There are times when you’re traveling along, thinking only of where you’re headed, when something unexpected occurs. Generally you’re on a back road, often off the map. Alarmingly, or not, maybe alone.
I’m on a demanding narrow road curving through a thick forest. I contemplate the possibility that I may be lost. The Google Map lady seconds this, having reprimanded me several times about missing some turn awhile back. Also, cellphone reception is cutting in and out. The most recent town seems to have shut down for the night, lights out in all the shops, including in the lone gas station. In any case, that was a few miles back, and there’s nothing like a shoulder to safely turn around.
To clarify the situation at hand: Single woman, not from North Carolina, lowering sun. Lost cell signal, impossible to find a decent radio station for some lively distraction.
And then, suddenly, a not well-lit sign appears: Hillbilly Hideaway Restaurant. I squeeze into a parking space around back. A very friendly woman with a fiercely lacquered updo greets me at the door. She’s so welcoming that for a moment I let go of the feeling that I have just intruded into someone’s grandmother’s log cabin. Dusty portraits of what is at least five generations of relatives hang alongside framed samplers, one a cross-stitch of the serenity prayer. Woven baskets dangle from the rafters. The only not very grandmotherly décor touch is all the ink and permanent marker scrawls on the planked walls and front door: Doodles, caricatures, reviews, names of couples linked by hearts, “I was here!”, and a handful of not very nice personal slurs. The oldest is from the 1980s, the newest committed before the pandemic hit. Except for the one Black family sitting by themselves in a booth way over on the other side of the room, everyone looks enough like one another to be kin.
My friendly woman finds an empty chair at one of the otherwise packed tables. Turns out not everyone knew one another before they sat down together, but they do now. They ask my name, where I’m from, what I’m doing in these parts. A few appear fine with my answers. Others, especially after the bit about being northern, are clearly no longer interested in hearing anything more from me.
It takes a second to grasp that you personally do not order at the Hillbilly Hideaway. You accept one of the many bowls of food passed your way.
Here’s what could be in the bowls: fried chicken, chicken gravy, country ham, pinto beans, fresh taters (mashed), green beans, corn, apple sauce, coleslaw, hoe cakes, cornbread, cucumber pickles, and a variety of unfamiliar sauces.
Daily special are offered Tuesday through Thursday. The man on my right says he comes when barbecue spare ribs are on the menu.
The teen and middle-aged waitresses dress like old-timey grandmothers and navigate carts through the tight spaces around the tables to collect empty bowls and replace them with more. Any diet limitations adhered to before entering the Hillbilly Hideaway, let alone the voice of reason and a tightening waistband, are soon ignored. That’s how good everything plopped on my plate is. Another grandmother asks me what I want to drink. Beer, I say. She brings over a jumbo cup of sweet tea. There’s also soda. No alcohol.
At some point, and for no other discernable reason other than my fork has been idle for a minute too long, one of the grandmothers wheels over and offers dessert. She rattles off a huge variety of pies, cakes, puddings, and ice cream. A piece of chocolate pie, please, and yes, please, pile on the whipped cream.
A solid good hour and half goes by when I finally say goodbye to my table relatives to pay my bill. The friendly woman asks where I’m going next. I mention the Oak Ridge Comfort Inn, on the way to the Greensboro airport and home. “That’s at least a half-hour away,” she exclaims. “And it’s getting dark.”
Yes, it is.
“You go listen to some music over in the Music Hall, and I’ll tell my husband to get the cabin ready for you.”
There’s no chance of disobeying her. The cabin is reasonable, the parking lot shadowed. The drift of bluegrass from the Music Hall sounds damn good.
So I fall in behind a load of people emerging from a Baptist church bus into the Music Hall and settle down on one of the back benches. The audience whoops along with every bands’ musicians. I do, too, until I can’t anymore and return to the restaurant where the friendly woman’s husband is waiting to lead me down the hill to a little house set in a dip off the road. He opens the door and leaves me to walk in alone. There’s a homey kitchen and inviting overstuffed furniture in the living room. A big comfy bed waits behind beaded curtains in the bedroom. It smells a little musty, but that’s to be expected when situated in a dark, humid forest. There’s no getting around the horror scenes flashing to mind, but it’s after 8 p.m. and I’m at least not driving.
It’s the best night sleep I’ve had since leaving home. The next morning the road is clear and straight, and cellphone reception kicks back on in ten minutes. The Google Map lady isn’t annoyed with me anymore. We make good time to the Greensboro-High Point Marriott Airport, where I sit at the bar and drink two cold glasses of beer.
I hope you enjoy this serving of America Eats! We only grow by word of mouth, so please share this newsletter with someone you think might enjoy discovering bits and pieces of our country’s food culture and history!