Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Go to America - Eat in a Shack

No, this is not a Michael Moore movie about poverty in the land of plenty but Europeans, listen-up, no matter how counter-intuitive it may seem, some of the finest dining in America can be found in shacks. Sometimes, there isn’t even a shack, just some old tables by the side of the road and most of these roads, as Michael and Jane Stern, authors of Road Food, point out, are “near the ocean, the lake or river – in other words, near the home of what they serve”. A good fish shack in America is a “finger lickin”, “sleeves-up” “flip-flop” kind of place which can reconfirm ones faith in American food and the joys of America’s peerless informality.

The Shark Shack, on Atlantic Beach in North Carolina is just such a place. It’s both a “Drive-In” restaurant (where you can experience the unique American phenomenon of eating meals in your car) and a place where you can park your surf board, sit at picnic tables and eat “the catch of the day” either in the form of a sandwich or a platter. There are clams strips, grouper (a local fish) bites, fish tacos and a shrimp burger. For non-fish eaters, there are hot dogs, hamburgers, steak sandwiches and lots of chicken.

We ate lunch there last week and everything was delicious, plentiful, inexpensive and served by a blond, long-legged friendly college student with perfect teeth.When we asked if we could have our fish grilled, not fried, the charming student with perfect teeth said of course we could. The fact that our grouper sandwiches were fresh, succulent and only cost $6.69 blew this cynical pseudo-European away. Surprisingly, the Shark Shack has a liquor license and a pitcher of beer will only set you back $7. At night, there is live music and if you’re not hungry, signs invite you to bring your own chair, sit outside, watch the stars, have a drink and enjoy the music.

Shark Shack Revisited

Sadly, we also ate there this Saturday and had a completely different experience. Our waitress was also young and cute but so stupid it was ridiculous. Everything we ordered was messed up and the food wasn't as good as before. How can one place be so good and so bad? I blame it on the weekend (the bad experience) versus mid-week (the great experience). McDonalds may be consistently awful but alas, not all authentic places are also consistent.

The Shark Shack
Fort Macon Road and South Durham Street
Atlantic Beach, North Carolina
(next to the Beach Tavern)
Tel: 252 726-3313

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Soul City, North Carolina

I hate Sky TV. I hate everything about it from the sales people, to the installers, to the ugly satellite dishes and cabling to the lousy programming. I am the only member of my family who feels this way. Today, after ten happy months of Sky-free living, as a concession to our youngest son for getting a job, Sky was reinstalled.

It was a really, really bad day until I read my email and found this wonderful post from Sandy, the first in a series called NoCrowds America that will talk about places where visitors to the United States can go to see and understand the America you will never, ever see on Sky TV. As Sandy puts it, check it out!

On this sacred American holiday, I present NoCrowds America with its inaugural post--a place neither Californian, nor charming in the least and not at all visually uplifting. In fact, it's not even there! But I can think of no-place more American than Soul City, North Carolina.

In the mid-1970s I wanted to find the real America and--once found--save it from itself. From my British mother, I came to appreciate the nineteenth century New Town movement, visionary Utopian plans offering working and middle-class Britons alternatives to the explosive, fetid maelstrom of London--neither exclusively urban, sub-urban nor pastoral--but free-standing communities, each an economically viable place to work, live, play. Flipping through a copy of Architectural Record one lazy day, I chanced upon an article, "A Plan for Planned American Communities". As in Jerry Maguire's famous "You had me on Hello", its opening captured my imagination: "...For in a world in which there is too little idealism, far too little concern for land planning and land use, and almost no effective social planning, new towns offer new hope. Both for the poor and for the growing body of middle-income families who search for a fresh option in their way of living."

Flipping through the pages, I came across a map highlighting each of the thirty-or-so federally-assisted and private U.S. New Towns currently under development. With a naiveté and bravado which only happily resides in the heart and mind of a callow youth of 17, I closed my eyes, made a wish and stuck a finger on my future--the place where I would make my mark on the world.

Soul City, North Carolina.

