October 18, 2007

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 a Turkish sumo and ate mechanically as if his hands were back hoes in some mountain grave yard, 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 pick-up'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-post- modern 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 sometime. 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.

For now, that's the big headline news of the day here in the Blue Ridge Mountains.


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Posted by Vanderleun at October 18, 2007 9:21 AM | TrackBack
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Gerard my boy, you stumbled upon an odd collection of cultural elements in the Mid-Atlantic South. Asheville is a large small town near not much else large that has snared more than it's share of malcontents and artistic expressionists, along with a fair number of locals and traditional minded families that seem to coexsist at least ok with the angry college fingerlings.

The lack of manners by many of us has become something of a badge of honor, and is one of the trends whos death I will be glad to celebrate. Men of my Grandfather's generation--the turn of the 20th century--were often un-read and mostly inexperienced in the ways of social graces but understood from a very early age that theirs was a place of respect and honor, and lived accordingly. Crudities and bad behavior were shamed away from them from the time they could talk; they would consider carrying a gun a man's right if not duty but distasteful jokes and slovenly behavior were the stuff of louts and layabouts.

The saying of grace at the table is a common practice elsewhere in NC and though is often done with a higher than necessary level of self-satisfaction (after "charch" for example), but usually is quite appropriate and tasteful. Get out into the Piedmont, or further North into other Appalachian regions and you'll find a common thread that includes a thankful and appreciative understanding of the meaning of grace in our lives.

I hope you have enjoyed your visit and I look forward to reading more in the near future.

Dan Patterson
Arrogant Infidel

Posted by: Dan Patterson at October 18, 2007 10:28 AM

I just got back from lunch with my husband at a famous BBQ place in Fort Worth, Angelos, where we held hands and bowed our heads before eating the best ribs. We got in the habit of holding hands at meals to quiet our three rowdy boys. My husband usually prays, or he'll ask one of the boys. They know not to ask old mom unless the food is super hot and needs serious cooling. Having two in the military, praying for them and all those in authority over them is my privilege.

Posted by: joyce at October 18, 2007 1:18 PM

Wow. It took a few words to set it up, but from "It was to be one of the daughters", an atom bomb could not have pulled my eyes off this essay.

Posted by: Mr Jones at October 18, 2007 1:29 PM

Great site and great commentary!

Would you be interested in a Link Exchange with The Internet Radio Network? At the IRN you can listen for free to over 45 of America's top Talk Shows via Free Streaming Audio...


Posted by: Steve at October 18, 2007 2:02 PM

Rest assured, there are millions of people in this country asking God to protect and bless it, all the time. Whether you see or hear evidence of faith, depends on where you live. When I lived in rural southern Oregon, a teacher defied the rules at the winter concert, and her class sang a song about the baby Jesus. The response from the audience was so enthusiastic, the whole building vibrated. Now, I live in San Diego county, where the high school principal and several teachers attend my church, our youth pastor holds "prayer at the flagpole" every month, and our youth leaders (there are lots) chaperone the dances. Teachers are openly Christian, even wear crosses, and actually talk about God in class. ALL the church parking lots are overflowing on Sundays. And all those people pray.

Posted by: JB at October 18, 2007 3:52 PM

Beautifully done, Gerard. When you are away for a while, your return never disappoints. I'll have to remember not to always say a perfunctory grace out in public; you never know who might be listening, or how words might carry through the noise. Thanks for the reminder.

Posted by: Kelly at October 18, 2007 4:22 PM

A beautiful moment, beautifully captured. But what are you doing up there in Seattle, man? This is what fly-over country is really like! All three million one hundred thousand square miles of it.

Posted by: Gandalin at October 18, 2007 5:10 PM

Lovely post.

I've been thinking of North Carolina lately,and the Blue Ridge Mountains are beautiful. Your post brought back a lot of memories.

Posted by: Fausta at October 18, 2007 5:26 PM

I ate at the Early Girl this same time last year. A good meal with good friends. Asheville is not what it was 20 years ago. It has lost the rustic charm that made so many fall in love with it.

I hope you made it to the Mount Mitchell Folk Art Center. And Black Mountain (head east). And if you ventured further out, Brevard. Two of my favorite places on this planet.

Posted by: Obi's Sister at October 18, 2007 5:30 PM

Ah, Asheville. My wife grew up in Asheville, and I got my tattoo down on Lex. It's a great city to visit, occasionally... but too liberal, too street-confusing, and too pretentious to live there. Luckily, the shocking beauty lies just minutes away.

Asheville is a great town to be FROM!

Posted by: Stoney at October 18, 2007 6:59 PM

You've captured the essence of the new Asheville, but isn't it amazing how participating in or even observing genuine thankfulness and prayer transports one out of the terminal gentrification, over-seasoned, over-relished, over-cute, over-historic, and over-gated world we now can hardly escape?

