A CORNBREAD ELEGY
Remembering Williamston’s R&C Restaurant.
I’m finishing my New Years collard greens and black-eyed peas and thinking about some of the wonderful eateries that we lost during 2008. The one that really broke my heart was the R&C Restaurant in Williamston, 100 miles east of Raleigh. The R&C had been a downtown landmark since the 1940s. Named for its proprietors, Russell and Carrie Griffin, the R&C was just the kind of glorious sanctuary of Southern hospitality and country-style cooking that we may never see again.
The most extraordinary dish at the R&C was always Miss Carrie’s cornbread. Made with only cornmeal, lard, salt, and a little egg, baked at a high temperature, and flavored with Miss Carrie’s inspiration—she made it by feel, no recipe, no measuring—that cornbread was so thin, so crispy, and so delicious that most of us came close to swooning after every bite.
I first tasted Miss Carrie’s cornbread back in 1982 or ’83. Even back then, the restaurant’s old diamond-shaped sign was rusted and the storefront faded, but a place with food that good didn’t have to worry much about its looks. And I’m not just talking about the cornbread either. Everything was memorable at the R&C.
I especially loved the R&C’s peppery cabbage, the sweet, tender rutabagas and the fresh collard greens. Oh, those collard greens! The Griffins purchased their collards for years from the Waters family in Chocowinity and served them fresh every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
Slow-cooked with side meat and served with homemade pepper vinegar, those collards were so good that, when the daily special called for a meat and two vegetables, I usually just ordered “double collards.” In a fallen world of frozen and canned greens, the R&C held steadfast to the good and pure.
My favorite meat dish was the roast pork and gravy. It was absolutely beguiling—so tender that you could cut it with a fork. And that wasn’t instant gravy either. I’d usually order the roast pork with my double collard greens and when my meal arrived with a basket of Miss Carrie’s cornbread, I felt like a king.
The R&C was also a homey place, warm and cozy on a winter night, relaxed and breezy on a hot summer day. The proprietors, the waitresses, and the kitchen help were all big-hearted, friendly, courteous people. The kitchen was behind a low counter next to the front door, so you could see and hear everything going on there. I always enjoyed hearing the playful, sassy banter.
Magdalene Sheppard, who cooked there for 37 years and misses it something terrible, recently told me that the R&C was her “home away from home.” I think I know how she feels.
Warm and convivial, the R&C attracted people of all stripes. You’d see workers there who had come straight from their shift at the poultry slaughterhouse in Robersonville, but also elderly widows from big farms as far away as Bear Grass and Oak City. All craved a taste of the R&C’s country cooking, and maybe a little reminder of the Sunday dinners that mommas or grandmommas used to make back on the farm.
The R&C’s decline was gradual, then sudden. Some time ago, Miss Carrie burned herself badly pulling a pan of cornbread out of the oven and couldn’t work any more. Then Mr. Russell passed away two years ago. Their daughter Brenda kept the place going without them, but times were changing and people just weren’t shopping or eating downtown like they once did.
Over the restaurant’s annual 4th of July break, Brenda realized that the R&C’s time had passed. The restaurant served its last basket of that unforgettable cornbread just a few days later, on the afternoon of July 7th.
HOMAGE TO A RED & WHITE
Here at the beginning of 2009 I’m also thinking about another place that closed this past year. Last winter the Carolina Duke Red & White Grocery in Durham shut down after more than 50 years of serving the community. Tiny compared to modern supermarkets, this little grocery was a piece of the country here in the big city. Billy Matthews, his son, and his 3 or 4 employees had all worked there forever. They could tell you what farmer supplied their collards and sweet potatoes and they were so old-fashioned that they made their own aged and air-dried link sausage. They also made a hot patty sausage encased in a thick layer of red pepper that was the best that I ever tasted.
To the day they closed, Billy Matthews and his employees delivered groceries once a week to the homes of elderly people who were too frail or too sick to go grocery shopping on their own. That’s how old-fashioned they were. Without that help, a lot of those elderly people would not have been able to continue living at home.
The Carolina Duke Red & White was the last of its kind.
Another place I’ll sorely miss that closed last year was one of my favorite fish markets: My Lord, Honey, in Beaufort. Two Down East ladies, Perry Bayer and Teresa Campbell, opened that little market just a few years ago, but in a building that had been a fish market and grocery for decades. The shop’s name came from an endearing and a little bit insouciant expression commonly used in the old fishing villages east of Beaufort.
Everything was good at My Lord, Honey. The proprietors were friendly and helpful, they carried the best local fish and shellfish, and they wouldn’t sell it to you if it wasn’t fresh. I purchased everything from chowder clams to jumping mullet from them and I always left happy.
The last time I was in the fish market I was looking for mullet roe or menhaden roe to stew with sweet potatoes and corn dumplings, an old, very traditional dish in those parts. They were all out, but Ms. Campbell gave me some sea trout roe. It wasn’t on the “for sale” board and she wasn’t sure I’d like it, so she didn’t even charge me. She told me that a few of Beaufort’s old timers had a special fondness for the salty delicacy, so she tried to keep a little stash for them in the freezer.
That’s the kind of people Ms. Campbell and Ms. Bayer were—and their husbands, too. Both of the guys were ex-commercial fishermen and they worked as hard at the business as their wives did.
Making a living in the seafood business is always tough. My Lord, Honey was only with us a short time, but I hope the Bayers and Campbells know how much they were appreciated.
R&C photo by Sarah Bryan; My Lord, Honey photo by David Cecelski