A Meal in Memory of Grandma

housewife and cook

Food is more substance than just sustenance for me. For some people, cooking and eating are just necessary functions for life. For me, each meal’s preparation and consumption is an experience to relish and remember. Much credit for that goes to my maternal grandmother, Vember Christine Allred Quinn.

Grandma passed away on Oct. 20 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. She still continued to enjoy some of her favorite foods until the final weeks and days of her amazing 88-year life, even though she hadn’t been able to think through the process of making a meal herself in years.

I deeply miss Grandma Vember’s cooking, along with so many other things that made her a beautiful person. Meals at her house, especially at times like Thanksgiving, meant I got to sit around the table with her, Grandpa, Mom and Dad to eat and talk. Each one of us always sat in the same place, and my seat was to Grandma’s left, also next to Mom.

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Grandma’s passing has had me thinking about the dishes and recipes of hers that I recall most fondly. So I’ve decided to put together a meal at Grandma’s house, and I’d like to invite you to join me for dinner. No reservation or transportation is necessary. Just continue reading and enjoy this simple yet special table of memories with me in the plates below. Here’s what’s on the menu.

FLANK STEAK: Grandma cooked the most flavorful, tender flank steak—and we just called it steak—I’ve ever consumed. My own is not nearly as tasty or chewable. Flank steak has a tendency to be tough in consistency. Not grandma’s. As I remember, hers had a light but very meaty quality to it, with a slightly soft, slightly crispy coating that had a hint of pepper in taste. This was my favorite main dish for grandma to prepare, and I’d still take a pan of flank steak now over any other more expensive cut of meat.

HOPPY TOAD BISCUITS: Perhaps my favorite food prepared by my grandmother was her biscuits. I can still picture the containers of ingredients in the bottom kitchen cabinet and her hands at work in the dough on the counter above. She’d nestle the biscuits close together and they’d join in the sided pan in the oven. When they hit the table, we’d break them apart, and they’d seemingly hop from the plate and into our mouths. They were small biscuits, shaped by the pan’s sides and their neighboring pieces of dough, with a slightly crisp outside and a soft but completely done middle. I’ve never eaten a biscuit like Grandma’s.

GREEN BEANS AND POTATOES: Some dishes are more about the memories attached than the unique recipe in which they originate. That’s how I feel about a pot of Grandma’s green beans and potatoes. In my mind, I can see the glass pot and lid that she always used for her green beans and potatoes. Neither the beans nor the potatoes were any sort of premium quality, and they weren’t seasoned in any creative way, to my knowledge. But the combination of a can of green beans and a can of whole potatoes introduced to me the realization that food can be both simple and fulfilling.

OLD DRY CAKE AND CHOCOLATE GRAVY: This is just a basic cake with butter, milk, eggs, sugar, flour and vanilla, but there’s nothing ordinary about its story in our family. Grandma made the cake once, before I’d ever tasted it myself, when Great Aunt Kathleen was eating with my grandparents and Mom. Grandpa asked her how she liked it, and Kathleen answered that it was a little dry. It’s since been known as the “Old Dry Cake.” Sometimes when she made it she’d cook a chocolate sauce (also known as chocolate gravy) and pour it over the hot cake, allowing it to run over and into the cake. I dare say you haven’t lived if you haven’t had chocolate gravy poured over “Old Dry Cake.”

If I could have Grandma make one meal right now, those dishes are exactly what I would request. They’re emblazoned on my heart, and their memories have influenced my interest in cooking and zeal for how I feed myself and my wife Molly. Thank you, Grandma. I think of you every time I step into the kitchen.

In Memory of Vember Christine Allred Quinn (Oct. 11, 1929-Oct. 20, 2017)

Foodie Travels: The Shake Shop, Cherryville, N.C.

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Don’t be fooled! If you drive by this place outside business hours, you might think it’s closed because of its rustic exterior. It’s not.