You are in Billy Graham country, you know.

BTW, right down the road outside a little town called Tuxedo, many moons ago, I learned to sail a little beat-up dingy, ride and jump a horse on an English saddle, sew a washcloth on the seat of my bathing suit and rollick down a slide called Pisgah, square dance with a boy at the camp across the lake and finally take up for my small town self in the midst of those sophisticated Birmingham girls who were allowed to wear nail polish when they were 11, who came to camp with pictures of boy friends and tons and tons of bubble gum----none of which I had.

Back in those days, in those beautiful, grace-filled mountains, it was enough to roast marshmellows, sing the prune song and be a Nollichucky. Some of the best days of my life for four years.

I like it that you're on this side of the continent.

Posted by: Webutante at October 19, 2007 6:39 AM

Another great blog. Thankyou.

If you want to see people say grace in a public restaurant, please come to Mt Vernon, OH, and go to the local Bob Evans. Of course, like Asheville, Mt Vernon is also in the Appalachian foothills.

Oddly enough, Mt Vernon, a Seventh Day Adventist stronghold, has a perfectly beautiful, English-style, Catholic church. Kenyon College nearby has a classic Episcopal chapel that is on the National Register. There are several fine old Congregational, Episcopal, Lutheran and Methodist chusrches, too. Perhaps piety and beautiful architecture are symbiotic.

Posted by: Bob Sykes at October 19, 2007 7:03 AM

As the father of 4 sons I can tell you - we get looks when we say grace at meals. Most of them seem to be like you, G. - a sort of 'Wow - thank goodness people still do that' reaction. I live just north of Atlanta (visit if ya' want!) and the city is (as locals say) too big to be country anymore. Asheville wants to be like that, I guess.

Posted by: Deep Thought at October 19, 2007 7:04 AM

I had a feeling you had taken off on one of your excursions across this great land of ours, and I knew it would be interesting when you reported back to headquarters.

Have a safe trip.

Posted by: gabrielpicasso at October 19, 2007 7:18 AM

The art of painting a word-picture is revived! Thank you, Gerard!

But even here in 'spiritual' Seattle, there are prayers raised to the Almighty... but you need to move beyond Capitol Hill, Queen Anne and Fremont...

Posted by: Bob at October 19, 2007 7:32 AM

Seattle isn't as Unitarian as you think. I left there a few years ago but we had 7 Orthodox Synagogues. Grace in Orthodox Judaism is said mostly after the meal, but it is large and very real. And in Hebrew.

And there were plenty of very real Christians there doing their own thing. Whatever that is. Downtown Seattle is a different story, so far as I know. But then, I may not know.

Posted by: JFred at October 19, 2007 11:04 AM

Are these people who ostentatiously say Grace in public places the same ones who want to (and would, given legal approval) intellectually cripple their children by teaching them, in school, young-Earth creationist BS?

Posted by: Fletcher Christian at October 20, 2007 6:40 AM

The art of painting a word-picture is revived!

Yes, so true. What a piece of work. And what an interesting discussion here in the comments.

All my life I've said grace at meals. But it's been my tradition not to do it in public. Several times it has seemed appropriate -- such as when with a minister or people who do it.

I always felt uncomfortable. But I don't think I will anymore. Because of the impression it might leave on others.

BTW, I don't think genuine prayer requires anything said out loud, bowing the head, closing the eyes. These are good things and part of prayer, as is kneeling. But not required.


Posted by: Terry Kirkpatrick at October 20, 2007 3:51 PM

We were homeless in 1996. There were 5 of us, with number 6 on the way. We were living in my grandmother's house in Kansas City, where my dad was also living, taking care of his senile and dying mother.

All 5 of us shared the small bedroom - mom and dad on the bed, kids in sleeping bags on the floor. The husband took some odd jobs, but we decided that Kansas City was just too big, and so he went to Charlotte to look for work. Charlotte was even bigger, and more lawless, it seemed than KC, so he called and said he would meander up to Asheville to see what was there.

He called from Asheville and said I should come. It was beautiful, and it was bustling, and not too big. He came back and loaded up the car, a 1990 Mercury Sable, and we headed to Asheville.

At first, it seemed he was right, but we decided to walk downtown, into some of the boutique shops. We wandered into an Irish shop, and the owner said, in very condescending tones, that they were closed. The sign in the window said OPEN, but she shooed us out, with other customers in the store, and locked the door! Then she turned the sign over to CLOSED. I realized then, that we were WHITE TRASH. This wasn't the only place in Asheville it happened. Even in the library, we felt like misfits, and after two days, we left.

Finally, you put it down on paper for me in a way that made me understand my experience there. Thanks a million, bro. I couldn't have done it better.

