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The search for homecooking - and "third places"

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, April 26, 2004

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It is a word that warms our tummies, doesn't it?

Barbecue, collards, fried chicken, hot biscuits, real mashed potatoes, banana pudding, sweet tea and more good old time North Carolina fare.

I like it best when waitresses who have been working there forever call me “hon”

But, to me, homecooking means more than just good food. It also means home. Or at least it means eating in a place that makes you feel comfortable--like home. It is even better when you find a family-owned restaurant that has been around a long time with sons and daughters helping their parents run things.

I like it best when waitresses who have been working there forever call me “hon” and keep my glass full of sweet tea without my having to ask.

I know I have found my favorite kind of place when the restaurant is full of local people moving from table to table visiting each other, laughing, exchanging news, and maybe even arguing about politics.

Although there are lots of these great home cooking places in North Carolina, they are mighty hard to find along our interstate highways. That is why I have spent the last few years traveling up and down North Carolina’s big highways looking for these places and making a record of how to find them.

The results of my search have just been compiled into a handy guidebook covering more than 75 homecooking places near our interstates. It is called “Interstate Eateries.” I hope you will get a copy for the glove compartment of your car. (“Our State Magazine” published and sells the guide. Call 1-800-948-1409 for information.)

When I go to a good barbecue place, I am interested in the quality of the food, for sure. But what I am really looking for is the welcoming contact with people. The barbecue and homecooking places that I visited at towns and crossroads across North Carolina gave me, at least for a moment, a way to mingle with people whom I would never meet if I just ate at home or at some country club or at a generic fast food place.

I think what drives me to find these places on the interstate is my need to have what Ray Oldenburg in his book, “The Great Good Place,” calls “third places.” Home is the first place. Work the second. These third places are important, both for the community and the individual. They are comfortable places for people to meet, catch up, or, if we are strangers, to come and make contacts and learn about the area and its special character. They give a way to begin to feel at home in what otherwise would be strange territory.

One commentator summed up the essential qualities of a “third place” like this: They must be free or quite inexpensive to enter and purchase food and drink within. They must be highly accessible to neighborhoods so that people find it easy to make the place a regular part of their routine. They should be places where a number of people regularly go on a daily basis. People should feel welcome and comfortable. It should be easy to enter into conversation.

These “third places” are fast disappearing from our landscape--and not just along our main highways. Even in the downtowns of North Carolina villages and cities, it is getting harder to find the old family-owned eating places where the owner recognizes you and lots of other people there “know your name.”

Why are such third places important to us?

Here is some help from Bill Ferris, Director of the Center for the Study of the American South at UNC-Chapel Hill. He summed up our fixation with the way these gathering places hold us together and define us:

“Southerners in each generation have fallen in love with and hated with a passion the places in which they live. They have written about these places. They have sung about them. They have painted them. They have given these places to the world as a common artistic property. These artists help us understand what William Faulkner meant when he remarked that early in his life he realized he could write for a lifetime and never fully exhaust his ‘little postage stamp of native soil.’

“Each of you carries within yourself a ‘postage stamp of native soil,’ a ‘sense of place’ that defines you. It is the memory of this place that nurtures you with identity and special strength, that provides what the Bible terms ‘the peace that passeth understanding.’ And it is to this place that each of us goes to find the clearest, deepest identity of ourselves.”

Some important pieces of our “native soil” are our “third places”--where we can freely and regularly go for companionship, contact, and comfort.

Also important are those “third places” that belong to others who frequent them regularly, but welcome us when we visit even though we come as strangers.

Those homecooking “third places” along the interstate highways may be harder and harder to find.

But I am going to keep on looking for them.

D.G. Martin hosts North Carolina Bookwatch, which will return to the air later this year.

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