Published: January 2011
By Matt Lee, Ted Lee
To mark the 50th anniversary of America's interstate highway system, <em>Matt Lee</em> and <em>Ted Lee</em> set off on a culinary odyssey along its Eastern artery, I-95. From New York to Charleston, they sample some of the best road eats around
On the outskirts of Baltimore, a mere quarter-mile from the relentless whoosh and ba-dump of U.S. Interstate 95, is a serene corner table warmed by the glare of the sun off the Chesapeake Bay. Four hours into a journey from New York City to our hometown of Charleston, South Carolina, we'd ducked into Nick's Fish House for the best kind of road food: iced platters of Malpeques, bluepoints, and littlenecks.
Typically, we bomb down I-95 in 11 hours with two stops: one for lunch at Sally Bell's Kitchen in Richmond, Virginia, and a second for a barbecue dinner at Fuller's, in Lumberton, North Carolina. This time, we'd determined to stretch the journey into a few days, to hit our favorites but also to size up a few new spots we'd collected from more I-experienced friends.
We discovered years ago that the key to interstate bliss is finding a few sure things—local restaurants like Nick's and a well-run independent hotel or two—that are just as convenient (or nearly so) as the familiar chains but make you feel as if you have stepped into a real community. On any interstate marathon, the sense of forward motion is heightened when the foods and the inflections (the waitress at Nick's let slip a Baltimorean "hon" as she took our order) keep step with the changing landscape.
Stops like these are also restorative: careening tractor-trailers and traffic jams somehow seem tolerable when you've just inhaled one of the best crab cakes of your life—which is what we did at Nick's after the exquisite oysters and before the classic Baltimore pit-beef sandwich.
We merged back onto the asphalt river headed to Richmond. This 160-mile stretch, which passes around Washington, D.C., and its traffic-choked suburbs to the south, can be critical: ideally, it takes 2 1/2 hours, but rush times get grisly. On this trip, we sailed through—a bonus, because the next stop, Sally Bell's Kitchen (a takeout-only bakery), closes promptly at four o'clock. We called ahead to place our sandwich orders; the sugary drawl on the other end was the first sign that we had crossed the Mason-Dixon Line.
Less than a mile from I-95, Sally Bell's bakes on the premises all manner of Southern breads, pies, and cakes, but it's the white cardboard lunch boxes, tied with butcher's string, that have locals lined up 10 deep at midday.
In addition to your choice of dainty sandwiches (the pimento-cheese or country-ham biscuits are best) and more than a dozen kinds of cupcakes, each box comes loaded with celery-spiked potato salad, a cheddar-cheese cookie, and a deviled egg in a twist of waxed paper. Mamie Eisenhower, whose husband signed off on the interstate system 50 years ago, would be proud.
Typically, we'd race back to the highway, but on this trip we checked into Richmond's Jefferson Hotel, a few blocks from I-95. The grand hotel's porte cochère, restored along with the rest of the Moorish-revival edifice in 1992, is attended by ranks of valets in red-tailed coats, who graciously overlooked our road-wrinkled attire to ogle our ride—a 1969 Dodge Super Bee muscle car with sparkle-flake bronze paint, fat racing slicks, and chrome mag wheels. We'd cajoled it out of our friend Zack, who helps run the Manhattan Classic Car Club. The unholy rumble the Super Bee emits sounds menacing, but turned out to be an icebreaker—and a boon to drivers in unfamiliar territory.
The next morning, we left the Jefferson in the dust, feeling on top of the world—perfectly rested, with a full $75 tank of Super and about 165 miles between us and a midday date with Ava Gardner. The screen star (you know, Sinatra's second wife, Mickey Rooney's first, The Barefoot Contessa?) ascended from Smithfield, North Carolina (population 11,702). Her hometown's museum is equal parts immaculate, respectful, and breathless. The 1941 screen test of young Ava, fresh off the farm, radiantly mugging for the camera, is alone worth the price of admission, but so are 33 Magritte-like oil portraits of her painted by an obsessed fan from Holland.
Just a few miles across the east side of the highway from Smithfield is Hinnant Family Vineyards, perhaps the only winery from Maine to Miami with official signposts on I-95, and another reason to choose this sunbaked stretch of North Carolina for a pit stop. The Hinnants have grown the South's beloved native muscadine grapes amid the cotton fields for more than 35 years. In 2001, they installed stainless-steel tanks and began to make serious wine from it—the kind of foxy-fresh, semisweet wines that Southerners like us love to sip in the late summer afternoons (and that others, weaned on Europe's vinifera grapes, consider swill). We loaded the trunk with a couple of cases, including a delicious strawberry wine made when a neighboring farmer found himself overloaded with fruit.
