I have always thought of the North Carolina Piedmont, where I grew up, as the state's under-appreciated middle child. Its 18th-century mill towns and cities—Durham, Chapel Hill, Charlotte—are sandwiched in the center between the more famous mountains, home to ever-funky Asheville, and the gorgeous coastal plains, with its beaches and dunes and fancy houses on the Outer Banks.
I was raised in the booming state capital of Raleigh, a city that sprawls outward from old streets lined with oaks and lacy Victorian porches. When I was young, those who came through the area usually had practical reasons: government careers, a stop at the area's top-tier universities, a job in one of the glassy sci-tech engineering complexes. Savvy tourists headed for the rest of the state, if not to Charleston or Atlanta. The culinary hallmarks of plain-Jane Piedmont were straightforward fare, like barbecue, pimento cheese, and slaw-topped hot dogs. Recently, though, I've watched Piedmont become one of the South's most exciting places to eat, partially because so few people have been paying attention.
"There's a vibrancy to the food scene here because we are less afraid of messing up or stepping out of line," says April McGreger, the founder of Farmer's Daughter Brand pickles and preserves, all made by hand in the artsy community of Hillsborough. A former pastry chef under Andrea Reusing at Lantern in Chapel Hill (once the only contemporary restaurant known outside the region), McGreger notes a distinct difference between Piedmont cooking and the cuisine in Louisiana or her native Mississippi, where food with a developed storyline has long been a draw. There is "less clinging to tradition," she observes, drawing a comparison to the Piedmont-style blues of the early 20th century, a blend of fingerpicking and ragtime rhythms. "No one cares that we are doing it 'right'; they just care that we are doing it 'good.'"
Like McGreger's fig and muscadine grape jam (both fruits that flourish in Piedmont's flower-filled backyards) or pickled sweet-potato greens (grown on a farm tended by Burmese refugees), the best things from the region tend to tease deliciousness from a loose intersection of custom, discovery, and craft.
Near the tiny town of Pittsboro (pop. 3,700, home of the North Carolina Zen Center), Chicken Bridge Bakery makes wood-fired, yeasted cornbreads and sourdough from locally milled flour. In even smaller Saxapahaw—a revitalized riverfront village with a hippie-meets-hipster vibe—Left Bank Butchery sells pho made with beef from local cattle and ciccioli with pork rinds that is Italian in lineage but Carolina in spirit. At Raleigh's Garland, one of many new restaurants in that city's once-dead downtown, chef Cheetie Kumar blends her Indian heritage with her Southern surroundings in dishes like ghee-griddled corn-and-poblano cakes topped with a tandoor-onion compote and a roasted tomato vinaigrette.
"It's not 'down home' Southern, but more of what we think of as N.C. cooking today," says former Umstead Hotel chef Scott Crawford, who notes that the region has long been one of the South's most progressive areas. When he opens Nash Tavern in Raleigh next year, he'll fry collard croquettes, serve mussels with ham bone broth, and bake a modified chocolate chess pie dressed with crumbles of crunchy masa.
The marvel here isn't that Crawford gets his chocolate around the corner, but that his collards are still grown nearby. "We are in the middle of such agricultural diversity," says James Beard Award-winning chef Ashley Christensen, a Piedmont native who opened Poole's Diner in Raleigh in 2007. Her perch near the center of the state means she cooks with both foraged goods from the foggy foothills and still-wriggling seafood from the nearby coast.
The region's real appeal lies in homespun operations like Heritage Food & Drink in Waxhaw, a still-rural community that lured veteran Charlotte chef Paul Verica nearly two years ago. Having renovated a "little mom and pop" lunch counter on Main Street, he can now cook exactly what he wants, be it English peas and country ham in clarified potlikker, Korean-style beef with ponzu and North Carolina peanuts, or, because why not, good ol' pulled pork and pimento cheese.