By the way, we decided to tour the area, and we snickered at the fact that one of the mansions we looked at along the river was owned by the warden of the HUGE prison on the outskirts of town. Dichotomies everywhere. We drove that day, and just stopped in Roanoke. We were tired and out of money, and Roanoke turned out to be one of the nicest places in America to live. Rachel was born in Roanoke, and we had a good two years there. We were still somewhat poor, but the IRS audited our taxes that year....and they ended up owing more than 7500 dollars to us. I always thought that the EIC was some sort of scam....I guess I was wrong.

Posted by: Jauhara al Kafirah at October 21, 2007 12:16 AM

Well, Fletcher, there just isn't enough information about this family to know what they would or would not teach, is there?

However,there's more than enough information in your question to sniff out an ignorant and unintelligent person, as well as one for whom the virtue of tolerance has no meaning whatsoever.

Posted by: Vanderleun at October 21, 2007 8:32 AM

Gerard, a better question to ask would be: Would you rather they be Christians praying for their country and each other, or Muslims, wandering in and repeating Allahu Akbar?

Posted by: Jauhara al Kafirah at October 21, 2007 1:14 PM

Hmmm... Well, perhaps I'm ignorant about some parts of the USA. However, the comment was a question, not a statement, and two more things: I have a great deal of tolerance for a great many things and/or sets of things. However, people who intentionally fill their children's heads with nonsense do not constitute one of those sets.

And secondly, fundie so-called Christians are second only, in degree of intolerance for other people's points of view and ways of life, to fundamentalist Moslems.

Saying the right words does not make one a Christian.

Posted by: Fletcher Christian at October 21, 2007 3:41 PM

Beautifully done, Gerard. When you are away for a while, your return never disappoints.

Posted by: Casino bonus at October 22, 2007 3:15 AM

Both the original post and the response to fletcher were superb. Bravo!

Posted by: cyrano at October 23, 2007 12:09 PM

Saying the right words does not make one a Christian.

Posted by Fletcher Christian at October 21, 2007 3:41 PM


While this is true, I would be willing to bet that a family that will say grace in a public restaurant are not just "saying the words" in order to pretend to be Christians. That appears to be an indication that these people have a lot more faith than you could ever understand.

As you also have no proof or indication that they are either fundamentalists or are willing to "fill their children's heads with nonsense", your unwillingness to grant them any tolerance demonstrates the lie in your own comments. You should be ashamed of yourself, but my guess is that you don't even understand why.

Posted by: Former Lurker at October 24, 2007 3:22 AM

Former Lurker:

I think that what you really mean is not "tolerance" but "benefit of the doubt".

So: Fair enough; if they weren't and aren't fundamentalists (of the sort that attempt to prevent their children from learning the theory of evolution, the truth about the age of the earth, and so on, and believe in persecuting homosexuals and in fact anyone with a lifestyle of which they disapprove, and support such lunacies as abortion-clinic bombing) then they don't deserve any opprobrium from me or anyone else.

However, if they are such fundies then they deserve all I said and more. And it is very likely, in my humble opinion, that people who not only say Grace in public, but make their kids lead the prayer and make sure everyone around them knows it, are enormously more likely to be such lunatics than people who do none of those things.

Proof, no. Likelihood, yes.

Posted by: Fletcher Christian at October 25, 2007 4:13 PM

When I returned from western Canada after 23 years and began driving truck in the lower 48 I had to be reintegrated into southern culture. People in my Okie hometown said I talked funny. Hey, I grew up here. You talk funny. The biggest shock was not being able to understand GA, TN, and AL drivers. My family of Texans and Okies originated in those states. We owned that language, or a western version anyway. One day in a north TN cafe I heard people saying Darn and Dad Gum and Gol Dang. There was that old southern politeness, consideration of others, you just don't get in other parts with the endless sound of Shit and Muthafuck.

Posted by: Gary Ogletree at October 28, 2007 2:10 PM

Fletcher has a defintion for tolerance, it's what he expects from you while he beats you down with his diatribes and general imperviousness to reason.

Posted by: ThomasD at October 29, 2007 10:04 AM

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.

I used to date a woman who lived in Asheville. I'm confident that I know exactly which restaurant of which you speak. Did they, by any chance, serve you water at room temperature, rather than chilled by some devilish ice cubes?

Posted by: physics geek at October 30, 2007 8:33 AM


What, precisely, does reason have to do with this?

The USA was founded partially on freedom of religion. OK then, try being a Jew in KKK-land and see how free you are. Or an atheist, perish the thought.

The USA is the only nominally Christian country where Bible literalism and Young-Earth creationism are any sort of political force at all - although they are being exported to the UK, as you export all your other bad habits. Therefore I am deeply suspicious about the sort of conspicuous piety described in the original post.

Posted by: Fletcher Christian at October 31, 2007 3:26 AM
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