Again, don’t be fooled! If you’re a foodie fan of trendy spots, you might confuse this spot with the renowned Shake Shack, a fast-food chain based in New York City. It’s not.

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This is The Shake Shop, a locally owned Cherryville icon that’s been serving up Southern sandwich, side and drink favorites for decades. And it’s one of several dining favorites, along with Black’s Grill, in the western Gaston County community that have earned Cherryville press coverage as “Cheeseburger Town.”

That acclaim recently extended statewide as The Shake Shop was featured in the popular Our State magazine as one of North Carolina’s must-visit “Hole in the Wall” joints. The publication was enough to get us to finally make a #FoodieScore visit to The Shake Shop, and here’s what we discovered.

  • Don’t expect to immediately get a table on a Saturday if you arrive past 11:15 a.m. We drove up just before 11 a.m. and waited for the doors to open. After ordering at the counter and selecting a booth, we watched the small dining area fill to capacity in about 15 minutes. We also suggest you call ahead if you’re heading to The Shake Shop from outside town. We discovered the hours on the restaurant’s Facebook page are different than what’s posted on the door.
  • You must take cash here. Don’t forget!
  • Don’t expect to get a shake. While they’ve been served here in the past and the word is still in the name, it’s not part of the menu now. Do consider a handmade cherry lemon Sun-Drop, with cherries on top. It’s also a favorite drink over at Black’s Grill in town.
  • If you like Lottaburgers—a submarine sandwich-style bun filled with a burger patty and toppings on each half—you should try one here. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a place to top this lottaburger. The flavors—juicy meat, fresh slaw, tomato and pickle, also the standard sandwich toppings at Black’s Grill—and the portions are both large!
  • The onion rings are a great side choice, as heralded by locals. They’re some of the crunchiest, least greasy, flavorful onion rings we’ve had anywhere.

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The Shake Shop’s not the kind of place where you’ll find the crowd looking for the hippest, trendiest, most expensive and chic food available. It’s the kind of place where you’ll see families and friends meeting for a delicious meal at a good price. (We ate with tip for less than $20, and we ordered a few extras on top of the basics.) And it’s the kind of place where you’ll see regular customers arriving to a familiar question: “Are you having your usual today?” We heard that several times during just one quick lunchtime visit.

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Oh, and do expect to be called “honey” and “sweetie” when you order, as the Our State story reported. Southern hospitality flows freely here, and that’s just the way we like it.

The Shake Shop, 505 W. Church St., Cherryville, N.C.

Foodie Travels: Black’s Grill, Cherryville, N.C.

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“Black’s Grill,” I would say as I answered the phone, pen poised in hand, ready to take another order. I’d write it down on a ticket pad, then tear it off and stick it above the main grill. Whoever was manning the grill would put on any necessary burgers and buns, and pass the ticket on down the line. As the fry cook, if I took the order, I’d go ahead and get the fries from the freezer and put them in the basket, to dip down into hot, yellow-brown oil.

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My two favorite parts of the job were the people and the free meal every day. The people I worked with at Black’s were there because they needed a job or wanted this particular one. Our boss, Barbara Hastings (who later passed it on to her son), was a phenomenal boss who cared just as much about her employees as she did her business. I think she knew it takes good, happy employees to make a good restaurant. My coworkers were like family to me. Those ladies taught me a lot about getting along with other people and caring. They had been through hard times, so they understood more than most people do. I wasn’t a rich kid, I was just trying to help make money for myself and for college. So I understood, too. I worked there for over two years, and those years at that job taught me more than many other jobs I have had. I learned hard work and I learned what kind of worker I was: someone who valued quality, attention to detail, and who would get things done when she saw they needed doing.

Today, I’m a schoolteacher and I don’t get to man the deep fryer anymore, or carry up large boxes full of fries from the basement. I don’t get to occasionally work the grill or dress the sandwiches. But I still go back to Cherryville from time to time to get a taste of that good old food so characteristic of my time there. And when I taste my first sip of a hand-crafted cherry lemon Sun-Drop, I know I’m in the right place.

