Saturday, April 2, 2016

Meals on Wheels, First Course: North Carolina


WEDNESDAY:  Elise at The Sweet Onion

WAYNESVILLE, North Carolina—Nestled on a quiet side street among galleries and specialty shops in the thriving downtown of Waynesville, NC (pop. 9,900), the Sweet Onion was an ideal location for us to catch up with my cousin Elise.  Rich wood tones and a spring onion motif decorated a cozy dining room with tables centered around an open-walled kitchen.  The food delivered what the d├ęcor promised, starting with the basket of buttery biscuits delivered to the table as soon as we arrived.

So much fun to see Elise after almost ten years apart
Elise brought us up to date and shared photos of her adorable five-year-old son Henry and her two beloved Bernese Mountain dogs, Mac and Millie.  She gushed with affection about her adopted hometown and the friends she has made there.  A native of Mobile on the Gulf coast of Alabama, Elise especially loves summers in the mountains away from the heat and humidity of the Deep South.
   
Charming downtown Waynesville
Before she had to depart for an early afternoon appointment, Elise took us on a walking tour along the tree-lined brick sidewalks of Waynesville’s Main Street.  At a gallery, we saw paintings by her artist friend, and we waved to the proprietor of the Smoky Mountain Dog Bakery, who was creating a window display of delectable canine cookies of the type Mac and Millie, siblings from the same litter, had on their birthday.  As we admired the historic buildings and public art lining the quaint street, Elise described some of the popular events, parades and festivals she and Henry enjoy throughout the year in Waynesville.  Having said our goodbyes, we marveled that a girl who grew up on the beaches of Alabama feels so at home in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  We are so glad she does.

THURSDAY:  Marion at Lucky 32

GREENSBORO, North Carolina—Next stop on the Meals on Wheels express took us to lunch the following day with sister Marion at Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen, a Greensboro tradition since 1989.  Founded by Greensboro native Nancy King and her Montana-born husband, Dennis Quaintance, Lucky 32 was named for the race car Dennis grew up watching his father hustle around dirt tracks in the Midwest.  The restaurant began locally sourcing food long before the New Agers in California caught on to the idea.  More than 25 years later, Lucky 32 still holds fast to the founders' mantra of taking great care of guests and providing high quality food at a good value.

Full disclosure:  We had eaten at Lucky 32 before and were thrilled that Marion selected it.
Marion's tenure in Greensboro doesn't go back quite as far as Lucky 32's, but she seems to have found a good fit in her chosen hometown.  Like several of her friends, Marion felt the post-retirement pull to move closer to her children and grandchildren.  So in 2010, she pulled up stakes in Atlanta and moved to Greensboro near her daughter and granddaughter.  Since then, she has taken advantage of a range of volunteer opportunities from a local elementary school to a community feeding program to her favorite synagogue and her neighborhood homeowners association.  In between, she keeps active with yoga and exercise classes, among other endeavors.

That's when she's actually in Greensboro.  Travel is frequently on her calendar as she joins several different groups of friends on trips near and far.  A month in south Florida recently gave her a welcome respite from Greensboro's winter chill, and in May she is planning a sojourn to Alaska with her children.  Granddaughter Emma, who was an effervescent first grader when "Mimi" arrived in town, is now a levelheaded tween about to turn 13—another great excuse to travel.  Marion offered to take Emma on a trip to a location of her choosing in celebration of this milestone birthday.  Emma opted to go to a national park, though the specific one has not been decided.

Letterboxing at the Greensboro Arboretum
Before we parted ways, Marion did a bit of letterboxing with us at the venerable Green Hill Cemetery and the Greensboro Arboretum.  Then we headed to our hotel to rest as she drove off to help serve meals—after she finished her crocheting class. Whew!

THURSDAY:  Heather and Dan at Village Tavern

GREENSBORO, North Carolina—Dinner Thursday evening was with Marion's daughter Heather and husband Dan at another Greensboro eatery that has stood the test of time.  Also opened in 1989, Greensboro's Village Tavern was the first expansion of what became a regional chain of restaurants headquartered in nearby Winston-Salem.  Inspired by the concept of colonial taverns as community meeting places for food, drink and talk, the restaurant's founders sought to develop a restaurant with quality food at a reasonable price, a good wine list and “the coldest beer in town.”  Modern and spacious, Village Tavern offered an extensive menu of food and drink with plenty of vegetarian choices.

Dan and Heather—still the blissful newlyweds
Though they have a total of three kids between them, Heather and Dan, married last September, were empty nesters when we were there, as Emma, Emma and Will were on spring break vacation with their "other" parents.  We regretted that our timing was off but were happy to hear that all the kids are doing well.  Both Heather and Dan are busy with work and looking forward to the Alaska trip with Marion and her son Ryan in a few weeks.

