Real Soul Food: 30 Years of Marriage, and the Best Damn Fried Chicken in the Country

On September 6, the Mate and I celebrate 30 years of marriage. I don’t know what we’ll have for dinner. All I know is, it won’t be fried chicken.

Not because we don’t love it…but because we do. Specifically, we love Mama Dip’s fried chicken from Chapel Hill, North Carolina (where we met in 1977 and were married ten years later). We loved Mama Dip’s chicken so much we got her restaurant to cater our wedding. So now we’re spoiled; no one else’s fried chicken comes close.

Mildred Council, a.k.a. “Mama Dip” (courtesy WRAL)

***Sigh…might as well have spaghetti…***

Of course with fantastic fried chicken come all the fixins: fried okra, stewed greens and tomatoes, black-eyed peas, cornbread, biscuits, corn on the cob…Some folks would add mac ‘n’ cheese to this list, or Brunswick Stew, or pulled pork, but to me those are meals in themselves, demanding their own sides: cheese grits, home fries, slaw…OK, I’ll stop.

“Care for dessert?” Are you kidding? I’ll just start over with another meal. (courtesy Black Hair Media Forum)

The Mate and I are very health-conscious people. We’re lifelong athletes–in fact, distance running is how we met. But we LOVE our soul food. In fact, I love even the IDEA of soul food.

Here’s how Wikipedia defines it:

Soul food is a variety of cuisine originating in the Southeastern United States. It is common in areas with a history of slave-based plantations and has maintained popularity among the Black American and American Deep-South “cotton state” communities for centuries; it is now the most common regional cuisine in southern cities such as New Orleans, LouisianaCharlotte, North Carolina, and Atlanta, Georgia. Soul food influences can be commonly found as far north as Richmond, Virginia, as far east as Jacksonville, Florida, and as far west as Houston, Texas. The expression “soul food” may have originated in the mid-1960s, when soul was a common word used to describe Black American culture (for example, soul music).

Home, sweet home. (courtesy TripAdvisor)

I TOTALLY dig the idea of food feeding one’s soul. Soul food is culture, family, love. Yearning. Nostalgia. Gratitude. Nourishment of your deepest parts.

The Mate and I might not be southern by heritage; we might have abandoned the south to live all the way across the country. But Mama Dip’s chicken and okra and cornbread fed us and our 250 guests on a day of torrential September rain back in 1987, and that food and those memories continue to nourish us daily in this hard-work miracle known as marriage.

Since we can’t be in North Carolina on September 6, I’ve asked my parents, who still live there, to go out to Dip’s for us. Their own marriage is in its 63rd year. Guess they must have found some soul food of their own.

 

When Country Songs Get Real: Robbie Fulks and the Bittersweet of Shared Nostalgia

I’m not a fan of country music. I tend to stereotype it as being about–well, stereotypes. Easy to dismiss that ol’ achey-breaky-pickup-trucky twang as having nothing to do with my life.  

But I’ll listen to anyone who is a) an excellent musician, and b) someone I went to high school with. Robbie Fulks is both. So when I saw that he was touring in Bellingham, a couple of hours away (including ferry ride), of course I went.

Robbie played with a fiddler friend, Shad Cobb, at the Green Frog, an appropriately grungy tavern, and did us middle-agers the favor of starting before 7:30 and ending at 9. Of course, he’s a middle-ager himself, having graduated three years behind me. His voice is as sweet as ever–think Willie Nelson mixed with John Denver–and his lyrics even sharper. Seems in middle age, Robbie has decided to take his lyrics back to Chapel Hill in the mid-late 70s. And there in the beery dark of the Green Frog, he took me too.

Robbie showed up my sophomore year when his dad took a job teaching history at Carolina Friends School. Picture this ridiculously adorable 13 year-old with long golden curls, crooked teeth and dimples. His dad took him along to the Upper School retreat at the start of the year, and on the last night Robbie played in our talent show. In a voice way, way beyond his years, he crooned that early 60s song, “Earth Angel.”  “Earth angel…earrrrrrrth angel….please be miiine…my darling dear, love me all the tiiiime…” And my girlfriends and I fell madly in love.

OK–in crush. I mean, the kid was 13. And as we all grew older, Robbie became less of a phenom and more of a friend. I can’t say he was a close one of mine because, by the time he entered high school, I was a lofty senior, taking classes and running track at nearby Duke University and spending barely two hours a day on my old campus. I went with my friends to hear Robbie when he played at local clubs, but I all but lost track of him when I left for college.

One tie kept me in touch. One of my three besties, two years behind me in school, was close friends with Robbie’s girlfriend, M. When she told me that Robbie had gotten M. pregnant I wasn’t surprised. What was surprising to me, back in the early 80s, was that they decided to get married, at age 19.

Fast-forward now about 35 years. I attended a CFS reunion in 2015, and spent time with the woman who first married Robbie and had his son. M. and Robbie split long ago, but saw each other amicably at their son’s wedding.

