Associate Editor Mike Jordan recently took a trip to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to learn more about the historic municipality’s food and culture, from smoky cocktails in a former tobacco headquarters to Moravian cookies, Texas Pete hot sauce and heirloom seeds.
The Moravian Church may not be the first place of worship that comes to mind when most people think of the South, but in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the Bohemia-born Protestant group is an irreplaceable part of the local fabric, especially when it comes to food.
Moravians are a pretty cool bunch as far as religions go. Their official motto is “In Essentials, Unity; In Nonessentials, Liberty; In All Things, Love.” You can feel the ecumenical religions’ presence in Old Salem, which was settled more than 250 years ago, and where places like the 200-year-old Winkler Bakery have been making classic Moravian cookies from scratch. Historically, there’s also a large farming culture in Winston-Salem. Since its settlement, “peddling” Moravian farmers in the neighboring land tract known as Wachovia, North Carolina, brought produce, meat and field crops to residents, who were regular customers of local milk, eggs and sausages. Market House, built in 1803 on Salem Square to sell fresh farm meat, was the epicenter of the truly farm-to-table exchange.
According to Old Salem Museums and Gardens, the introduction of supermarkets, industrial agriculture and other factors contributed to a decline in farming around the latter half of the 20th century. But thanks to community-aimed seed-saving programs, Old Salem’s Cobblestone Farmers Market, and great restaurants like Spring House, Sweet Potatoes, Mary’s Gourmet Diner and others, interest in Winston-Salem’s roots is on the rise.
If you’re eating in the Twin Cities’, Mary’s Gourmet Diner is a great place to start.
Formerly known as Breakfast of Course, the restaurant is located in the historic arts district and run by chef/owner Mary Haglund, an amazing lady you’ll want to hug even before you’ve had her food.
The experience of eating at Mary’s offers a look into the tolerant culture of Winston-Salem. Beyond the fact that breakfast is fantastic, the craftily decorated space feels approachable and familiar, while also serving as a great place for community gathering and meshing of ideas over a hot or cold first meal.
That’s partially due to amazing local art decorating the space, including a series of tall portraits of some of Haglund’s female friends, interpreted as animal-masked figures holding traditional kitchen tools. It’s also due to her outstanding omelets, griddle-fried cornmeal cakes, biscuits made with North-Carolina-based Snow Flake flour, organic stone-ground yellow grits from nearby Lindley Mills, and everything else on the menu. “I have no formal training,” Haglund said. “I guess I have a palate that seems to agree with the public.”
Haglund's ex-husband, Larry Haglund, who co-owned Mary’s and handled a lot of the duties of running the restaurant, recently passed away. Mary Haglund's family has always been involved with the restaurant, but without Larry, she admitted that the workload of operating Mary’s, including challenges from the Forsyth County health department for her efforts to support locally farmed foods, may be more than she wants to deal with in her retirement years. “I’m very concerned,” Haglund said. “These people know about science but they don’t know about food.”
Even the coffee at Mary’s is local. It comes from a downtown restaurant and small-batch roastery called Krankies, which serves an unbelievably good chicken biscuit that’s brined and fried in honey and Texas Pete hot sauce. (By the way, contrary to what the name suggests, Texas Pete is also from Winston-Salem, not the Lone Star State.)
Haglund said she attributes Winston-Salem’s unique atmosphere to three things: Moravian culture, a high percentage of female-owned businesses and restaurants, and that the owners “love each other.” She even serves her own signature Krankies coffee blend, and said she’s supported the owners of Krankies since they turned the former meatpacking facility into a coffeehouse in 2003. “We treat each other as building blocks, not competition,” she said.
You’ll also find happiness in the form of cookies at Mrs. Hanes’, which is headquartered just outside the city limits in Clemmons, North Carolina and was one of Oprah’s Hand-Picked Holiday Gifts in 2010. A seventh-generation Moravian, Eva Hanes still runs the company, which rolls out over 125,000 pounds of cookie dough annually, with her husband Travis and family, along with 60 full- and part-time employees who’ve been with the company for many years, and who still make their famous ginger cookies by hand.
