By Brian Reed
In 1898, Pepsi got its start in New Bern, N.C., under the inauspicious name Brad’s Drink; years later in Winston-Salem, N.C., the equally sweet Krispy Kreme started lighting up a “Hot” neon sign that got locals salivating. Soon, the world found out about these and other culinary creations in the Carolinas and was eager to bring its curiosity and appetites to the region.
If you are a foodie, here are some unforgettable stops to whet your palate.
It is no secret that Asheville is a growing foodie destination in the North Carolina mountains, but who knew it was also Beer City USA? The city recently won an online poll by Examiner.com to take the title because of its many innovative microbreweries. But that is only a small slice of what is going on there.
“The Asheville food scene is getting lots of attention, and it is very exciting,” said Dodie Stephens, senior communications manager at the Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau. “When you come into the city, there is an air of creativity everywhere you go. It isn’t just typical Southern cuisine; all of the cuisine has a creative feel and is tied to what is grown here.”
The farm-to-table concept has been a part of Asheville for years through the scores of farmers markets that pop up around the city at harvest. A major player is the Western North Carolina Farmers Market, which goes beyond produce to include artisan bakers, chocolatiers, musicians and crafts.
If it is wine you are seeking, Biltmore Winery is one of the most visited wineries in the United States. Once the dairy barn for the Biltmore Estate, Biltmore Winery offers general tours as well as special wine tastings and red wine-and-chocolate-pairing seminars.
The winery isn’t the only culinary treasure operating at Biltmore. The estate’s Farm at Antler Hill Village takes visitors back in time to see the operation of a farm from the early 1900s, where interpreters raise vegetables and animals.
Asheville is also a leader in eco-conscious methods: The city features the greenest restaurants in the nation, with 17 certified green restaurants that incorporate composting, solar panels and other earth-friendly techniques.
Since it opened in 2005, Charleston Cooks! has been teaching tourists how to cook classic Southern recipes with hands-on classes and culinary demonstrations about making pasta from scratch, cooking fish and shellfish to perfection, and pairing food and wine.
“One of our most popular classes is the Taste of the Lowcountry demonstration that is really geared to visitors,” said Danielle Wecksler, general manager. The class looks at traditional Lowcountry or Southern dishes and shows how they would be created in a refined, professional kitchen.
Of course, most visitors want to learn how to make the signature dish of the region, shrimp and grits, which is expertly demonstrated. Best of all, even in the demonstration classes, everyone gets to sample the creations.
“Our Thai Favorites class has been a wildly popular hands-on class lately,” said Wecksler. “It sells out every time.”
Participation is limited to 12 to 15 people for hands-on classes because of the size of the kitchen; demonstration classes can accommodate up to 34. However, groups can schedule private customized classes around the regular schedule for a personalized experience.
Competition Dining Series
Imagine being a judge on “Iron Chef,” tasting the culinary creations of two master chefs in competition. That is exactly what groups have the opportunity to experience at the Competition Dining Series in North Carolina.
The Dining Series is the brainchild of Jimmy Crippen, who tried to increase slow winter sales by organizing chefs to compete in a six-course cooking competition where diners taste the dishes and vote on which they like best to decide the winner.
“The diners don’t know whose food is whose, so the voting is done blindly,” said Susan Dosier, public relations representative for the Competition Dining Series. “The competition has brought up the entire level of cooking in the state and given the chefs a chance to be in the spotlight.”
Every competition has a secret ingredient chosen by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture. It can be a delicious seasonal vegetable or fruit, or — as it was in a recent competition — catfish.
As the competition has developed over the past seven years, so has the number of contests. This year’s is the first to go statewide with four events throughout the state — Fire on the Rock in Blowing Rock, Fire on the Dock in Wrightsville Beach, Fire in the Triangle in Raleigh and Fire in the Triad in Greensboro.
Dosier said competitions in Charlotte and Asheville might be added next year.