I continued to read: "Soul City's a unique new town: it is 'freestanding' in a completely undeveloped area; it is experimental in its aims, and is the only New Town with a federal HUD (Housing and Urban Development) loan sponsored by a black-owned development company." The brainstorm of Floyd W. McKissick, a moderate-cum-militant Black civil rights activist, Soul City was envisioned to house 50,000 people in multiple 'villages' by the year 2000. It was planned to be self-contained, so its residents could also work, receive health care, get schooling, recreate and worship in town. Commonly misunderstood as Afro-centric in focus, McKissick actually envisioned Soul City as a community where all races could live in harmony. Lawsuits and investigations into the use of funds by the developer, Soul City Company, resulted in foreclosure in 1979. By 1980, all that remained were 35 housing units, a healthcare clinic, a tennis court, and a pool. About 150 people were employed in the city. Perhaps a less electrifying "Big New Hope" might have been a safer name for McKissick's forlorn love-child.

Soul City was carved out of 5,000 acres on played-out tobacco fields of the Saterwhite Plantation, in Warren County, North Carolina. When I arrived in 1974, Soul City was full of great expectation, ten double-wide trailers and no discernible human population. A nearby little hamlet of Manson, off U.S. Route 158, contained a small filling station and grocery store, ramshackle, picturesque First Baptist Church and a retread tire repair shop. Most striking--now as then--are the beautiful red clay dirt which line the roadsides, a hazy blue sky only occasionally interrupted by short, monsoon-like rain deluges and a stillness and beatitude which suggests Southerners only lost the War of Northern Aggression to return the land back to its mostly fallow, uncultivated state.

Perhaps in the mind of European readers lurks a persistent distrust of Americans and things uniquely American, best expressed in the question "Why in the world go to Soul City, North Carolina", an Oz-like, mythical city of hope and racial equality which actually doesn't exist? Why visit a place where the only civilizing influence is a Perdue Chicken Hatchery and an International Paper plant?

To see Soul City in its naked, barren state, to drive its miles of paved roads which lead to nowhere, primarily used as places to dump old couches and appliances, to see its sole remaining edifice, a twenty foot high "Soul City North Carolina" sign, still carefully tended, is to see at first hand the pure love, blind trust, foolish pride which define the quintessential American mind and experience. Too often, we Americans are accused of acting exclusively out of malevolent intentions and ambitions. We see this played out daily in the streets of Baghdad, our corporate icons carelessly strewn across the world, in our disregard for other common global environmental concerns. But to see Soul City is to understand that, to an American, to want to do something is almost as important as its ill-conceived execution and final outcome. The American experiment's still alive and well, whether it be transplanted to the gleaming canyons of Michael Bloomberg's post-9-1-1 Manhattan, the ubiquity and gemütlich character of our neatly laid-out suburbs in any American metropolis, or to the backroads of this once-rural, now red-neck satellite-city development.

Check it out!

Photo courtesy of which is a useful site for anyone searching for "off the beaten track" America

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Celebrating America's Independence at Sulgrave Manor

How far away is this place? Why are they celebrating America’s Independence Day? Will I have any fun? These things were on Eloise’s mind as we headed towards Sulgrave Manor, the ancestral home of George Washington in England which was holding an Independence Day celebration last weekend. As it turned out, we had a wonderful time at this Tudor manor house in rural Northhamptonshire, about 1 ½ hours north of London by car.

Sulgrave Manor, bought by Lawrence Washington from Henry VIII was lived in by four generations of the Washington family from 1539 to 1657. In 1911, as the UK and US were looking for initiatives to celebrate 100 years of peaceful relations, a committee was formed which included President Theodore Roosevelt, Lord Rothschild, Arthur Conan Doyle and Earl Grey, who decided to purchase the house as part of the celebrations to be held in trust for the peoples of the United States and the United Kingdom.

And I’m glad they did because visiting Sulgrave Manor today is a real treat. In part, because this small museum and garden seems to try harder and care more about your experience than many historic sites and in part because the staff and curators seem to understand better than most the connection between entertainment and education. We learned many things about the Tudors, George Washington and Anglo-American relations and had a great time doing it.

The house tour, which Eloise was not looking forward to, was conducted by such an engaging guide that we were instantly hooked. The house, which is relatively small, delivers three centuries of English history in fascinating child sized bites. There were lots of children’s activities and games including Eloise’s favourite, “Beat the Rat” and a small yet excellent exhibition of the life and times of George Washington that would give Mount Vernon a run for its money. For anyone interested in textiles, Sulgrave has a great collection and gardeners will enjoy the lovely grounds which include herbaceous borders, a knot and herb garden, an orchard and topiary.