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So what can you get at Black’s Grill? Oh, Lordy, where to start! Here are a few of my favorites. First, you have to get that cherry lemon Sun-Drop, because the waitress will make it with Sun-Drop, real cherry juice, a lemon, and cherries mixed in. It’s a powerfully refreshing drink. For food, Black’s has one of the best hamburgers in the world. Thick, perfectly-grilled, hand-pattied, juicy, hearty burgers with plenty of cheese on a toasted bun. We used to toast the buns with a thin layer of mayonnaise on the underside and lay ‘em straight on the grill. (Don’t tell my dad. He hates mayonnaise.) They have a mean hamburger steak, and another of my favorites is the grilled chicken melt: a grilled chicken breast on Texas toast with grilled onions and cheese. Get mayo, lettuce or any other toppings you like.

One good thing to know about Black’s: the default sandwich topping is slaw, tomato, pickle. I still go places and get slaw and tomato due to my love for it at Black’s. (They make slaw fresh every day, and there were quite a few times I made it myself. It’s a no-sugar slaw, just freshly chopped cabbage and plenty of cold mayo. It’s pert near perfect.) You can also get any number of other things like hotdogs, chicken patty sandwiches, corndogs, and more. They have a delicious Poorboy, ham and cheese on a hoagie bun, or Half and Half, ham and cheese on one half and a small cheeseburger on the other half of a hoagie bun.

Perhaps the king for me though is the grilled cheese. I’m serious. Black’s will trip you up because they have two versions: a toasted cheese and a grilled cheese. Be not fooled – they are not the same. A toasted cheese is your typical grilled cheese – cheese toasted between two slices of buttery bread. But a grilled cheese sandwich is another beast entirely. Here’s how it’s done: they take a fresh slice of American and plop it right on the grill, then put the bottom half of a hamburger bun on top of it upside down. They let the cheese cook and harden until it’s brown and crispy on one side, then use a spatula to scrape it up, while holding the bottom bun, then flip it right-side-up onto a sandwich paper. The sandwich dresser tops it with slaw, tomato, two small pickles, and salt and pepper, before capping it with its top bun. It’s then wrapped Black’s style. Let me tell you. I have never gotten a grilled cheese as good as this anywhere and my husband and I have eaten local food in more than 30 U.S. states. When you bite into that fresh, cool slaw and tomato, and taste it all mixed in with that crispy, toasted, melty cheese…there ain’t another taste like it. Even when I get another menu item, or even a basket, I get a grilled cheese to share with someone, too.

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Black’s famed Grilled Cheese

When you first walk into Black’s, you might feel a little out of place, or time. That’s because the people who go there are mostly regulars. But it won’t take long before you’re greeted and treated like family. And it won’t take long, if you live close by, before you’re a regular, too. I don’t live in Cherryville anymore, but I stop by when I can. It is always worth the stop. They’ve also done some snazzy retro redecorating inside and I must say, I really like it, from the Cherryville-themed mural to the antique fry baskets hanging on the walls holding ketchup packets and such. One word of warning: the parking lot and the dining room are cozy, so try to go at a less busy, less typically-lunch time of day.

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Thinking back to tickets, Black’s Grill was one of two food jobs I had where someone sent me home with order tickets before I started my first day. I was encouraged to study them and the menu to learn what was offered and how to write it. And study, I did. I was a nerdy kid. Today, I’m so glad I had that job, that when I walked in to meet Barbara for the first time, she was willing to give this homeschooled kid a chance, and that when I started to work there, I became a part of the Black’s Grill family. I miss those times. But what a blessing it is that Black’s Grill is still there – and hopping with business! – as a reminder of what’s important in life: treating people, and feeding people, right.

