What comes to mind when you hear the words “Eastern North Carolina”? Do you think of the famous vinegar based BBQ, slaw and football? Or perhaps memories of passing fields that stretch for miles with corn, collards, tobacco and okra while on your way to the beach? Whatever crosses your mind, there’s a pretty good chance food is involved. Lenoir County specifically, has a long, rich history of growing local food. While researching this particular county’s food culture, I had the opportunity to discover some of the state’s finest BBQ, engage with farmers on Saturday mornings at the Lenoir County Farmers Market and interview owners of highly respected restaurants.
Lenoir County includes Kinston, one of North Carolina’s oldest cities. This city was original named “Kingston” when it was established as the county’s seat in 1762. Kinston is where the Lenoir County Farmers Market is held on Tuesday evenings and Saturday mornings. Local farmers are eager to exchange stories and favorite recipes, celebrating their homegrown ingredients. Foods such as peaches, pork, okra and collards are just a few of the seasonal choices these farmers have to offer.
Not only does Kinston have a thriving farmers market but a top NC restaurant destination called Chef and the Farmer. Chef Vivian Howard has gained publicity nationwide with her Peabody award winning TV show, A Chef’s Life. After hearing Chef Howard speak at Meredith College in the spring of 2014, I eagerly awaited the opportunity to experience Lenoir County’s local produce offered at this farm to table restaurant. While spending a day feasting on NC BBQ, fried oysters from the Boiler Room, and succulent curried pork belly from Chef and the Farmer, Elena and I had the pleasure of talking with Chef Vivian Howard and discuss the food culture in Lenoir County. Vivian reminisced about growing up in Deep Run and explained how her mother prepared vegetables and grains to serve as the base of the meal while meat was considered a condiment. Foods such as butter beans, sweet potatoes, home canned peaches from the peach orchard were mealtime favorites, alongside the popular comfort dish, chicken and rice. Her family celebrated Thanksgiving with a whole hog BBQ and enjoyed locally caught fried fish on Fridays. Chef Howard continues to follow the southern food traditions she learned from her family as she creates the seasonal menu for her restaurant.
We also learned from Chef Howard that Fish Stew has become a Lenoir County favorite and staple in some local’s eyes, serving as a comfort food year round and especially on cold winter days. Just ask any Lenoir County native for their fish stew recipe. They may not reveal the secret family ingredient, but they will make sure to tell you the stew must be layered and not stirred.
If your wondering where to find this Lenoir County favorite, the fine family at Ken’s Grill & NC BBQ in La Grange, NC makes fish stew available to locals and tourists year round. Ken and his brother David run their father’s famed 1970 establishment offering whole hog BBQ on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays with a side of homemade slaw and hushpuppies. The menu consists of daily specials and various sides from the fryer, but Friday around 11am is when you’ll find a warm bowl of fish stew, served with crispy golden brown hushpuppies and fresh loaf bread available for purchase. Ken advised me to come in early for a bowl of stew, as it sells out quickly. This fish stew recipe was first prepared in 1980 by Ken’s father-in-law, Mr. Jones, who owned a fish market in Lenoir County. Ms. Kate was the cook who brought that recipe to life time and time again, preparing the stew at Ken’s Grill for decades. Ken chooses the best quality, local NC fish offered by Kinston’s own Reynolds Seafood Company. This family run fish market was started in 1960 and continues to provide the ingredients needed to prepare the stew, including friendly advice on how to layer the pot.
While you’re in Kinston, you will want to visit Sweetiepies, a new tasty addition to Kinston’s food culture. This cupcakery is owned by Ken’s wife, Teresa. She offers an array of colorful sweet treats that will surely want you coming back for more!
Whether you’re a native of Lenoir County, or passing through on Hwy 70, make sure to stop by these local establishments for a taste of this county’s unique food culture. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed! The recipe below is my variation of Lenoir County fish stew, using of course the freshest local ingredients. And please, Do Not Stir!
Photos above: paintings and photograph of Reynolds Seafood displayed on store front walls, photograph of menu board at Ken’s BBQ
Recipe inspired by Chef Vivian Howard, Kinston, NC, Ken’s Grill & NC BBQ, La Grange, NC and Reynolds Seafood, Kinston, NC.
Makes 3 quarts, serves 6-9
1/4 pound bacon, cut into 1/2″ pieces (Reynolds Seafood)
1, 6 ounce can tomato paste (Reynolds Seafood)
1 large yellow onion, sliced 1/2 inch thick (Lenoir County Farmers Market)
5-6 small-medium red potatoes, quartered (Lenoir County Farmers Market)
Salt, pepper and red pepper flakes to taste
1 pound Rock Fish (Reynolds Seafood)
6 eggs (Cock-A-Doodle Farm, LaGrange, NC from Lenoir County Farmers Market)
Fry bacon in skillet. Pour bacon grease and bacon into 6 quart pot, heat on medium-medium low. Layer and add tomato paste, potatoes, onion, salt, pepper, red pepper flakes to pot. DO NOT STIR. Add 6 cups water to cover vegetables. Bring to slow rolling boil over medium heat for 30-45 minutes, until potatoes are tender. Meanwhile, filet fish, removing as many bones as possible. Add fish to pot during last 10 minutes of cooking. DO NOT STIR.
After fish is cooked through, turn heat to medium low. Break eggs on the side of pot, gently place into stew one at a time. Let eggs set for 10 minutes. DO NOT STIR. When ready to serve, use a ladle to reach bottom of pot, scoop upwards to ladle into bowls. Always serve with fresh white loaf bread, just as the Lenoir County locals do.
Resources: Lenoir County North Carolina. About Lenoir County. http://www.co.lenoir.nc.us/history.html Accessed October 11, 2014.