You never know where your next great meal is going to come from. While we're saving money and biding time for the next birthday or anniversary, longing for that long-awaited trip to Lantern or the Angus Barn, a charbroiled taco or egg salad sandwich pops up that tastes every bit as good as the sea bass with veal sauce and truffle oil that highlighted a recent trip to the new downtown Durham hotspot, Rue Cler.
But every second Saturday from April through November, I know where that next great meal is going to be—just behind a modern log cabin at Boothill Farm in Orange County, off N.C. 54 near White Cross. That's when Boothill hosts its monthly hunter series of horse shows; nothing to do with hunting but everything to do with young people (mostly girls) and large horses spread out in a tableau of movement, color, riding rings and rolling hills that could be a scene out of a Seurat painting.
Boothill (named for the cemetery at Clover Garden Methodist Church across the way) has been owned by the Zachary family for nearly 100 years, and when tobacco farming started going the way of moonshine and quilting bees, the family built a horse barn and equestrian complex. Five years ago, Carol Zachary started hosting horse shows along with her daughter, Ashley. Her husband, Tim, decided he couldn't just serve frozen burger patties and french fries to their guests.
So, to satisfy up to 90 young riders and their entourages of trainers and proud parents (discreetly wearing a rainbow of ribbons clipped to their back pockets), Tim Zachary fires up the gas smoker and starts cooking on Friday afternoons. He shapes about 50 burgers from 25 pounds of fresh-ground chuck he buys at Cliff's Meat Market in Carrboro and slow-cooks them on the grill next to sirloin tips and hams on their way to becoming tender, juicy barbecue (he prefers hams to the traditional shoulders). Sometimes he also marinates chicken in soy sauce and puts together a Brunswick stew. And there are always hot dogs and grilled sausage (also from Cliff's).
"We always try to have good food," Zachary says. "It just depends on how much time we have. One time we had fajitas and I made guacamole."
Tending the grill and food stand with him are family and helpers—daughter, Jamie Cook; Tim's mother, Peggy Zachary; and Claire Trammell, who's been helping cook and serve since the shows began and is considered a member of the family. She was ill recently, and all the food proceeds from the October show were used to help pay her medical bills.
So as girls in jodhpurs saunter up for a snack, they stand at the grill, over the condiment tables and around the coolers filled with ice and sodas and serve up the most delicious meal of the week. It is for me, anyway, because at 10 in the morning—after dropping my daughter off at Pleasant Hill Farm at 5 a.m. and then arriving at Boothill in time for an 8 a.m. event—there is nothing like a fat burger that's been cooked over low heat so long it's done all the way through but remains pink and juicy inside.
And that's just the first course. For dessert, there's Peggy Zachary's homemade ice cream—chocolate, strawberry, vanilla bean, cookies and cream and sometimes strawberry cheesecake and mint chocolate chip. The strawberry ice cream comes from berries they pick and freeze in the spring, and the chocolate is made by melting dark chocolate bars.
Peggy Zachary lives in the 100-year-old Sears, Roebuck house at the top of the hill, and her recipe is reminiscent of the days when milk came from the family's cows—and if they got into the wild onions, you couldn't drink it.
"People ask 'How did you make it?' and we just say 'A little of this and a little of that,'" she says. "We just throw it in. But we use a lot of whipping cream in it, and half and half. That's what gives it the smooth texture."
"We don't worry about calories," Trammell adds.
This year's show season is over, but Boothill Farm is available for parties—for adults and kids, with Tim doing the cooking (when he's not showing off arrowheads and stone tools he's found from the days when the farm was part of a thriving Native American community).
And the show season cranks up again in spring. Other barns have their unexpected pleasures—from cupcakes to homemade pimento cheese sandwiches—but there's nothing like the Zacharys' spread at Boothill. I'll be looking forward to it as much as any fancy birthday night out.
For more information about Boothill Farm, visit www.boothillfarm.com.