The Folklore Project
Wilmington, North Carolina
Grape Expectations in Duplin County
By Celia Rivenbark
You could smell the barbecue long before you pulled into the parking lot at Norris’s Restaurant in the little Duplin County town of Wallace, North Carolina.
Norris’s barbecue was the greasiest, smokiest I ever ate, and it was one of the main reasons I showed up on a fine May morning in 1974 to apply for a waitress job at the only sit-down restaurant in town. I needed money for community college in the fall, and I knew there was no way I was going to work at the Family Dollar like my sister, because just that week, right after she had promised to “put in a word” for me, she’d been given the unimaginable task of cleaning up a dressing room that an intoxicated shopper mistook for a bathroom. (“Walked right out of there and kept on shopping,” she said later, still shaking her head at the memory.)
No, thanks. In a way, I am glad my retail career was torpedoed. Because, truth be told, I wanted to work as close to my true love — fine, authentic Southern home-style cooking — as humanly possible. A “help wanted” sign was in the window, and Norris’s was owned by a second cousin once removed, so I figured I could always play the “cuz card” if need be. It wasn’t fancy, but there was an added-on, paneled “Liberty Room,” where the Rotary and Chamber of Commerce met, and the restaurant was home to the town’s only salad bar. Listen: I’m not talking about that freeze-dried, pre-bagged slop they put on a salad bar at McAppleTuesday’s these days. This was the real deal: Real homemade chicken, ham, tuna, and egg salads framed by ice-cold containers of fresh beets, real devilled eggs, homemade pickles. I guess there was some lettuce.
“You Howard Lee’s daughter?” asked Annie Faye Norris, the owner, who was fierce way before Beyonce. She was as wide as she was tall, and she didn’t take any of that stuff my sister was still cleaning up over at the Family Dollar store.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “I wondered if I could get a job as a waitress. I’ve always loved y'all's food.”
“Uh huh,” she answered.
Clearly, Annie Faye Norris didn’t have time for flattery. My God, but her Grape Hull Pie was legendary. Even to this day, I purely swoon at the memory of those tender muscadine hulls, separated carefully from their pulp and seeds before being chopped fine, then reunited in a dense custard that was poured into a lard-built pastry as tender as a first kiss and topped with a good four inches of meringue.
Grape Hull Pie was a rare treat, awaited by the locals in Wallace like more uppity folks might anticipate an exceptional Beaulojais Nouveau. It was only on the menu a couple of weeks of the year. Labor-intensive, weird, and wonderful. I’ve never seen it on a menu anywhere else, and I’m almost glad, because it could never be as good as Annie Faye’s.
While I stood there and salivated at the thought of that pie, Annie Faye narrowed her eyes so that they were nearly lost in her round face. She looked me up and down for a full 30 seconds. Finally, she sighed in what sounded like total resignation.
“Get yer hair out of your face and go get some newspapers and vinegar and start on those front windows.”
OK, you have to understand that I was used to Windex. I wasn’t making the connection.
Dot, who was Annie Faye’s chain-smoking sister and could elegantly stack six plates of bacon, eggs, and grits on her skinny forearms, took pity on me.
“Best way to get a shiny window is newspaper and vinegar,” she said. “Get to it.”
So, I did. And, bless Patty, they were right. After an hour or so, the plate-glass windows on the front of the little dining room were clean and streak-free. Sadly, my hands were completely black.
“No food service today,” growled Dot on her way out to smoke her 100th Kent of the morning. “Lookit yer hands.”
It took an hour of scrubbing with Camay to get them clean again. Gloves. Yep. I was a brand new graduate of Wallace-Rose Hill High School and didn’t have sense enough to wear gloves when I was cleaning windows with newspapers and vinegar. At this point, I felt only marginally smarter than that poor, confused soul in the Family Dollar dressing room.