I mention all this now not to gossip, but just as a backdrop, so that you know what I was thinking about when Robbie sang his new song, “Fare Thee Well, Carolina Gals.” Not only is it apparently about the time when young love changed his life and M’s forever, it contains details so specific that only someone from central North Carolina would understand: “the Airport side of Franklin Street”–the coolest hangout in Chapel Hill. “Northgate Mall”–less cool (and darker, if you listen to the song). And dear Tommy Thompson, founder of the Red Clay Ramblers and dad of our friend Jessie.

This song is about my people. And that means it’s about me. I may not have been one of Robbie’s “Carolina Gals,” but I’m still one. This hits close to home.

I went up and hugged Robbie after the show, small-talked for about a minute (while other folks waited in line), and bought his album. I’ve been listening to it. And now I can’t stop wondering…how many of those cliched country songs out there are animated by similarly specific, poignant, bittersweet reality?

Think of any genre of music you’re not comfortable with. Maybe it’s country, like me. Maybe hip-hop, maybe opera. But maybe, as I’m learning to do, if we listened more closely, we could feel that sweet connection of shared pain or joy. What but good could come of that? 

Thanks, Robbie, from this middle-aged Carolina Gal.

How ‘Bout Them Heels? Oh, How Can I Possibly Explain?

 Road Trip IV, Days 32-34: Chapel Hill, NC

Let the ceremony games begin. The object of our pilgrimage trip. The ACC Tournament, ok?

For those of you not from North Carolina and/or not tainted familiar with the mores of college sports, a quick primer. Teams are organized into leagues, or conferences. Throughout the regular season, each college plays games against other member of its conference. For the University of North Carolina (aka The Tarheels, or Heels–please don’t ask me to explain that), that means Dook Duke, NC State, Virginia, and eleven others. At the end of the regular season, these 15 teams play each other in a loser-out tournament which begins on Wednesday and culminates in the championship on Sunday.

Other conferences around the country–the PAC 12, the Big 10– are doing the same thing, of course. On Sunday, the winners of all these tournaments are selected, along with the best teams around the country that did not win their tournaments, and put into the 68 brackets that you have probably heard about, the famous Big Dance of March Madness, the NCAA Tournament.

Got that? Good. It has almost nothing to do with what I’m writing about today. I am writing about religion.

That’s the only way I can explain what happens here in Chapel Hill at our friends Rich and Becky’s house, from Wednesday to Sunday. It starts small, maybe five or six of us watching the games no one really cares about. But by Friday, when Carolina plays, the living room will scarcely hold us. And all these highly educated people–law professors, a former college president, a dean, a member of Obama’s HHS staff, a state legislator–will be screaming at refs, raising our arms during free throws, and doing push-ups during time-outs when the game gets close.

(That last innovation was started by The Mate. He swears it works. All I know is, it’s a great tension reliever.)

One year one of the group, who was representing a guy on Death Row, actually stepped into the next room to negotiate a pardon with NC’s governor while the rest of the gang kept cheering. Then he re-joined the faithful. No one thought this was weird.

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There is no explaining faith. There is no explaining how all these thoughtful, rational, sensitive people can truly believe that Dook Duke’s Coach K is the Devil. (I mean the real Satan, not just a Blue Devil.) Or that God hates us if our free throws don’t go in. Or that a pimply-faced 19 year-old with a ball holds the keys to our present and future happiness.

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I should know. I grew up here, and at school I used to scoff at my fellow students who would stay home during Tournament Friday, or use “How ’bout them Heels?” as a greeting. Then I went off to college, and came home for spring break.

It was the end of March, 1982. Carolina, under Coach Dean Smith, had made it to the Final Four in New Orleans. My then-boyfriend (now my Mate) was beside himself. (The previous month he’d sent me a Carolina Blue valentine: “I love you almost as much as the Tarheels.” So I knew what I was getting into.)

The Heels won their Saturday game. Now they were in the Finals, facing Georgetown. Michael Jordan was a freshman. The Hoyas had their own super-frosh, man-child Patrick Ewing. The battle was joined. It was epic. The game came down to the final seconds.

You know what? I can’t possibly do the story justice. Too much has been written about The Shot Michael took to put Carolina up with 12 seconds on the clock; about Freddy Brown’s fateful pass to a member of the opposite team, giving the ball back to Carolina. About James Worthy’s anticlimactic missed free throws at the very end, when Carolina’s victory was sealed, and we were all rolling around on the carpet and screaming.

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It was a conversion of the deepest order. At the end of my break, I traveled back to college a confirmed, lifelong Tarheel Fan.

I’m not quite as bad as The Mate, OK? He’s traveled back from Washington State to Chapel Hill every March since 1990. When we took a sabbatical in New Zealand, he traveled back from there. He sincerely wishes bad things to happen to Coach K, or at least to his car.

Me, I just cheer.  And eat a ton of BBQ. And fried chicken. But that’s a whole other story.

Sports fans or baffled onlookers, let me hear from you. What’s your sports story? Are you the reason “fan” really means “fanatic”? Or do you think we’re all completely bonkers?