Sampling the new Southern cuisine in Charlotte

A sign from the 7th St. Public Market in Charlotte. It sums up my philosophy about food.

This past weekend I attended the Type-A Parent blogging conference in Charlotte, NC. I was very honored to be there as a speaker: I provided a legal perspective on a panel about ethics in blogging. I was joined on the panel by my friend Laura Bleill, a journalist by training and co-founder of the excellent hyper-local site ChambanaMoms, and Caleb Gardner, who is part of the Edelman Digital team and blogs at The Exceptional Man. I hope our panel gave the bloggers that attended some helpful tips about FTC disclosures, the potential pitfalls of working with brands — which overall is a good thing to do, but you just have to do it the right way — and why ethics are important. I was extremely impressed with the audience’s engagement and their thoughtful questions.

Of course, I was also an attendee at the conference and I learned a lot. Scales fell from my eyes at Melanie Nelson’s in-depth session on Facebook fan pages. (Did you know that 96% of people who “like” a fan page never return to that page? If they interact with that page at all, it is from seeing updates from that page in the News Feed, and that only happens if the gods of Facebook are kind enough to put your page’s updates in those fans’ news feeds.) I also attended a candid session on blogger outreach that shed some much-needed light on how PR agencies chose bloggers to partner with. But most importantly, I saw a lot of friends, made some new friends and got to dress up like a rich kid in a John Hughes movie at an 80’s-themed party sponsored by Ubisoft.

If you are not a blogger, you may not be very interested in what goes on a blogging conference. But if you are a human, you may be very interested in what I ate during my weekend in Charlotte.  That’s because Southern food, when done right, is delicious. Southern cuisine is garnering a lot of attention lately. Perhaps you read the profile of Sean Brock, chef at the Charleston restaurants Husk and McCrady’s, in The New Yorker last fall. Chef Brock only cooks with ingredients indigenous to the southeastern United States. Yes, that means no olive oil in his kitchen. Maybe you have heard about the eccentric founder of Anson Mills, Glenn Roberts, who has rescued endangered strains of corn, rice, and other grains and legumes in an effort to revive antebellum Southern crops. In short, southern chefs and restauranteurs are getting on board with the trend toward local and seasonal cooking and taking it one step further towards authentic, indigenous cooking. In a fertile region like the southeastern United States, focusing on indigenous crops will lead to some pretty fine eating.

Sweet potatoes are the North Carolina state vegetable. Did you know that all yams are sweet potatoes but not all sweet potatoes are yams?

Charlotte itself has been garnering a lot of attention because it is the site of this year’s Democratic convention. I knew almost nothing about the city before this weekend, but I was charmed by my time there and I certainly did my best to experience some local cuisine. The conference hotel, the Hilton Charlotte Center City, is located in Charlotte’s business district, which is known as Uptown, and I didn’t have a car, so my exploration was limited to restaurants within walking distance. Luckily, that left plenty of choices. One of my favorite stops was the newly re-opened 7th St. Public Market. This indoor, combination farmers’ market and food court definitely had an unfinished feel to it. But me and my friends Laura and Amy (the other co-founder of ChambanaMoms) loved what we saw, which included a local bakery, coffee house, butcher, pizza place and yogurt shop. I was especially excited by the small farm stand selling products from local farmers because I was able to score some Anson Mills grains and legumes, including blue corn grits, Sea Island red peas and Farro Piccolo. Amy and Laura thought I was batty as I went nuts for rice and beans. I can’t wait to cook with all three of these heirloom Carolina crops.

My roommate for the conference, Chef Druck, found a nearby soul food restaurant for one of our dinners: Mert’s Heart and Soul. Isn’t that a great name? I was so charmed by this casual local favorite — go early or be prepared to wait for a table — that I bought one of their t-shirts for my husband. The food was uneven — the shrimp and grits that my tablemates ordered remained practically untouched. But what the folks at Mert’s do well, they do really well. Highlights included fried chicken — which I probably had not eaten in ten years — fried green tomatoes, cornbread and a stewed tomato and okra dish that would make a believer out of the most adamant okra-hater. I hope the Obamas eat at Mert’s when they are in Charlotte because the food is really good and judging by the picture hanging on the wall, the folks at Mert’s are definitely fans of the President.

One of my goals for the weekend was to eat fried pickles. (That was next on my list after “do a good job moderating my panel” and “have an awesome 80’s costume.”) Luckily I was able to score some at lunch at Nix Burger Bar. And because I split a Carolina Classic Burger (cheese, chili, slaw, red onion and mustard) with a friend, I didn’t even feel that guilty about it. I am definitely going to attempt to make fried pickles this summer with some homemade bread-and-butter pickles, so stay tuned.

I was determined to have some fried pickles while I was in the South.

But probably the most memorable dining experience I had in Charlotte was at a unique restaurant called King’s Kitchen. The “King” in the title actually refers to the Prince of Peace, the Wise Counselor, some call him the son of God — yes, Jesus Christ. King’s Kitchen is an outreach of the Restoration Word Ministries, which is run by Chef Jim Noble, one of North Carolina’s premier restauranteurs. This Jewish mom is not used to dining under the shadow of a large cross, but once I got over my initial surprise, I felt very at home. King’s Kitchen is a nonprofit restaurant that gives all of its proceeds to hunger relief efforts and what’s more, the restaurant partners with area shelters to provide employment opportunities to the homeless. My experience with the staff was that they were, down to a person, warm, genuine and above all professional. And while the restaurant’s mission is admirable, if the food were not good, it would not mean a lot. Luckily, the food at King’s Kitchen was delicious. This is new Southern cuisine at its best: traditional favorites updated to be healthier and to feature local, seasonal produce. Among the appetizers my table tried were house-cured liverwurst with crostini — it tasted like really delicious bologna — fabulous deviled eggs with micro greens and pickled beets and an updated take on the classic pimento cheese spread. I chose the vegetable plate of four side dishes for my entrée because I find that the sides are usually the most interesting part of the meal. Our adorable server, Brittany, convinced me to try the collard greens as one of my four and I am so glad she did. I have never liked collards before but these greens were not bitter or slimy at all. They were earthy and toothsome with a vinegary tang. My other three sides were the macaroni and cheese, the dill potato salad — so, so good — and the stewed tomatoes. Everything about King’s Kitchen left me with a warm feeling and everyone at my table agreed that it was a special place. Now that I think about it, I really hope the Obamas dine there when they are in Charlotte.

I was very glad that I got to experience some of this new Southern cuisine that I have been reading so much about lately. I am even more excited that, thanks to the Anson Mills products that I carefully carried home in my suitcase — they was a lot easier to transport than the butter I brought home from Paris — I will get to try my hand at creating authentic southern cuisine west of the Loop.