The next morning, Day Two of my first “public” job, I had bobby-pinned my hair out of my face and borrowed some thick, white uniform pants and a matching top from my sister’s short-lived career in something called respiratory therapy at the county hospital. (“I help them breathe,” she had explained succinctly, while drawing on a Vantage menthol.)
“Your hair looks like a rat’s nest,” said Annie Faye, still cemented to her post at the cash register, just as I’d left her 12 hours before. Had she been there all night? She reminded me of those decoy owls people put on their houses to scare off woodpeckers. She never moved but she was working all the time.
Mercifully, a high school friend who had worked at the restaurant a couple of years was working the breakfast shift. Christy showed me how to roll my limp blonde hair over a tube sock and twist it into a passable bun. Amazing!
While I’d already learned a lot about previously unheard of uses for newspapers and tube socks, I just wanted to work with the food. I wanted to holler “Order up!” to the cooks, Annie Faye’s grown sons: William, who was only slightly warmer in demeanor than his mama, and Danny, the prankster whose determined cheer by itself was enough to offset his mother and brother’s dour natures.
So far, restaurant work wasn’t glamorous. I’d had enough talk about hair buns and window-cleaning and wanted to, literally, see how the sausage was made. Most of all, I wanted to end the day sitting in the booth where the waitresses sat. They rolled silverware, counted their tips, and drank gallons of sweet tea. After work, you could help yourself to barbecued pork or chicken, but no seafood. “That stuff cost money,” Annie Faye growled in a manner that I no longer took personally.
I was happy to mound up that barbecue on the plate. This was decades before there was a Food Network to tell me about the “bark” on barbecued pork, so I didn’t know what to call that fabulously crunchy, blackened substance that clung to the meat. Yes, Norris’s had bark in spades, and a town of 3,000 was all the happier for it. It didn’t take long for me to realize that a lot of the regulars referred to “my second heart attack” or “lost my leg to the sugar,” but no one felt the need to make any dietary adjustments.
With my hair bun finally approved, I was given a “guest check” pad and a pen to tuck inside my respiratory therapy-turned-waitress pants. One of my first tables of the day left me two cents. They were buttholes.
Things got better, of course. I got pretty good at customer service, coyly twirling my pen in the air and reciting the specials. I knew the regulars and had their orders into William or Danny by the time they hit the door. Wallace had a surprisingly large Jewish population for a tiny town in eastern North Carolina, and Mr. Kramer was one of my favorite regulars. Every Friday, he came in with a newspaper to read and sat heavily into one of the avocado vinyl booths. Chicken livers and coffee. Nothing else. A sweet old lady who worked The New York Times crossword (and, therefore, was rumored to be a Communist) and drove the town’s only Mercedes came in every afternoon for a fried egg sandwich on toast with mustard. One time, a Yankee came in by accident and started breastfeeding her toddler right there.
I’m not proud of it, but I remember just standing there with my Bunn coffee pot mid-air, staring.
“What in the hell is she doing?” muttered Annie Faye. Never the most maternal type, she may not have actually known.
On Friday night, especially in tobacco-harvest season, the warehousemen would come in and order our most expensive meal: A porterhouse steak that was so big it hung off either end of the special black and silver platters we used so the steaks would “sizzle.” I loved saying “Be careful, y’all; that platter’s hot!” It made me feel like an insider. I could handle it, but maybe you couldn’t.
Seafood was big, too, on Friday night. Norris’s had a seafood platter that was called a “barge.” It had a ridiculous number of fried shrimp on it. Over the summer, I’d made friends with most of the other waitresses and cooks and they kept my shameful secret from Annie Faye. See, that 30-shrimp barge never made it out of the kitchen intact. I took a two- or three-shrimp tax for myself before I busted through those swinging doors. Couldn’t help myself.
At the end of the summer, I had to quit to go to school, and I was sad to leave. On my last day, I hung up my apron and emptied my pockets of extra pens and guest-check pads. I collected my last paycheck and walked out front to say goodbye to Annie Faye, who was, of course, seated at the cash register.
