I was raised in Williamston, North Carolina extremely thankful for my small town upbringing and proud to be from such a close knit community. I am a product of Eastern North Carolina and so was tobacco: gummy, beautiful green as far as the eye could see, the most lucrative summer job there was and what I could always count on to push back the first day of school.
When my best friend, Hope, who had snagged a coveted position on the tobacco harvester, decided to miss one day for a beach trip, I was ecstatic to be her fill-in. I still remember hopping into the bed of that pickup at sunrise not so bright-eyed but clean and hopeful only to roll out of that same pickup at the end of the day completely sticky and disgusting, so much so my mom made me take my clothes off on the back porch before I could go inside. Our mid-morning snack of “nabs” and a bottled Pepsi is, to this day, the best I have ever tasted. (Order the housemade version at The Packhouse bar.)
Albeit my one day experience, truth be told, any knowledge of tobacco I have comes from the hardest working man I’ve ever known, my dad. You see growing up at Cannon’s Crossroads, working summers in those fields of opportunity was a necessity for him, his mom and siblings. Tie horses to looping and tip poles to curing, all woven into his stories of childhood woes that ultimately shaped his being and without knowing it at the time, molded him into the greatest example of work ethic for his kids. That tobacco lingo carried over to everyday life. When my Granny had the wood stove at heat levels that would induce sweat, the running joke was “she’s curing tobacco in here”.
Fast forward to 2017 and even though I’ve lived in Charlotte for over 20 years, the band Parmalee (my hometown friends) express my sentiments best…
“No, I can’t outrun these roots
Even if I wanted to.
‘Cause they run too strong, run too deep
Cutting right through the heart of me
No, it don’t matter where I plant these boots.
I can’t outrun these roots.”
Since my childhood, much has happened to the tobacco industry back home. Rightly so, the government encouraged farmers to replace tobacco and the Golden Leaf Foundation helped to teach and train the cultivation of other economically beneficial crops such as sweet potatoes and muscadine grapes. Because of this, there are packhouses (tobacco barns) falling down around my hometown and the many surrounding townships.
So, for my next restaurant venture, I decided to bring home to Charlotte. Thankfully, there were gracious farmers and friends who offered me three packhouses (and one two-room school house). Carolina Farmstead, who also built the restaurant tables and barn doors out of tobacco barn wood, dismantled all and delivered the wood, tin and brick to the Queen City, and Zenith Building Group made what was in my head come to life.
I wanted to recycle all that I could, so every possible restaurant wall is covered in wood from the barns. The face of the bar is the reclaimed brick from their foundations. The private dining room is my attempt to recreate an actual packhouse complete with a tin roof. I utilized what was salvaged from the school house in the restrooms. The wood in the women’s restroom is the exterior of the school house and the walls in the men’s restroom are the interior wood. The collage of warehouse hats in the men’s restroom were given to me by a retired tobacco buyer from Williamston. Artisan Leaf created the beautiful bar top specifically out of Eastern North Carolina tobacco. And, the handsome man in the Cannon’s Crossroads tobacco field is my Great Uncle Raymond.
Throughout the restaurant are items I either collected or had made along the way like the tobacco baskets hanging from the ceiling, the working plow attached to the wall, the PH and restroom signs my dad made out of tobacco sticks, the pair of 1870 tobacco harvesting tools used as door pulls and the replica of a Williamston sign I must have passed a million times growing up.
As I learned more about the goals of the Golden Leaf Foundation, I wanted to figure out a way to incorporate muscadine grapes. That led me to bottling a white and red muscadine wine (Blond Optimism and Noble Intentions under the Cured label) and my son, Cannon, bottling 100% muscadine grape juice (Cannon’s Shine). Noble Intentions is used in The Packhouse Sangria and Cannon’s Shine is used in the Golden Leaf signature drink as well as the Cannon’s Shine and Rise, housemade jelly and housemade dressing.
Executive Chef John Brandon is creating southern inspired dishes using amazing local purveyors that will change with the seasons. Our hospitable front of house staff dons wooden bow ties hand carved by the almost 90-year-old, remarkable Robert Moak. Your food will be plated on made in the USA, thrifted Corelle, Corningware and the like, just as I remembered from every church homecoming, family reunion and covered dish supper (sans my mom’s name written on masking tape stuck to the bottom).
“No, it don’t matter where I plant these boots. I can’t outrun these roots.”
Hope you enjoy!