Cracking the case with collards

Your mid-week dose of Southern food news

If Monday’s edition of The Food Section is still sitting in your inbox, you’re missing out on a story about a historic Gullah community beating back a craft beer bar encroaching on their family land.

In today’s issue, you’ll find youthful biscuitry (Cumming, Georgia); a collards clue (Gaston, South Carolina); catfish competition (Mize, Mississippi) and a cocktail compendium ostensibly associated with mountaineers. (Asheville, North Carolina).

In the big book of Southern food stereotypes, biscuits are associated with weary matriarchs in floured aprons who mix, beat, and bake strictly by muscle memory.

Brandy White is not that woman.

White, 30, was a graphic designer for a gaming company when she heard her father’s stepmother was selling Daisy’s Drive Thru, the single-wide Cumming, Georgia biscuit shop that she’d opened in 2001.

“Do you think she’d sell it to me?” White asked. “I’d kind of like to give it a shot.”

With experience working in her family’s restaurants and managing a Chick-fil-A, White figured she knew enough about the food business to sell breakfast sandwiches. But she was also counting on her “youthful enthusiasm and energy” to rejuvenate the place.

This year, White ditched “Daisy’s” and picked a name she thought would resonate with the many hikers who visit the area. While Sawnee Mountain Biscuit Co. still offers homemade catheads with fried bologna; hoop cheese; grape jelly or a splash of gravy for a quarter, it also serves salmon burritos and hot chicken, inspired by a trip that White and her wife took to Nashville.

“Kids are wild about the hot chicken,” White confirms.

That’s market research that White didn’t have any trouble conducting. Fortuitously for a biscuit purveyor stressing its unaged spirit, Sawnee Mountain is located right across the street from the town’s elementary, middle and high schools.  

Sawnee Mountain Biscuit Co. opens at 6 a.m., Tuesday-Saturday. For more information, visit sawneemtnbiscuitco.com.

The Gaston Collard Festival in Lexington County, South Carolina was cancelled in 2019 on account of bad weather and called off in 2020 in hopes of slowing the pandemic’s spread. But the decades-old event is back this Saturday, Oct. 2, complete with antique cars and a beauty pageant.

Collards are usually a supporting player when barbecue is in the picture, but smoked pork is listed as a side dish at this (typically) annual event. Cornbread, black-eyed peas and pound cake are also on the festival menu.

Still, the most important thing that the Gaston Collard Festival ever served up was insight into the town’s crooked finances. In 2007, a citizens’ group demanded to know where festival revenue was going; after the town refused to open its books, a state audit revealed the former mayor, former town clerk and the town clerk’s daughter had misappropriated hundreds of thousands of dollars of public funds.

All three pleaded guilty to related charges in 2012.

For more information, visit gastonsc.org.

Mize, Mississippi is home to 285 people and two catfish houses. Since 2013, Stacey and Denise Luckey have urged fish fans to “come get hooked” at Luckey’s Fish House. Now, though, locals also have the option of ordering from Off the Hook Fish House. Considerably more casual than the dinner-only Luckey’s, which also serves steak, Off the Hook features catfish platters; catfish sandwiches and catfish tacos.

“I love tamales,” says Daphne Hall-Lombardi, who as a little girl in southern California used to accompany her Louisiana-born father on regular visits to a New Orleans expat’s tamale truck.

When Hall-Lombardi realized her coworker’s mother was an experienced tamale maker, she pestered her for masa instruction. Every time she asked, the woman demurred, explaining that tamales are a special occasion dish in Mexican culture. But she finally relented, inviting Hall-Lombardi home for a private lesson.

“She taught me how to roll them; she taught me how to make the chili, but she said, ‘The spices will come from you’,” Hall-Lombardi recalls.

By 2003, when Hall-Lombardi moved to Louisiana, she had her recipe figured out. She started selling tamales, getting a business boost when the local district attorney recommended a judge serve them at his post-election party.

Hall-Lombardi later opened a small restaurant in Mansfield, Louisiana but closed following a dispute with her landlord. She then set up a soul food-and-tamale stand at a B-Kwik Chevron station, but the owner objected to the smell of chitterlings.

Now Hall-Lombardi has her own store, rented from a landlord she likes. While it’s called Daphne’s Tamales, she says, “I do neckbones; I do oxtails; I do baked chicken; I do speckled lima beans and mustard greens: You name it, I do it.”

Front Street Takeout, a pandemic stopgap solution that Marybeth Druzbick and Eric Mintz last year devised for their new restaurant space in Dillsboro, North Carolina, has proved so popular that the pair will continue to operate it. But Druzbick told The Sylva Herald and Ruralite that Quirky Birds Treehouse & Bistro, located next door, will encompass their original vision for live music, a full bar and thin-crust pizza pies.

When visitors to a Southern city experience its culinary scene, they tend to feel like they have a firmer grasp on its culture. But as an object acquired by the new North Carolina Craft Beverage Museum demonstrates, there’s a long history of folks in the food-and-drink trade misleading tourists by telling them what they want to hear.

Three Mountaineers, an Asheville firm incorporated in 1932, was officially a craft manufacturer: The company started out selling handmade pottery and woodwork but switched to mass-produced shlock as its sales increased. In 1979, Three Mountaineers secured the trademark for “genuine olde pine finish.”

Yet the outfit dabbled in drink with the 1941 publication of Here’s How: Mixed Drinks, a souvenir cocktail book cord-bound between two pinewood boards.

There is absolutely nothing uniquely Appalachian about Here’s How, authored by W.C. Whitfield, a Georgian living in Tennessee: The manual includes recipes for popular drinks such as the gin fizz and Singapore Sling. But the cover looks old-timey, and the frontispiece features a quartet of elfish mountain dwellers, one of whom is drinking straight from a barrel.

“The imagery plays into that kind of sensationalized mountain culture,” says museum director Kimberly Floyd. “There’s this stereotype that people living in western North Carolina are isolated.”

Floyd found the museum’s copy of the book online while browsing for antique bottle corkers to use in teaching sessions. While the North Carolina Craft Beverage Museum doesn’t have its own location, it conducts programs and is planning to install semi-permanent exhibits at wineries, distilleries, and breweries across the state, beginning in Asheville.

Its first exhibit, covering North Carolina wine from colonization through the present, just opened at Pleb Urban Winery. Here’s How will appear in the cocktail exhibit being installed at Cultivated Cocktails; the newest location of Wedge Brewing is set to host a beer exhibit.

“We tell the social, cultural and economic history of the state through the lens of craft beverage,” Floyd, a public historian who first dreamed up the project in 2016, says of what people can expect to see on display.

Those craft beverages include tea and soda, Floyd adds. North Carolina, after all, is the birthplace of Pepsi and Cheerwine.

For more information, visit instagram.com/ncbevmuseum. N.B.: I first learned about the museum and its progress from Jason Sandford’s Ashevegas Hot Sheet. I’ve subscribed and not just because Jason and I covered Asheville at the same time: Highly recommended!