“Good thing you’re quitting. You near ‘bout ate up all my profits,” she said. “We used to wonder where you put it all. I never seen anybody your size could eat like that.”
Oh, what I would give for that 17-year-old metabolism now as I sit, puffy and round and owl-like, in my office chair. I had taken a fair amount of teasing for my mounded-up plates at the end of a shift, but I didn’t care. Norris’s cooked the vegetables with savory ham hocks. The baked potatoes (only available after 5 p.m. and therefore exotic) were crisp on the outside in a way that I have never been able to duplicate. Even the calf’s liver was tender and crispy with its standard accompaniment of bacon and mashed potatoes.
After school, I stayed in Wallace to work at the local newspaper. For many years, I ended every single week with a trip to the salad bar and a sizzling steak at Norris’s on Friday night. There was always coconut crème pie, amazing in its own right, as was the lemon and the butterscotch and the chocolate, but it was the grape-hull pie that I waited for all year. And if it was gone by the time I dragged in after a week of covering town board meetings and weddings and fires and wrecks and general small-town mayhem, I would nearly cry.
Over the years, I’ve made grape-hull pie a few times, but it has never come close to Annie Faye’s. And I’ve even discussed grape-hull pie with a few people who professed to be experts. That is, until they told me they used a double crust. Abomination. Covering that filling with pastry instead of mile-high meringue is, to me, a mustache on a culinary Mona Lisa.
I hadn’t seen Danny’s son, “Cousin Daniel,” in a while but I knew that he would be the most likely source for his grandma’s recipe. A historian, teacher, and author with his own publishing company, Daniel was just a tow-headed toddler when I worked at his family’s restaurant. Because it’s 201y, I messaged him on Facebook and, within a few hours, I was happily reading the recipe Daniel says his daddy still makes from time to time.
Norris’s Restaurant closed in 2002 and, last I heard, it had been transformed into the Del Rio Mexican restaurant. Sombreros and pinatas decorate walls that once were home to genuine replica Confederate swords, a bow to Danny’s fondness for Civil War memorabilia. I’ve heard the margaritas are tasty, but it’s hard to imagine liquor drinks being served at the same restaurant where generations of Baptists tucked into generous portions of turkey and dressing and mac and cheese and succotash after church. Not sure what Annie Faye would make of that. Then again, if you’ve survived a fat Yankee toddler breastfeeding in your restaurant, I reckon you can put up with most anything.
Here it is. My favorite pie of all time. A little slice of eastern North Carolina on a well-worn china plate, from a restaurant that used to be on the four-lane in Wallace.
Annie Faye Norris’s Grape Hull Pie
2 pounds muscadine grapes
½ cup water
¼ stick butter
1 cup sugar
2 ounces fresh lemon juice
Pinch of mace
2 tablespoons cornstarch
In a large bowl, use your fist to mash those grape hulls away from their pulp insides. It’s violent, but wonderfully so. Let it all out. Surely somebody has done you wrong this week at some point.
Cook that squished-hulls-and-pulp mixture in a saucepan over medium heat until the seeds separate from the pulp. Pour the pulp into a colander and discard the seeds. Return the grapes to the saucepan and add the water. Cook until the hulls are fork-tender. Add butter, sugar, lemon juice, and mace. Add cornstarch which you have mixed with enough cold water to make it nice and smooth (about 2 or 3 tablespoons). Continue cooking until it’s nice and thickened. Remove from heat. Pour into 2 unbaked pie shells and bake at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes.
Remove the pies from the oven and top with meringue made from 4 or 5 egg whites beaten till stiff with a half cup or so of sugar and a little cream of tartar. Once you’ve piled that meringue high, put the pies back in the oven and let those meringue peaks get brown under the broiler. Watch closely; you don’t want the meringue to burn.
Serve grape-hull pie at room temperature or chilled. Tell your children how it’s done. They will thank you one day.