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Grace in the Blue Ridge Mountains

The Asheville, North Carolina restaurant was one of those common to our post-post-modern world. Open and airy with a wall of windows framing hanging plants. Casual to the point of paper napkins. Sporting a list of local beers and — surprise — local wines. Tarted up with the kind of overtly ironic art on the walls where the painter has one statement and one image in his repertoire and repeats it ad nauseam. This time it seemed that the sensibility being trotted out was one of Hieronymous Bosch meets Hello Kitty.

The menu, a litany of updated regional classics such as black-eyed pea cakes, was relentlessly “improved” by garnishes such as avocados and Basmati rice. The joint’s “philosophy” — since all new restaurants must now publish a justifying manifesto along with their menu — centered on the now tedious homage to “local” “organic” produce and a dedication to “reviving tradition” — plus the removal of trans-fats. Collard greens, sweetened lima beans, and salty-sweet potatoes bracketed the entrees. In the center you’d find rib-eyes under slathers of sauteed onions, broiled slabs of local fish dusted with some orange spice, chickens with a roasted-on glaze, pork in five different variations, and dried cranberries slipped into cakes on the sly just when you thought it was safe.

It was a boutique version of the kind of food once common to the region, but that now survived either in roadside diners named “Granny’s” and “Hubert and Sal’s,” or at upscale nostalgic eateries such as this one. I suppose you could call it a “cuisine” — as the local magazines and guides are wont to do — but that word has too many curlicues. Call it “eats” and get on with it.

The diners seemed to agree and were not slow about getting on with their meals. One man to my right hulked over his plate like some Turkish sumo and ate mechanically as if his hands were backhoes in a mountain graveyard, the coffin inbound on the midnight train and the kinfolk getting antsy. Across from him, a slim woman ate in a punctuated manner and talked at him at the same time, her hand gestures angular and as precise as scalpels. He nodded dully as if barely feeling her opinions and just put his head down and ate right on through them, looking up just often enough and nodding just slightly enough that she might believe he was actually hearing her.

Hearing anyone was a sometimes thing in this room. It was one of those restaurants whose hard ceilings, walls, and floors made for a constant din and clatter and clang. You had to raise your voice to be heard over it, and — since raising your voice added to the din — it made you and everyone else speak ever louder until the yabble peaked, then plunged into brief silence as everyone lapsed back into murmurs. Then it began building, again, inevitably to shouts, and so on.

It was a down-home yuppified place with a pretty good kitchen and fine intentions. It was a place where you could get the same meal you could get at “Granny’s Country Kitchen” out along the highway, but you could rest assured that none of the boys from the hills — those with flag decals on the pickup’s bumper and a deer rifle on a rack in the rear window — would be smoking or farting or telling tales next to you. This privilege only cost you about three times as much.

This was downtown Asheville in the heart of the freshly gentrified, cosmopolitan zone and instead of pick-ups rattling down the streets, Porsches prowled growling in the night outside the rock-climbing gym. This was an armed cultural hamlet in the New South, guarded by down-home decorating parlors ready to give your custom log-cabin that shabby chic lived-in look; where the sentries were hair salons called “The People” with mirrors in front of each station resembling nothing so much as the guillotines that “The People” of France once used so effectively in solving their aristocracy problem. The difference here was that the new aristocracy of this region was busy admiring themselves in the mirrors of these guillotines with nary a Marat or Robespierre in sight. Instead, downtown Asheville — or at least some small section at the top of the hills — was relentlessly promoting our new secular religion of senseless and endless shopping opportunities.

Down in the gulch streets below the mini-Madison Avenue of Asheville, a wide variety of ethnic restaurants from the Jerusalem Cafe to Mela Indian foods jostles with used book stores and the ubiquitous tattoo parlors. Antique stores have arrived with a vengeance as have poodles and other toy breeds that bring with them shops devoted to “canine cuisine”. After all, once you’ve got a whole generation of 20 or 30 and sometimes 40 somethings that have elected to raise dogs rather than children, nothing is too good for your fur-faced kids, is it?

And where there are bakeries for dogs, there are restaurants whose owners handle regional foods as carefully as curators in a museum. In this, I admit, they do not do half-bad at the Early Girl Eatery where quick bread can be had at breakfast for three bucks a plate, and slow-cooked pork in the evening for fifteen. It’s not quite the roadside diner down in the hollar, but that land’s been bulldozed for one of the endless gated communities sprouting across the landscape in these parts like dubious toadstools. At least at the Early Girl you’re pretty sure the pork isn’t road kill. And even if it was, the sauces and seasoning would make up for it.

The check had come and I’d paid it. They’d filled the restaurant and turned it once since we’d been there. A popular place. A post-postmodern place, a place that was a sterling example of how we live now — the real and the regional reduced to a remembrance, the communities gated, the homes “maintenance -free.” History in a bottle, cleaned, pressed and with the trans-fats removed. Just the way we like it. Traditional in style but tradition-free in content. The experience without the meaning and not missing it.

