Community, Constructive Survival, and Fried Chicken

Community, Constructive Survival, and Fried Chicken
Haw River view

Legacies are made more visible when we take time to listen. We open our eyes, ears, our minds and we feel the energy of a life story. A life cannot be known in all of its facets in one story, and yet if we open our minds to William Blake’s famous thought “to see a world in a grain of sand,” we might sense in a blink the fullness of  life in its golden, organic determination.

Along with the High on the Hog nods to local writer and foodie, Randall Kenan, Saxapahaw, and our own popular pork loin sandwich, the July/August Carolina Alumni Review printed an “In Memoriam” portrait of Lydia Lawrence Ratcliff (’56 UNC graduate, and 84 when she died the day before Valentine’s Day).

Ratcliff is described as a “fierce advocate for the small family farm,” and the legacy of her life’s work shows it. She heard Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring message and made a plan. She left New York and bought a farm in Vermont. Her story says she had no intention of being a farmer at first, but accumulated animals and began growing food the way she believed they grew best. She made money in a publishing career before taking on the “sub-poverty income” of farming when that ran out. Though there were a lot of challenges, Lydia Ratcliff did not see this as a disadvantage: “I certainly wasn’t happier with a lot of money. I am my own boss.” In her farm-time she organized nearly 50 other farmers into cooperatives to join her in providing fresh products to top restaurants in New York and Boston. She did not take to formalities, and is remembered in tales of appearing in a fine restaurant kitchen in blood-soaked clothes with a carcass over her shoulder, speaking Italian and French to the chefs. Born in Manhattan, she later went to Ivy League schools and, when her family moved to Italy, spent her junior year in Paris at the Sorbonne before she came to Chapel Hill and UNC to finish her college education. In the Memoriam she is pictured on her tractor with her oxygen tank. “You don’t create things to disappear when you die,” she said. She left the farm to her manager.

Lydia Ratcliff’s deep turn and commitment to the farm-food lifestyle was sparked and fueled by her alarm when she read Silent Spring. Randall Kenan wonders about our state’s culinary future. Kenan’s wondering and musing is at another level, though related—lingering vivid memories of harvesting summer vegetables with his great-aunt who raised him. Kenan teaches a course on food writing and edited an anthology called The Carolina Table (Eno Publishers, 2016). He definitely gets the relationship of food, identity and place. The intersection of food and story is ingrained.

This community of farmers and food and Nature “advocates” gets it too –Our menu reflects the chefs’ seasonal inspirations along with their own memories and the tasty creative adventures that beckon. We love to share our adventures with our guests and to hear the tastes and memories that inspire them. From the “regulars” who order their Friday night pizzas, to the Hawbridge students who visit in an after-school surge, from the goat-burger and portabella wrap lovers to the Black Boss buyers—we all leave imprints, visible and invisible. We’re all part of the flow. This past week’s experience with Mother Nature and Florence’s effects reminds us, again, how we are all connected.

Mildred Council’s enduring legacy is another present reminder, also highlighted in the July/August Carolina Review. A Chapel Hill landmark since 1976, Mama Dip’s Kitchen is a place whose founder’s spirit lives on in her family’s commitment to stay true to their roots and to Mildred Council’s recipes. Council’s story highlights the passion and hard work required to establish a “home-place,” as she did. You can eat in Mama Dip’s and enjoy the smothered pork chops and fried chicken without knowing anything about the woman behind it all, but, as Psyche Williams-Forson said, knowing those stories helps us to taste the food differently because we’re tasting it with an appreciation for some legacies and some cultures that go into it. In our instant-gratification culture, packaging and presentation can make it easy to believe that creating and cooking are effortless and without context. This “World-Wide-Web” is not just digital.

If geography and culture are not bound by land, as anthropologist (and long-time UNC professor) J. Peacock writes, we surely enjoy this mixing and matching of cultures and influences here, where we live. The land and river and earth and sky invite us with each breath to savor more of where we are planted and what we harvest in all ways, every day. Spring is not silent here, and nothing truly disappears.

Though we never met, I am grateful for Lydia Ratcliff’s life and legacy, for Randall Kenan’s gifts and memories, and we at the General Store are thankful for this generous community which feeds us all.

P.S. Our local Himihead Buttermilk Fried Chicken is back on the Dinner Specials menu, and it’s meatloaf time again! Check our boards for ongoing new specials!