I swear I'm not always writing about pigs and smoke. Except for when I am, which is often.
That being said, let's talk about a very special dinner in that mountains that happened last weekend with the Blind Pig of Asheville. The Blind Pig crew is a roving supper club comprised of Asheville's finest chefs, known for renegade gastronomical adventures (whoever says "piped mashed potatoes" gets cut), mystery locations and, frequently, special out of town guests.
This time, I drove into the mountains with my violet headed friend Tonya toward Sherrill's Inn, a historic home in Fairview, NC, just a few miles outside of Asheville. We were to attend These Southern Things, a special dinner collaboration featuring Asheville chefs Mike Moore of Seven Sows, Elliott Moss of Punk Wok and soon-to-be Buxton Hall Barbecue and one very special guest– culinary historian and food writer, Michael Twitty.
Michael pens the popular blog Afroculinaria where he explores his own identity and seeks to preserve and give voice to African American foodways and antebellum cooking techniques. You might know Michael from his powerful talk at the MAD symposium in Copenhagen last year.
We pulled up to the lush hillside of Sherrill's Inn, an historic respite for stagecoach travelers and hog drovers traveling the Hickory Nut Turnpike from Rutherfordton to Asheville. The estate is hopelessly pastoral, with green gardens and wondrously complex landscaping. The house itself is approximately 160 years old and resident, John Ager has a long history of family ties to this land.
On the hillside, tufts of smoke marked the spot. Large cast iron pots bubbled over hot coals and hand-chopped wood. Nearby, a hogs leg dangled over an open pit. Chefs Michael Twitty, Elliott Moss and Mike Moore were on their second full day of prep for this historically accurate Southern meal. The day before, they chopped down trees for firewood and foraged for ingredients with well known wild foods expert, Alan Muskat. They dug holes, built fires and battled against the elements. Unforeseen rain the morning of the dinner, nearly drowned the hopes of live fire. Nearly, but not quite. The chefs brought in raconteur and beast savant, Jeff "Rhino" Bannister of the the whole animal debauche-feast (I just made that word up), Bovinoche to help out.
The boys sweated and toiled in the smoky heat to prepare a feast for over 90 people. For Twitty, the opportunity to cook with two chefs raised in the South is an elemental part of culinary reconciliation for himself and his ancestors. The backbreaking work, a lesson in history as much as it was a labor of love. In its proper historical context, the act of cooking is a unifying act, one that did not go unnoticed on this particular day. The menu save a luscious catfish stew was served family style- fried chicken, pork barbecue, sweet, cornbread-y kush and sweet potatoes cooked in sorghum, butter and rum along with tea cakes and Edna Lewis' Tyler pie for dessert.
Bluegrass music filled the smoky sweet mountain air and the sun set in spectacular fashion against the gorgeous landscape. Guests enjoyed cocktails in the garden and Twitty led a small cultural talk before the meal. As Michael says, "the real history is not in the food, it's in the people." My sentiments exactly.
To read Michael Twitty's recap of the event, head on over to his blog Afroculinaria.