As I got up to leave the family of six at the long table across from me was served with the quick flourish and satisfied air of presentation that is the style of serving these days. The was food steaming in front of them, but none of them made a move towards it. Instead, they talked quietly amongst themselves and seemed to come to a decision. They made their selection from among them. It was to be one of the daughters, a girl of about 17 I guessed. The din in the restaurant rose and fell, but the family of six sat quietly and then bowed their heads as one. Then they said grace.

I stood motionless at my table. I had, I thought, never seen this before in a restaurant. I’d seen it in private homes to be sure, but upon reflection I realized that I’d not seen it there in quite some time. And I was quite sure this was, for me, a rare event. I’d probably not been paying attention since it no doubt went on all the time, but still it was a startling moment. Perhaps I’d just been too long in Seattle where the only manifestations of spirit are flimsy; where the invocations are raised to a watery Buddhism or bloodless Unitarianism where God is impossibly distant if at all extant. Be that as it may, this simple act of saying grace did not so much shock me as still me. I paused to listen in. And the daughter did not disappoint.

Her’s was no gestural grace — “Bless this food. Amen. Let’s eat.” — but an extended meditation on the good fortune to find oneself among family and before a rich selection of food; an acknowledgment of an unusual level of being blessed by God, and a calling down of God’s grace on members of the family present and not present, and ending with a wish that God continue to bless the family, the community, the state and the country. Then, and only then, was “Amen” spoken and the meal begun.

Outside along the Asheville streets, it was a balmy evening. Down the block another restaurant offered “Exceptional International Vegetarian Food,” and a shop on the corner sold items imported from Africa whose purchase was purported to help suffering children here and there in that blighted continent. A local freebie paper picked off a stack had decided that a photo of a tribal protest in Santiago, Chile on the Dia de la Raza was important information for the citizens of this part of town. Down in the Asheville hipster-dopester-homeless gulch at a more cut-rate vegetarian restaurant, citizens with shaved heads, “message” t-shirts, multiple facial piercing and full-body tattoos were climbing the stairs in search of a bran muffin, bitching about George Bush, global warming, and their personal collection of STDs while complaining of residual racism in a city that seems more white than Seattle.

The road back to the house in the hills was dark and winding and you had to take it slow. Going back it was nice to know that somewhere, somehow, and for reasons that sometimes challenge all understanding, there were people still asking God to bless America.


[First published October 2007]

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Glenda T. Goode February 20, 2019, 8:48 AM

    It seems that this article is even more relevant today. We see the ‘new agism’ sprouting all over the country as they Millenials, gen x y and z people all try to find meaning for their lives. Now, why would they do so in this manner?? That is to try to either be noble or to be reflective of a greater intellect?

    The answer lies in the education system as well as the new cultural norms we see. The new age curriculum strips away the pride that we used to hold for America with a new ‘appreciation’ of multiculturalism or globalism if you really want to be honest. Further, the eradication of what were cherished historical references such as monuments to the civil war and especially southern causes have essentially taken any local pride away from many communities and all that is left is the altruistic approach that our liberal leaders want the nation to embody.

    You can still find the old diners with the simple menus and without the ‘packaging’ of hoity toity society but you will have to get outside of the ‘woke’ communities in order to find it. This entails heading into the what the left thinks of as the cultural backwaters where social enlightenment has not taken hold. You run the risk of being a subject of scrutiny if you sport the piercings and statement oriented t shirts. These areas are getting harder and harder to find as they are being exterminated by the left as they seek to eradicate the classic American culture from our society.

    I am old enough to remember these places as being the hearts of their communities. Tradition and culture all wrapped up in a plate of homemade food that reminded you of where you came from and how good it is. Where I live at present these are getting terribly difficult to find and when you do find one, get what you can of them because progress and government are making them an endangered species.

  • churchladyiowa February 20, 2019, 9:22 AM

    Being the anal English major I would have been, my favorite on the menu list is “Tomtoes.” It could be several different things: tom cat digits, or a Thanksgiving turkey’s amputated claws. Heck, I say exhume Tom Edison to see if his feet are intact!

  • Marica February 20, 2019, 12:08 PM

    Reading the first paragraph, I thought it was Early Girl. By the first sentence of the second, I knew it. And sure enough, it was Early Girl. So let me set the record straight. Early Girl is awful. As is my custom when traveling anywhere that is— or pretends to be— The South, I ordered sausage gravy and biscuits. EG’s tarted up version I believe was with smoked bacon. Strange but, bacon. Awful. Actually, disgusting would describe it better. As if they’d dumped half a bottle of liquid smoke in it.

    I appreciate that this was not the point of the piece, just doing my own little spot of good work making sure no one here actually goes to EG when in Ashville. Also, don’t go to Ashville.

  • MIKE GUENTHER February 20, 2019, 12:47 PM

    Ashville is basically the Smokey Mountains version of San Francisco.

    Ashville and it’s environs have become unaffordable for normal folks. People selling their mountain land to developers for a pittance, to be broken up into 3/4 acre lots for upscale folk’s second, third or sometimes fourth vacation homes. I mean for sure, a “cabin” in the Smokey’s to go along with the ski chalet in Vail and the condo on the beach in South Florida.