Moravian cookies are a big deal in Winston-Salem, as well as Moravian sugar cakes, which are made with a batter that’s part mashed potatoes and part yeast dough. With the addition of a hefty helping of brown sugar, butter and cinnamon, a Moravian sugar cake is similar to a honey bun that’s been dry-rubbed with sugar and spice to make it less sticky but just as addictive. The dessert makes even more sense when you consider that Winston-Salem is also the home of the world's first Krispy Kreme Doughnuts shop. So, if you feel a bit of guilty indulgence when sinking your teeth into the soft and sweet bread dessert, just remind yourself that you’re doing it for the culture.
Two other ladies who’ve recently impacted the local food scene are Vivian Joiner and Chef Stephanie Tyson of the creatively named soul food restaurant Sweet Potatoes (well shut my mouth!!), which reopened this summer in a new location after 14 years in a smaller space just down Trade Street. The restaurant, known for bringing “unique, Southern-inspired, uptown/down-home cooking” to the city, is beloved for its cast iron fried “Southernly” chicken, “drunken” pork chops with sweet potato dressing and apple brandy gravy, Gullah shrimp and crab rice pilau casserole, and Carolina blackened salmon Florentine.
Joiner and Tyson also recently opened a new restaurant next door to the Sweet Potatoes called Miss Ora's Kitchen. The restaurant was funded in part by $18,000 raised from a Kickstarter campaign in which they explained the soul behind the food: Joiner's grandmother.
They wrote: "As a small child, Stephanie often watched Miss Ora make 'tater salad, fried chicken and banana puddin', never failing to cook something for anyone who dropped by. Our new restaurant — Miss Ora's Kitchen — is a way to honor Stephanie's grandmother and her great-aunts, while providing Winston-Salem with a delicious new dining option."
Up in smoke
Another thing that Winston-Salem is known for is being the home of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, whose first factory was purchased from the Moravian Church. Evidence of the company’s influence can be seen all over the city, from a small artistic replica of the Reynolds’ factory smoke stacks in the arts district, to the Reynolds Building, which inspired the design of the Empire State Building. Completed in 1929 — two years before the larger New York City version — it now houses The Kimpton Cardinal Hotel and French brasserie The Katharine, named for the Reynolds family matriarch.
Executive Chef Adam Barnett and the rest of The Katharine’s staff are focused on bringing seasonality, tradition and creativity to the restaurant. The menu is full of non-intimidating French fare, including steak tartare, bouillabaisse served every Friday night, Scottish salmon with peas à la Française, and smoked bacon, which perfectly pairs with the bar’s cherrywood-smoked Sazerac. Considering the surroundings, the smoke is quite appropriate.
Another major contributor to Winston-Salem’s current culinary canon is Chef Timothy Grandinetti, owner of Spring House. Named for its Spring Street corner location, the building sits on land that was once the Reynolds family gardens, and was home to an entrepreneur who manufactured an industrial humidifier system that helped eliminate tobacco mold and textile dust from warehouses. It is the last remaining mansion from what was once called “Millionaire’s Row,” and like the Kimpton Cardinal, provides an updated look into the city’s past.
Grandinetti, who likes to be called “Dr. Brownstone,” appeared on an episode of Chopped Grill Masters, and has a friendly, energetic demeanor that you’d expect from someone operating a restaurant far less serious than Spring House. This approach is part of what keeps the restaurant approachable; it’s a fine dining establishment that welcomes all, as well as a neighborhood eatery that’s unmistakably high-class.
With 10 days’ notice and a party of six or more, Grandinetti offers a five-course, whole animal, “snout-to-tail” chef’s table dinner of beef, pork, lamb, rabbit or chicken. If you don’t have time for that involved of a dinner, ask for his nightly chef’s tasting menu of seasonal organic and sustainably-sourced ingredients. You’ll also do fine ordering for yourself, especially if you opt for the spice-rubbed venison starter, followed by the pan-roasted scallop with shrimp-and-grits-stuffed ravioli and tomato-garlic Creole sauce.
For a truly impressive dining experience, there’s the Graylyn International Conference Center of Wake Forest University. The 55-acre compound, once the home of R. J. Reynolds president Bowman Gray, was donated to Wake Forest in 1972, and was used exclusively for university needs. Today it is available to the general public for lodging, conferencing and dining.