Black’s Grill, 1915 Lincolnton Highway, Cherryville, NC

Homemade Yeast Doughnuts

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Earlier this year, we tested a doughnut recipe in the #FoodieScore kitchen that allowed us to make the sweet treats without using yeast. The result was a flavorful doughnut we enjoyed and shared with you. But the doughnuts from that batch became much heavier as they sat for a day or two, and I found myself wanting a lighter, airier doughnut that could last a bit longer. After all, we shared some of the doughnuts with family, but we still had plenty to eat ourselves and could only eat so many at a time, within reason.

So, I searched for a yeast doughnuts recipe, hoping the inclusion of yeast would produce a lighter result and thinking such an ingredient might take a little more work to prepare. Both of those expectations were accurate with the recipe I selected. Molly did most of the preparation on these doughnuts, which required the incorporation, settling and rising of yeast, and the frying. The process did take more time and effort, but the recipe did produce a slightly airier doughnut.

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However, after a few days, the doughnuts still became a bit heavier and drier than when first made. So, I have a hypothesis about this and all doughnut recipes: They’re meant to make and enjoy right away. From our doughnut tests, we’ve learned there’s a reason why doughnut shops make their treats and sell them fresh on the day of production. A doughnut just isn’t as good after a few days. That also tells me something about those packages of Krispy Kreme and other doughnuts you see on the shelves in grocery and convenience stores. What kind of preservatives must they contain to help them maintain flavor and texture longer?

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This recipe linked here was provided by Ree Drummond, known as the Pioneer Woman, for the Food Network. It’s a solid set of ingredients and instructions, and we thoroughly enjoyed the resulting doughnuts. We also enjoyed getting creative with our decorations and toppings, leaving holes in some doughnuts and filling them with creams, icing others and adding drizzles, sprinkles, bacon and more. But most of all, we suggest that you use any doughnut recipe with plans to eat your tasty creations within just a couple of days. You’ll enjoy them more that way.

Foodie Travels: Ray’s Drive Inn, San Antonio, Texas

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We wish you good luck if you visit Ray’s Drive Inn, an iconic restaurant in San Antonio, Texas.

You’ll need luck to find a parking space in Ray’s lot, which seems to stay quite full, especially at peak dinner times. (They do appear to have a gravel parking lot across the street.) But that’s your first good clue that you’re in for an awesome dining experience at the spot that calls itself the home of the original puffy taco.

And speaking of that taco, good luck resisting the opportunity to order as many as you can, filled with nearly as many toppings as you can imagine. If you’re as lucky as we were, you’ll experience amazing service at Ray’s with a server who’s willing to describe the contents of each taco option.

Ray’s was our first stop on a two-day summer excursion through San Antonio, and we’ll be honest with you that it was quite difficult to not return for every other meal we ate in the city!

It was the aforementioned “puffy taco” that attracted us to Ray’s. I had heard about puffy tacos on one of the many Food Network shows I regularly binge on, and it appeared Ray’s was the place to get them.

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If you’ve never had one, the puffy taco is almost like a premium Taco Bell chalupa, but it’s far fresher and, well, better. The outer shell is fried crispy yet maintains a lightness that yields to the delicious filling it carries.

On our visit we sampled puffy tacos with zesty chicken fajitas, seasoned ground beef, savory pork, crispy fried fish and carne guisada. Each one offered the same familiar pop of fresh flavor of toppings like lettuce and tomato, and a crispy, puffy shell. But each one’s unique meat performed its own flavor concert with the other ingredients.

We ate a basket of chips that also came to the table—and the menu features a variety of other Mexican and American favorites—but otherwise this #FoodieScore stop was all about the tacos—wondrous homemade-style tacos.

If you can’t resist a tasty taco like us, don’t miss Ray’s. We suggest you take cash and expect a hearty crowd of other taco lovers. San Antonio’s quite lucky to have this taco treasure.

Ray’s Drive Inn, 822 SW 19th Street, San Antonio, Texas