This newly joined family seems to be thriving in their blending.  Not only do the two Emmas share the same name, they are the same age and—even with very different temperaments—get along quite well.  Will, about to turn 17, tolerates the sisters good naturedly as he scrimps and saves for his first car.  Each of the kids is on a somewhat different shared parenting schedule which gives them time together, as well as individual time for each with Heather and Dan.  And one night each week, the parents are on their own.  As difficult as these schedules can be to negotiate, this one sounds like a win-win-win-win-win situation.  Next time we roll into Greensboro, we're hoping to see everyone.

SATURDAY:  Ashley, Jonathan and Judah at The Remedy Diner

RALEIGH, North Carolina—Cousin Debbie's daughter Ashley and her husband Jonathan moved from Mobile to the Raleigh area last year.  We were especially excited about visiting with them because we had never met 18-month-old Judah.  They chose The Remedy Diner, a cozy little eatery in downtown Raleigh's Moore Square district.  Serving up an expansive variety of "alternative therapies" (i.e., vegetarian dishes), Remedy certainly seemed capable of making good on its promise to "cure what ales you."  Opened in 2009 as a vegetarian comfort food restaurant, the diner also offers what it terms "mainstream remedies" with a meat-friendly fare.  We arrived in time for the Saturday brunch and all of us finished with clean plates.

Ashley, Judah and Jonathan 
Young Judah had been awakened prematurely from a nap and was very quiet and cuddly when they arrived.  He came to me readily and snuggled as he drifted toward wakefulness, gazing sleepily at some colorful star-shaped lamps and at the street scene outside the window.  When he discovered a baby at the next table, he rocketed to wide awake and wanted to go over and visit the baby.  This affection for infants bodes well for his relationship with his younger brother Levi, who is expected to arrive in mid-July.

Judah was just as precocious and endearing as his grandmother says he is.  After Ashley buckled him into a high chair, he would grasp her hand or mine and guide our hand to the buckle.  He wanted to be unbuckled so he could return to the baby nearby.  After several such attempts, Ashley told him gently but firmly, "All done with the buckle," and his entreaties ended.

Ashley and Jonathan are delighted to be back in the city where they met when both were attending graduate school.  In fact, the diner where we ate was just a couple of blocks from Bu•ku, a cool little cafe serving international street food where they had their first date.  Jonathan is enjoying his position as worship leader for a local church and thrives on tutoring elementary school kids through an outreach program at the local Y.  While managing an 18-month-old and growing a new baby, Ashley is comfortable back in the very familiar Starbucks surroundings part time.  She is steeped in the coffee house culture and with her experience in management the local store must have been thrilled when she walked in the door.

Stamping in to letterbox #4,000
After bidding them farewell, we drove over to the North Carolina Museum of Art to visit their sculpture park.  In our letterboxing on the way to Raleigh the day before, we had skirted up to a big milestone, ending the day with 3,999 finds.  We wanted something special for #4,000 and we found it at a whisper bench in the park—cleverly clued, skillfully carved, and imaginatively sited.  

SATURDAY:  Sharon, Wayne and Eli at Irregardless Cafe

RALEIGH, North Carolina—When it opened in 1975, Irregardless Cafe was known as the hippie, vegetarian place.  Today it’s the oldest restaurant in the city with the original owner.  Over the years it has evolved to offer a full-scale menu with hand-crafted meals to please every palate.  The owners are so committed to sourcing local food they bought a parcel of land a few miles from the cafe to establish a community garden.  Produce grown there feeds community members and supplies the restaurant’s kitchen.  Like everyone else, we wondered about the origin of the cafe’s ungrammatical name.  According to the owner, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, “I chose the name because when I wrote ‘irregardless’ in college papers, professors would circle it in red.  I wanted finally to be able to use the word.”  Irregardless of the irregularity of its appellation, the food was plentiful and scrumptious.

Regardless of what you think, this place is called Irregardless.
There was something else special about this restaurant with the memorable name.  It was the location of cousin Sharon’s first date with her husband Wayne.  Along with their older son Eli, they were our guests for dinner at Irregardless.  (Younger son Daniel was working.)  Back in the pre-Match.com days, Sharon and Wayne had both signed up for a non-digital dating service in Raleigh.   When given a list of potential matches, Wayne chose 30 to consider; Sharon selected six.  As he went through his list, she was #14 of the women he met.  He never called #15.

Some twenty years and two sons later, they are still living in Raleigh, still happy with the non-dot.com match they found.  Wayne is a computer engineer with Cisco, having been convinced by a friend at North Carolina State to switch from electrical engineering to the then-new field of computer engineering.  He loves to play guitar and is a regular fixture on the local open mic circuit.  With some friends, he has been “instrumental” in the founding of a charitable organization called Guitars for Good.  They recently donated a couple of guitars to a homeless shelter for teens and spent a few hours there teaching the kids and jamming with them.

Eli, Wayne, and Sharon (Missed you, Daniel!)
Trained as a physical therapist, Sharon set aside the 9-to-5 lifestyle to weave an eclectic tapestry of mental and physical endeavors compatible with full-time motherhood.  She instructs adults in Hebrew language at their synagogue and acts as language coach for kids preparing for bar and bat mitzvah.  She also teaches tai chi and Silver Sneaker classes at the local YMCA.