Executive Chef Gregory Rollins runs the kitchen. What he doesn’t get from the property’s produce and herb gardens, he sources from local purveyors and farmers markets. He’s fed many foreign and domestic dignitaries, but said that one of his greatest honors was feeding Dr. Maya Angelou, a globally influential poet who lived in Winston-Salem for over 30 years and taught at Wake Forest. “That’s history,” Rollins said of Angelou. “She was such a great person, and so important to so many people, not just here in Winston-Salem.”
Seeds of change
If you’re looking for historic authenticity, it’s hard to beat The Tavern in Old Salem, a 200-year-old building where the staff is dressed in period clothing and customers enjoy Germanic Moravian comfort food classics, such as pot roast and chicken pie. The Tavern is owned and operated by the Keiper family: Jared, the chef; brother Jordan; father Rick; and mother Lori, who handles baking duties. And while the Keipers realize that guests return to the Tavern for a bite of history, Jared Keiper also experiments with his own creations, including house-made cheese and sauerkraut, as well as house-cured meats. And because they know that the times have surely changed, The Tavern goes modern at night, with craft beer and cocktails available at the bar, and the staff ditching their costumes for normal serving attire.
The Keipers represent the balance of Winston-Salem, Twin Cities that exist between yesterday and tomorrow, and the culinary growth of the city. And there are other efforts being made to preserve the area’s history for future generations while dealing with the past through clear eyes.
The Moravian Church, much like the rest of the South, took part in the slave trade in the 18th century. According to the Old Salem Museum & Gardens’ website, enslaved African-American Moravians were “treated with considerably more respect” than enslaved peoples in other parts of the South, and converted church members found “protection denied most other enslaved African-Americans,” although they “were hardly full equals.”
As segregationist ideas took hold in 19th century Salem, the church decided that black and white Moravians were no longer to be buried next to each other at God’s Acre, the downtown plot of neatly arranged graves, marked by flat, meticulously cleaned headstones, and arranged chronologically according to the group to which the deceased community member belonged.
This history is shared in the St. Philips African-American Heritage Center, which is also involved in a project called Hidden Town. Among the goals of the Hidden Town initiative are understanding “the complicated use of enslaved populations in building the town and contributing to the mercantile prosperity of Salem.” The initiative locates the sites of enslaved residents’ dwelling places throughout the historic district, then archaeologically investigates and integrates them into visitors’ experiences. These locations include the “Happy Hill” neighborhood, where freed slaves settled and built the county’s first school for black children, and St. Philips African Moravian Church, where black Moravians were buried and where a Union Army chaplain announced the official end of slavery on Sunday, May 21, 1865.
Today, as part of the agricultural and food-based reconciliation, there are seed-saving programs put forward by Old Salem Museums & Gardens, whose horticultural program uses sustainable practices to save and grow heirloom plants. Part of this is the Homowo Harvest Collection, which is focused on “plants native to Africa and seeds from plants traditionally associated with African-Americans.”
The collection, developed with guidance from Winston-Salem’s African-American community and in consultation with food historian Michael Twitty, includes “heirloom vegetables, herbs, and flowers growing in America by 1900.” A wide variety of Homowo Harvest Collection seeds are exclusively available at in the Moravian Book & Gift Shop and include seeds such as the Carolina African Runner peanut, which was believed to be extinct until recovered by food historian David Shields.
There are also seeds for sorghum, two varieties of okra and all sorts of greens. Herbs are also abundant: Green Culinary Sage was,Twitty said, used for both medicinal tea and to season “cush,” an early version of Southern cornbread stuffing. Lettuce Leaf Basil was, according to Twitty, grown in dooryards “for good luck, and to prevent negative energy [in] the household.”
At the end of this trip, I felt a fondness for what felt like genuine honesty among Winston-Salemites. With such rich stories, approachable personalities and super-fresh, expertly prepared food, it’s one of the coolest towns I’ve ever visited in the region I was born, and perhaps in all of the U.S. And while I wouldn’t suggest that this city, where Camels are still religiously smoked, has it all figured out, it’s making all the right moves, in true farm-to-table fashion, to create something that will change in ways that are ultimately sustainable to its legacies.