueberries -- and the pig, of course."
Morrill explained that corn was an important ingredient and many of Charlotte's creeks had grist mills where farmers could grind corn. One such vacant mill stands on the campus of Myers Park High School.
But grits and corn bread are not unique to Charlotte. Neither is fried chicken, although I typically recommend Price's Chicken Coop to visitors wanting a taste of old Charlotte. (You can argue -- and folks do -- that the skillet fried chicken at Coffee Cup is better, but Price's is where I go.)
Another category of fried eatery is the local fish camp. Local legend has it that the concept of fish camps started on the banks of the Catawba River during the Depression. Fishermen fried their catch in old wash pots filled with lard and sold them to local mill workers. Eventually, some fishermen added metal roofs over their frying pots and soon the concept caught on. Subsequently, fish camp restaurants were constructed. The food served at these camps was freshly caught deep-fried river (now ocean) fish served with tartar sauce, hush puppies and slaw.
Fish camps are among the oldest continuously operating restaurants in our area. The Hide-A-Way, which closed after 50 years in 2001, reopened in 2002 as Captain Steve's Family Seafood Restaurant, a fish camp.
Not all local kitchens were focused monomaniacally on frying. A Sharon Tower resident told me the best dish in town in the 1950s was the silken goose liver and savory truffles at Chez Montet, located, ironically, a stone's throw from today's Johnson & Wales University on Trade Street.
Since the beginning of the boom in 1995 -- when national chains put the squeeze on home grown restaurants -- more old-styled restaurants, such as Barclays Cafeteria in Belk SouthPark, have closed. The day of serving food either without liquor or without owning the real estate is vanishing. Restaurateurs can't pay $35-plus a square foot and expect to make a go of it by selling sweet tea.
Which brings me to wine. Wine is not new here; in fact, one North Carolina winery had the highest production nationally in 1835 (OK, there were only 24 states and California wasn't one of them). Of the more than 50 Carolina wineries, my favorite is Childress Vineyards (I like the name). So maybe wine, and not sweet tea, Pepsi (New Bern 1893) or Cheerwine (Salisbury 1913) is our signature drink, although none of these are distinctly local. Even Carolina Blonde (beer) is from Mooresville.
What do outsiders think of when they come for local food? Chuck Richards, owner of Reid's, said most people buy Moravian cookies, cheese straws and barbecue sauces.
Barbecue is as much a part of life here in Charlotte as any other part of the state. The annual barbecue fund-raiser (in January) of Boy Scout Troop 33 at Sardis Presbyterian Church is amazing. And Charlotte has a handful of barbecue places. To me, the best barbecue comes from an open pit, over the glowing coals that only hickory wood can produce. The only place that does this is the Old Hickory House, which ironically serves more of a Georgia-style barbecue sauce than a Carolina one. But it's still my favorite. The other barbecue eateries cook/smoke the pork in gas ovens.
Are there other dishes besides fried chicken, fried fish and barbecue? Dr. Tom Hanchett, historian at the Levine Museum of the New South, added brains and eggs -- like you get at John's Country Kitchen (don't laugh; Mario Batali serves lamb brain ravioli in NYC), or fried baloney sandwiches. Mike behind the counter at the Fresh Market suggested pimento cheese sandwiches, and Morrill added sweet potato pie. During sporting playoffs, Mayor Pat McCrory bets Bojangles' fried chicken and Lance crackers, although once he had to pony up some of Bubba's barbecue. Why these choices? McCrory pointed out that Bojangles' is headquartered in Charlotte, as is Lance. He also noted that people associate all of North Carolina, Charlotte included, with barbecue, hence the Bubba connection. (But Mr. Mayor, it's eastern style 'cue.)
McCrory noted Charlotte doesn't have a signature dish -- yet. He added, "Within the decade, we will see some kind of signature dish -- probably from some of the home grown restaurants which will come from the culinary graduates of one of the three schools in town. [CPCC, Johnson & Wales University and the Art Institute of Charlotte]."
Maybe this will happen. But a signature dish is organic. A chef needs to create something fabulous for food writers to rhapsodize over and other chefs to copy. Until then, though, I'll enjoy a rustic take on neo-classic Charlotte: a quarter white from Price's and a glass of Childress reserve.
To contact Tricia regarding tips, compliments or complaints or to send notice of a food or wine event (at least 12 days in advance, please), opening, closing or menu change, fax Eaters' Digest at 704-944-3605, leave voice mail at 704-522-8334, ext. 136, or e-mail email@example.com.
The Food Issue