    In Shelbyville IN working right now. There’s a cafe across the street from the job that is run by an 80+ yr old lady. It’s definitely good country cooking. They have a tenderloin sandwich, the meat is as big around as your head, plus fries is less than 6 bucks.

  • Anonymous February 20, 2019, 1:09 PM

    I find it ironic that Ashville is located in Buncome County:

    Anti-vaccination stronghold in N.C. hit with state’s worst chickenpox outbreak in 2 decades By Isaac Stanley-Becker • November 19, 2018
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2018/11/19/anti-vaccination-stronghold-nc-hit-with-states-worst-chickenpox-outbreak-decades/

    Cases of chickenpox have been multiplying at the Asheville Waldorf* School, which serves children from nursery school to sixth grade in Asheville, N.C. About a dozen infections grew to 28 at the beginning of the month. By Friday, there were 36, the Asheville Citizen-Times reported.

    The outbreak ranks as the state’s worst since the chickenpox vaccine became available more than 20 years ago. Asheville Waldorf has one of the highest religious vaccination exemption rates in the state, according to data maintained by the state’s Department of Health and Human Services. The private school has a higher rate of exemption on religious grounds than all but two other North Carolina schools, the Citizen-Times reported. During the 2017-18 school year, 19 of 28 kindergartners were exempt from at least one vaccine required by the state. Of the school’s 152 students, 110 had not received the chickenpox vaccine, the newspaper reported.

    “Buncombe County health official says area at high risk for measles outbreak” by Darren Botelho • Wednesday, February 6th 2019
    https://wlos.com/news/local/buncombe-county-health-official-says-area-at-high-risk-for-measles-outbreak

    Buncombe County’s medical director issued a warning Wednesday after outbreaks hit 10 states, including nearby Georgia. … Jennifer Mullendore, medical director at Buncombe County Health and Human Services, said the area has a high number of unvaccinated students. “We are worried, and we do think that it was only a matter of time, if we get a case of measles in our community, it could spread widely,” Mullendore said.

    *not religious really, just hippy dippy. mostly dippy.

  • Walter Sobchak February 20, 2019, 1:10 PM

    I posted the above comment about diseased people in Ashville.

  • Rick February 20, 2019, 2:04 PM

    Asheville was such a nice place 50 years ago before the Yankees decided that maybe the south wasn’t so bad after all. There are a lot of cities I have no interest in even seeing again, Seattle, Portland, NYC, SF, LA, Austin, and now Asheville.

  • Montefrío February 22, 2019, 5:00 AM

    I had a partner from Madison County, adjacent to Buncome, and though a strange concatenation of circumstances ended up spending five months atop a mountain in Leicester (pronounced LEE-sester), on the other side of the French Broad River (good rafting). I’m a native NYer, preppy-Ivy version,something the locals noticed quickly. Nevertheless, we all got on well once they realized I was an unpretentious anachronism they’d nicknamed “the Philadelphia lawyer”, a phrase that is likely meaningless today. I was never taken for a hippy. This was in the mid-90s and hippy-dippy outlanders were not to be seen much outside Asheville proper, which to a degree still maintained its Old South charm . Even so, the first sketches of the handwriting on the wall could be seen.

    The place where I stayed is now an upscale subdivision. I shudder to think what Asheville, Mars Hill, etc., are like a quarter century later.

  • Nobody Atall February 22, 2019, 7:29 AM

    After an adulthood of living in major metro areas across the nation, Better Half and I recently moved “back home,” to my parents’ born-and-raised-small-town in an area somewhat outside of a major metro area in Flyover. Can’t be more relieved and relaxed to live here. There are no dogs-instead-of-children people here, though there are elderly widows with dogs instead of attentive adult children. Families here are usually small, but many younger couples are having bigger families than my generation typically did. There are twice as many churches as bars. Our favorite local eatery looks like a dump inside and out — the owner last decorated when she bought the place eleventy-some years ago, but the waitresses bring our preferred beverages as we choose a table and they ask whether we want a menu for that visit. They do not introduce themselves, and they obviously know most of the patrons personally from of old; perhaps in a few years, we will be in that group. Maybe the food is not as good as Mom’s food, because she could Cook! But it’s warming and filling and comforting and the same food my ancestors ate in this county going back 187 years. Prayer in public is a regular occurrence. The satisfaction of this connection with Time and Tradition has surprised me and made me ever more grateful. May G-d bless the United States of America and make all of us ever more grateful for the biggest privilege in the world — being an American.

  • Steve February 22, 2019, 8:14 AM

    I read this wonderful piece when it was first published and always regretted I had not copied and saved it. I’m mighty grateful to have stumbled upon it once again. Now its going into my archives for reference on some future day when I feel the walls closing in and am desperate for a ray of sunlight.

  • tscottme February 22, 2019, 1:21 PM

    The hippies have ruined Asheville and they are ruining Nashville, TN as we speak.