The Southern Foodways Alliance, which studies, preserves, celebrates and recaptures Southern culinary traditions, is coming to town. One thing the group will do this weekend is hand out awards to three local favorites: Mildred Council of Mama Dip's Kitchen; Keith Allen of Allen & Sons Barbecue; and Cliff Collins of Cliff's Meat Market. The SFA will, no doubt, have a lot to say about why our threesome is deserving. Thirty-one years ago, I got a glimpse into why Cliff merits his Tabasco Guardian of the Tradition award.
Back in 1976, I had only been in the Triangle for a year. I was still complaining to my sister in New York City about the lack of decent garlic, emblematic of the lack of a wide range of decent ingredients available here. Then a student gave me a couple of ducks he had shot, an aspect of culture shock I was more than willing to acclimate to. Faced with a brace of lean birds with buckshot in them, my thoughts ran to pâté. Innocent that I was—I thought obtaining fatback to make it would be no problem. I was in pork country.
It was a problem. Every supermarket meat counter produced almost exactly the same conversation. "Do you have any fresh fatback?" "Sure, right there in the case." (I go look, always optimistic.) "Uh, no, I mean fresh—uh, unsalted." "Oh, can't help you."
Somewhere along the way, some kind, but forgotten, soul suggested I drive to Carrboro and see Cliff.
Back then, Cliff's Meat Market was exactly where it is today, though even smaller. It occupied a free-standing one-story structure. Inside the screen door was a general store—shelves with a small selection of dry goods, a refrigerated chest for Cokes and a meat counter at the back. I felt even more surrounded by the old South and more and more pessimistic. I should have noted the hopeful omens—the wooden butcher's block, worn concave, and Cliff's blood-stained apron. But by now my innocence had transmuted to cynicism; still, thinking about the duck breast strips sitting, lonely and impatient, in their marinade, I launched into my now-amended spiel: "I'm looking for fresh, not salted, fatback...."
Cliff interrupted. "You making pâté? How thin you want the fat sliced?"
Well, I could have wept. It wasn't just the fatback. There were real butchers here. It was: Transplants—immigrants, New Yorkers even—are welcome. It was: Tell me what you want, I'll get it.
Since opening his meat market in 1973, Cliff has stayed in business (in fact, grown and grown) despite competition from ordinary supermarkets and high-end organic gourmet stores. For one thing, it's a butcher shop where Cliff and his staff actually cut meat—knowledgeably, and to order. "Breaking down a primal" would be a mysterious incantation at most other butcher counters. And it's good meat. His suppliers are as local as he can manage, so the chickens, for example, are from around here and impeccably fresh.
The store remains small, but deceptively so, as Cliff does huge volume as a wholesaler supplying dozens of local restaurants.
And the tradition of welcoming immigrants continues. Back in the '70s, Cliff may have sold some fresh fatback to the odd New York foodie and maybe even a beef tongue or two, but he didn't sell a lot of tongue and tripe. Or even a lot of flank, hanger, tri-tip and other beef cuts that are only recently becoming popular. But our changing populace means he's selling hundreds of pounds of tongue, tripe, not to mention skirt steak, and meats cut to fit recipes newly native.
As his business has grown, Cliff's staff has expanded to include members of the Triangle's exploding Latino population. These days, there's as much Spanish in the air as English, both in front of the counter and behind it. One recent afternoon, too busy to partake in a real interview, Cliff was simultaneously urging a young Mexican kid to stay in school while transmitting the mother's order to one of his meat cutters.
Working vacationless 70-hour weeks for more than three decades, Cliff fills a key role in the local food chain, even as the focus—and fan base—of Southern cuisine evolves and expands. His contributions to local food, and local communities, earned him the award from the SFA, which is based in Oxford, Miss.
The group, headed by prominent food writer John T. Edge, collects oral histories, organizes symposia (see www.southernfoodways.com/sym_past.shtml for a fascinating list), commissions films, publishes a newsletter, and is generally a seeker of wisdom, truth and good eats. SFA's "Camp Carolina," Sept. 7-9 in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, is a three-day rave-up featuring Triangle food growers, purveyors and cooks; read all about it at www.southernfoodways.com/camp_carolina.shtml.
Food writer David Auerbach has returned to the Indy to share his wisdom on gastronomical delights.