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What would you put on your North Carolina food bucket list?
If you only had another week in North Carolina, what would you eat before you left? Would it be pork barbecue, a mix of unctuously rich meat and puckeringly piquant vinegar sauce that’s so engrained in Carolina cuisine that one only needs to say “barbecue” to know exactly what they mean?
Maybe a Bright Leaf hot dog, its fluorescent red glow poking through the fine beef chili, creamy coleslaw, chopped onions and yellow mustard piled on top?
I ask because this open-ended question isn’t hypothetical to me anymore.
Friday is my last day at The Fayetteville Observer. At the end of the month, this native Upstate New Yorker is heading home to join the Center of Excellence for Food and Agriculture at Cornell University, where I’ll promote and tell the stories of those shaping the future of food and agriculture in New York and beyond.
It’s an incredible opportunity to continue doing what I love, but it’s bittersweet because it means leaving the Fayetteville community that has welcomed me with open arms since I arrived in town as a North Carolina newbie early last year.
Until last year, the extent of my time in North Carolina was passing through on Interstate 77 on family vacations to Florida and South Carolina. We always stopped for the night in Statesville, because my father would want to swing by the now-departed JR Cigar outlet store and stock up.
Suffice it to say, I didn’t know much about North Carolina when I got here, but because food has a knack of bringing people together and telling the story of one’s culture in a language we can all understand, I think I picked up on things pretty quick. Even in New York, I grew up knowing the glow of the “hot doughnuts now” sign at Krispy Kreme meant good things were in store and I always liked my pulled pork with vinegar sauce anyway.
I think it all clicked for me on a Wednesday afternoon in late April 2021 when I stopped into Zorba’s for a late lunch of spaghetti and meatballs. To know Fayetteville is to know Zorba’s and if you’ve even so much as driven by the bright blue restaurant on Raeford Road and saw the towering sign outside, then you know that Wednesday is spaghetti day. For $4.25 ($4.50 now), you get a generous helping of spaghetti topped with homemade sauce and a side of garlic bread. Two meatballs cost 50 cents extra and are well worth the quarters.
That meal was the impetus for my Fayetteville Hidden Gems column, which ran every other week from soon after that meal at Zorba’s until now.
The goal of the column, of the Fayetteville Foodies Facebook group I launched and all my work has been to show that the food served around the Fayetteville area is worth paying attention to. Last fall, I did a deep dive into Fayetteville’s restaurant history, a twisting timeline of segregation, integration, expansion, decay and renewal that to me, appears to be slowly moving on the right track.
Before I arrived, I was told Fayetteville didn’t have much of a dining scene, that all the area could aspire to was adding to the selection of chain restaurants that dot the west side of the city. I hope I proved that stereotype wrong.
I’ll miss the hush puppies of all shapes and sizes and finding excellent biscuits at breakfast seemingly everywhere I go. I’ll miss the tacos, gorditas, pupusas and all the rest of the stellar Mexican fare. I’ll miss the spots, croaker and shrimp fresh from the shore, the shatteringly crisp fried chicken and the collard green sandwiches with fried cornbread and plenty of fatback. I’ll even miss the gas station boiled peanuts and late-night Cookout trays, because anyone who says they don’t like Cookout milkshakes is either uninformed or a liar.
One day I’ll drive from Asheville to Greenville and eat at every real-deal barbecue spot along the way before heading down the coast for my fill of Calabash seafood. I only scratched the surface of this vast state full of regional quirks, delicious food and wonderful people.
As this newsletter goes on hiatus, I want to thank you for reading, for writing to me with suggestions of where to eat next, for the conversations we’ve shared over food, for teaching this northerner a thing or two about the South.
I see the over 51,000 people who joined our Fayetteville Foodies Facebook group. Of all things I’ve done over the last year, seeing that community grow to what it is today is intensely gratifying.
I knew Fayetteville had a story to tell and good food to share. Thanks for believing in me.
This article originally appeared on The Fayetteville Observer: What would you put on your North Carolina food bucket list?