by Ray Linville
Have you ever wandered through a festival that showcases the best flavors and tastes of North Carolina? Imagine attending an event that highlights the best of N.C. agriculture and celebrates specialty foods made in our state.
The three-day, family-friendly Got to Be NC Festival held each May at the State Fairgrounds in Raleigh draws attention to food creations of long-standing as well newly established producers. More than 75,000 people from across the state typically attend this event.
The part of the festival I enjoyed the most occurs in the Exposition Building of the fairgrounds where food products of more than 70 N.C. producers are on display. Hundreds of different types of meats, nuts, sauces, sweets, beverages, and snack items are available to taste as well as to buy.
Beverages probably are the most popular product. The lines never end for samples of wine, cider, and juices (even muscadine juice). Displays of N.C. vineyards are especially popular, and samples frequently result in purchases to take home.
Specialty meats that include a variety of salami, pepperoni, and sausage are available for sampling. Samples of red hot dogs by Carolina Packers create a line that is always long. Another meat producer on display is Neese’s, based in Greensboro, that traces its roots to family entrepreneurs who made sausage and began delivering it throughout Guilford County almost 100 years ago in a “prairie schooner” covered wagon. At the expo its specialties include liver pudding, which I hadn’t tasted in a long time. It brought back memories of favorite aunts who used to serve it.
The specialty foods are proof of the originality and creativity of Tar Heel producers. Can you imagine someone inventive enough to create a muscadine smoothie? (Although the line for it is not as long as others, it was flavorsome.) The creativity also extends to brand names such as “Knota Yankee” that adorns the label for a rich smoky bourbon-flavored barbecue sauce, and “Durn Good” and “Dog Gone Good” are names of other barbecue sauces made in our state.
Other gourmet foods include maple butter, cookies, cakes, breads, jams and jellies, flavored popcorn, nuts, ice cream and mints. They provide a sweet taste after sampling the savory products from other vendors.
In addition to food, the festival in other areas includes music performances, carnival rides and games, farm animals, historic farm equipment, and grandstand entertainment. Special events such as a tractor parade, pig races, and antique tractor pulls are very entertaining, but the best part of the festival is tasted. Although parking and admission to the festival are free, entrance to the food exhibition requires a $2 ticket.
Food practices handed down from one generation to another – often simply as a way to commemorate traditions and preserve memories within families — provide the springboard to create businesses that now share family flavors and tastes with others. The “flavors of Carolina” are as culturally diverse as they are extraordinary delicious. Thank goodness that we appreciate our food traditions as part of our folklife – and thank goodness that it’s “got to be NC.”
Tasting the meat, cheese, and bread products as the festival reminded me of how well those components can be combined to make sausage balls, a favorite among many N.C. families. If you haven’t enjoyed them recently, this recipe may bring back memories.
Ingredients (made in N.C., of course):
1 pound pork sausage
1 pound sharp cheddar cheese
2 cups biscuit baking mix
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Combine sausage, cheese, and baking mix into large bowl.
3. Form into small balls (walnut size) and place on baking sheets.
4. Bake for 20-25 minutes until golden brown and sausage cooked thoroughly.
Yield: About 30 balls
Ray Linville writes and lectures on regional culture, including foodways and folklife. He has taught in the N.C. Community College System as a professor of English and humanities and served on the board of the N.C. Folklore Society. Read more about Ray’s ramblings at his blog: Sights, Sounds and Tastes of the American South.