We were ravenous by this point (and one of us—not the driver—was perhaps a little aglow from the strawberry wine), so we sped on, to Lumberton, North Carolina, another 1½ hours away. Some barbecue joints are content to deliver only the shredded, sauced pig, but Fuller and Delora Locklear's buffet line at Fuller's Old Fashioned BBQ is a veritable grand tour of Southern dishes. Yes, they have a deliciously smoky pulled pork chopped up very finely and spiked, North Carolinastyle, with red-chile vinegar, but they also serve everything else, from oxtails and chicken 'n' dumplings to butter beans and creamed corn. Their braised chitlins—free of funkiness and deliciously peppery—are the ones to try if it's your first time, and a few dishes, like the flat, crisp, buttery corn cakes, are exclusive to the Lumbee tribe, native to this corner of the South.
For a tonic digestif, we hustled on for 20 miles to South of the Border, a Mexican-themed tourist trap and fireworks emporium on the North CarolinaSouth Carolina border. There's an enormous statue of the place's mascot, Pedro, presiding over the parking lot. The restrooms are less than clean and we'd be inclined to drive on by, except that the commissary sells the truly gingery and spicy Blenheim Ginger Ale by the case. The soda is bottled nearby and comes in only three flavors: Diet, Hot, and Not As Hot. It makes terrific cocktails mixed with bourbon, and we often stop in to replenish our supply.
Just a half-hour down the highway is the city of Florence, South Carolina, home to the Ambrias Garden Manor. We hit the reliable Pee Dee State Farmers Market for some boiled peanuts (sample them first to make sure they're not too salty), a potted plant for Mom, and local honey. Then we rumbled up to the Manor, our peanut shells spilling out of the opened car door, and were greeted by two icons of composure, Ella Frazier and her husband, David, who opened this B&B three years ago.
They led us around the dogwood and camellia arbor, and then we set on the porch a spell, drew deep breaths, and felt Southern again. This is a familiar feeling for the Fraziers, who grew up in South Carolina, about 50 miles apart from each other, but moved to New York shortly after high school. They didn't meet until 1981, when David, a Harlem haberdasher, sold a few dresses to Ella. In 2003, they moved back to South Carolina, restored the Arts and Craftsera mansion, and decorated its rooms in bright, grandmotherly chintzes.
Sixty miles south of Florence, the long, low bridge that carries I-95 across Lake Marion near Summerton is the sign we're almost home. In the hottest days of the summer, the water can look like a malarial swamp, but when the temperature drops, it's a lake again, ringed with cypresses and dotted with fishermen. This trip we decided we'd join them, and booked a boat at Jack's Creek Marina just two miles from Exit 102.
The morning was perfect for fishing, judging by the ospreys circling overhead. Alas, we caught not a crappie, bass, or catfish, but being adrift, in the shade of the trees that rise from the shallows, was victory enough. There is no better antidote to 80-mph vertigo than an hour's worth of casting.
Out on the water, we worked up an appetite for barbecue again, and Sweatman's, about a half-hour south, is a rare style of barbecue joint. Sweatman's does pork pulled from whole hogs, offers a few perfunctory sides, and not much else. But it's renowned among barbecue aficionados for the care they give to their hardwood-smoked meat. It's so much work that they're open only Friday and Saturday, and their hours of operation are etched in the memories of fans like us.
So it seemed some kind of cruel joke when we rolled up to Sweatman's and found a hand-lettered sign: CLOSED FOR FAMILY WEDDING. No matter. Charleston was less than 45 minutes away, and when we at last screeched to a halt it was in time for a lunch of shrimp and grits with Mom at one of our local favorites, the Hominy Grill. We never fail to finish off a long road trip with a celebratory feast, as an exclamation point, a toast to a job safely done and a reminder of how far we've come.
Matt Lee and Ted Lee are T+L contributing editors. The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook (W. W. Norton) will be out in October.
WHERE TO STAY
101 W. Franklin St., Richmond, Va.; 800/424-8014 or 804/788-8000; www.jeffersonhotel.com; doubles from $285.
Ambrias Garden Manor
111 Kuker St., Florence, S.C.; 866/412-2632 or 843/661-6060; www.ambriasgardenmanor.com; doubles from $135.
WHERE TO EAT
Nick's Fish House
2600 Insulator Dr., Baltimore, Md.; 410/347-4123; lunch for two $45.
Sally Bell's Kitchen
708 W. Grace St., Richmond, Va.; 804/644-2838; lunch for two $13.
Hinnant Family Vineyards
826 Pine LevelMicro Rd., Pine Level, N.C.; 919/965-3350.
Fuller's Old Fashioned BBQ
3201 N. Roberts Ave., Lumberton, N.C.; 910/738-8694; dinner for two $17.
South of the Border
Hamer, S.C.; 843/774-2411.
Pee Dee State Farmers Market
2513 W. Lucas St., Florence, S.C.; 843/665-5154.
Rte. 453, Holly Hill, S.C.; dinner for two $16.
207 Rutledge Ave., Charleston, S.C.; 843/937-0930; dinner for two $40.
WHAT TO DO
Ava Gardner Museum
325 E. Market St., Smithfield, N.C.; 919/934-5830.
Jack's Creek Marina
2226 Jack's Creek Rd., Summerton, S.C.; 803/478-2793; boat rentals from $35.