Because it was their Fourth of July celebration, there were special activities which included getting up close and personal with an American Bald Eagle, Appalachian music and dancers, a Hog Roast and a terrific small circus but even without these attractions, Sulgrave Manor would have been lots of fun.

Today, being July 4th, I have been thinking about the special relationship between the UK and the US and how it was reflected in Eloise, our own little Anglo-American initiative. Sometimes it seems that there is a conspiracy to get her to choose sides. “So what are you, English or American?” “I’m both” she always replies. Thinking back on Sulgrave Manor, the one place that belongs equally to both sovereign nations with the flag of each country flying in the grounds, I can think of no better place for Eloise, or anyone who has a foot firmly planted in both countries, to celebrate America’s Independence Day.


Sulgrave Manor is not the easiest place to get to without a car and while I don’t recommend organised tours very often, it might be most convenient for visitors without cars to join the Evan Evans one day sightseeing tour (May to September) which includes nearby Churchill’s Blenheim Palace and Sulgrave. For committed independent travellers, there is the option of daily train service from London Marylebone to Banbury where one can then catch a taxi which costs approximately £13

Sulgrave Manor
Sulgrave near Banbury
OX17 2SD
Tel: 01295 760205
Fax: 01295 768056

Open weekends April 1 to October 29 from 12:00 to 4:00pm last entry
Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday May 1 to October 31 from 2:00pm to 4:00pm

Adult £6.25
Children £3

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Our Favorite/Favourite America

My friend Sandy has been after me to write about America. He’s worried that

to a German or Austrian, spoon-fed by daily clips of Paris Hilton breaking down in court and George Bush strutting over tumbleweeds on his Texas Ranchette, the real, untrammeled substance of America isn't properly conveyed.”

Who can argue with that?

He goes on to say that the moment is ripe to launch NoCrowds America as Europeans look to cash in on the greatest travel bargain of the century. With the pound rising yesterday to its highest level against the dollar in 26 years, it’s hard to argue with that either.

Not one to leave things to chance, Sandy also provides a little business plan as to how I can get this going. He suggests that with

your plethora of close American family and friends scattered across these fruited plains, I propose you send out a call to send in stories of their favorite places...Brian Cullman's favourite music venue; any of the O'Grady's favorite anythings (!); Godmother Christine's favourite NY hairdresser; Hugh Jr.'s favorite hardware store (Brewer's Marine in Mamaroneck); Mac's favorite Route 46 New Jersey authentic Greek diner; can't remember their names but it starts with a B, (he means Rich and Suzie Bissell’s) best Philadelphia cheesesteak place; Vic Ogburn's favorite gun shop and shooting range; Sandy's favorite Southern courthouse (Bay Minette, Alabama, where I got married on the sleigh!); John and Janice's favorite Chicago fruit markets; Jay Maloney's favorite Colorado Springs coffee shop; Carla's favorite Orange County beaches--Emerald (Warren Buffet's former private hangout) and Victoria (Bette Midler's) Coves in Laguna Beach; Leland and Allison's favorite Berkeley cheese shop; etc. etc. Out of the hundreds of replies received will emerge a crazy-quilt of uniquely American "uncrowded" destinations

It’s hard to argue with that either. But Sandy knows me well, pointing out that

"We've a famous history of you soliciting my ideas, my humbly submitting them, then your not acting on them, but this one's a winner. "

Sandy, you’re right. Consider NoCrowds America officially launched. I’ll figure out the technical bits later.

And to all my American family, friends and most importantly, current readers of NoCrowds, please send in your favourite American places and experiences. Don’t worry that the places you talk about will be overrun with crowds. The NoCrowds readership is still too exclusive for that, and, anyway, according to Sandy,

"it's every American's patriotic, bound duty to entice hoards of Europeans to come over here to recycle their Euros into dollars before we spend 'em and send 'em to the Chinese, so they can buy T-bills, thereby keeping U.S. interest rates low and allowing us to not default on our subprime real estate loans! "

Even if you are not interested in saving the subprime loan market, and I would understand if you are not, please send me a description of your favourite America so that we can take on the purveyors of mass pre-packaged tourism, one authentic experience at a time.
Photo taken in Jones Lunch Room, Clayton, North Carolina. My favourite place to eat an American hot dog. What's yours?