We were delighted to hear that the family enjoys the kind of road trip that we find so appealing.  Well, they did.  As the boys have gotten older, they’re not quite so enamored with the lengthy hours in the car.  Last summer, the four of them drove up the East coast, taking in Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, DC.  The year before, it was Westward Ho as they visited Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and other scenic places in between.


The charming Eli is thriving in his sophomore year at NC State, studying materials engineering and playing drums in the marching band.  He has recently taken an interest in Dungeons and Dragons, a favorite of his dad at the same age.  Daniel will graduate from high school this spring and starts at NC State in the fall, planning to study political science with an eye toward law school.  His senior year has been very busy as he has taken on a leadership role in a local Jewish youth organization.

It was a joy to spend time with this close-knit family and catch up on their very busy and active lives.  Unfortunately for us, this was the end of the first course of our Meals on Wheels tour.  We have enjoyed it just as much as we thought we would and eagerly await the second course.

More Photos

Green Hill Cemetery in Greensboro
A cedar and steel creation in the NCMA sculpture garden.
No leaves on this sculpture park tree yet this spring
A ghostly scene at the abandoned Henry River Mill Village near Hickory, NC (found a letterbox there)


Friday, April 1, 2016

Catching a Taxi


GREENSBORO, North Carolina—Before leaving Greensboro on Friday, we had one more stop there on the first course of our Meals on Wheels tour, but there was no food involved.  When we first visited London back in the 1980s, I fell in love with the sturdy little London taxi and wanted to bring one home.  Doing so wasn't feasible for a litany of reasons, not the least of which was the right-side driver seat.  Yet my interest in this iconic vehicle has never diminished.  Indeed, it has only grown each time we've been back to the United Kingdom.  Finally when we were in Edinburgh earlier this year, Ken began to develop an affection for the hackney carriage also.

Lucky 32's chef ferries fresh food from the market to the restaurant.
What a surprise when we saw a London taxi sitting in the parking lot of the Lucky 32 restaurant when we met Marion for lunch on Thursday!  Even though it was painted dark green with fruits and vegetables scattered across the sides, that telltale shape was unmistakable.  Inquiry and a bit of research led us to Baker's Automotive, a Greensboro auto repair shop which has rather accidentally become unofficial headquarters for London Taxis in the USA.

Larry Baker, American guru on the London Taxi
It all started when the Lucky 32 owners decided to purchase a couple of London taxis to ferry guests of their O. Henry Hotel for special events.  After scouring the city for a trained mechanic to maintain the vehicles, they found Larry Baker, not an expert but a very willing learner.  In the process, Larry developed a passion for the bubble top, bug-eyed vehicles.  In 2009, when the official parts supplier for London Taxis in the U.S. decided to close, Larry purchased the inventory.  Now in addition to selling parts, he restores the vehicles and brokers sales.

A North American-adapted London Taxi
An affable ambassador for the vehicle, Larry welcomed us to his shop and spent half an hour educating us about the car and his involvement with it.  By law, taxis in London must have a turning radius no larger than 28 feet so the cabbie can drop off a passenger on one side of the street and pick up another on the opposite side.  In 2003 and 2004, about 275 London taxis were manufactured for the North American market equipped with a left-side driver's seat and compliant with American and Canadian emissions and safety standards.  Efforts to market the vehicle on this side of the Atlantic were unsuccessful because domestic cabs could be had much more cheaply.  So this small inventory continues to be passed around in the niche market of London taxi aficionados.

Passenger compartment
Other than its funky squat appearance and the sheer novelty of the vehicle, the car has numerous appealing features.  These taxis are famously spacious.  In the roomy passenger compartment, the back seat can fit three large adults with space for two additional riders on fold down seats that face the rear.  Clearance from floor to roof is 55 inches—to allow a gentleman to enter without removing his top hat, according to legend.  With a steel body bolted to an ultra strong steel chassis, the 4,500-lb. vehicle is notoriously safe.  Fuel efficiency averages about 30 miles to the gallon, and the car will last a minimum of half a million miles with regular oil and filter changes and not much more in the way of maintenance.

What's not to like?  On top of all these admirable qualities, Larry informed us that a reasonable price for a car he restores to the equivalent of factory certified condition is about $22,000.  We were poised to give him our contact information and ask him to look for a car for us when we realized we had never really seen the front seat/driver compartment of a London taxi.  When we took a peek in the window of one in his shop, our excitement came to a screeching halt.  The space where most vehicles have a front passenger seat is a luggage compartment!  Would one of us really want to ride in the back with the other in the front?  Larry said he could put a fold-down seat there with a seat belt but space is very tight since the integrated frame is steel and can't really be modified.  Well, dang!

Lurching off the London Taxi roller coaster we had been on, we thanked Larry for his time and teaching, and we headed for Raleigh.  On the way, we did a bit of research, hoping we could rent a London Taxi and try it to see if we could make it work.  Oddly enough, the company we found that rents the cars was also in North Carolina!  Now we need to make plans to visit Wilmington.



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