by David Cecelski
The sign on the outside of the Cook Shack, on US 901 in
Union Grove, in Iredell County, says “Sandwiches. Groceries. Guns.
Ammo. Hunting Licenses.” But you walk in the front door on a Saturday
morning and it’s a whole lot more: a freewheeling country, old-time,
and gospel music open jam with a crowd of folks picking and strumming
A local couple, Myles and Pal Ireland, have hosted these
gatherings at their little grill and community store for 40 years. The
music starts early on Saturday mornings, usually around 8 AM. But when
I got there at twelve-thirty, eight or nine guys were still playing.
They looked like they were having the time of their lives, too.
They played in the store’s one big room, which is wall-papered
with record jackets, guitar magazine ads, and concert posters. The
grill is off to one side, with a counter and 6 or 7 booths.
I ordered a bowl of pinto beans and cornbread and settled into a
booth a few feet from the nearest group of musicians. Some were in
their 60s or 70s, some looked like teenagers. My waiter looked like a
teenager, too. He called the cook “Nana.”
For me the highlight of the Cook Shack’s lunch-time jam was an
older gentleman’s solo rendition of “Unchained Melody,” the song that
Roy Orbison, the Platters, and of course the Righteous Brothers made a
big hit in the ‘50s and ‘60s. When he sang "Lonely rivers flow/To the
sea/to the sea/to the open arms of the sea," everybody at the grill put
down their soup spoons and coffee cups and just listened.
His voice was gravely, but soft and tender, and just lovely. He
sang like he had known all the love and hurt and loss in the world.
I’ve always enjoyed the way that young crooners like the
Righteous Brothers sang that song. But when an old man with a voice
full of feeling sings, "And time goes by so slowly/And time can do so
much," it really stirs the soul.
I finished my lunch while the gentleman sang an encore, “Blue
Ridge Mountain Blues,” the old Earl Scruggs’ song about a fellow who
longs to go home to the mountains. I know my lunch was just a bowl of
pinto beans and cornbread, but I don’t know when I’ve had a nicer meal.
NCFOOD is the North Carolina Folklife Institute’s blog exploring our state’s traditional cooking and foodways. Every highway and byway in the state is a potential jumping off point for a food adventure, whether discovering the Restaurante Rosa de Saron in Sampson County or the Pakse Café in Greensboro.
You’ll find stories and personal experiences about farmers and food artisans, local recipes, and great traditional eateries -- a celebration of the rich and diverse food traditions of North Carolina. Celebrate the magic that happens when many cultures come together around a common table.
Title photo of Altapass Orchard by Cedric N. Chatterley