If you only follow the crowd from booth to booth, the North Carolina Farmers Market in Raleigh is sometimes just another market. But if you step off the path, the familiar can become regal. Today, a white van is parked next to the main produce pavilion. Baskets hang from its open doors and on its antenna. Neil Thomas Jr.'s father hand weaves the baskets from strips of white oak that the younger Neil hauls from woods near their home in Wendell. After the trees are stripped and the stumps are grated, the trees are knit back together into baskets, which the men bring here to sell.
"But I'm the barbecue sauce king," Thomas retorts. On cue, he pulls a jug of sauce from the backseat of the van. Thomas' Holy-Glory Blessed Ribs and Bird Sauce is vinegar-based and hot, with a sweet finish. He keeps it in a recycled tea jug, a clever and functional advertisement of authenticity.
Neil Thomas Jr. is many things—handyman, musician, cook and preacher. He is anything but shy. Standing in the parking lot he talks about his sauce and his God, baskets and dreams. He sells the sauce to support his church. A new Little Mount Olive Deliverance Temple is not yet built, but these baskets and this Holy-Glory sauce are meant to be its financial foundation. Thomas has the land, he says, and standing next to the white van, it is evident he can capture an audience. In the moments when he is quiet, not listing his occupations, his mouth moves as though chewing.
"I go all over the world preaching," he says. "It doesn't matter the denomination—that is man's stuff. We just preach about Jesus."
The Farmers Market is busy on this Saturday morning before the holidays. Christmas music drifts from a nearby car, and the scent of cider and firs mix with the cold air, crafting a seasonal charm. From another radio comes a collection of voices vetting the merits of various gardening tactics. In this place, in this season, the Market is a window into a generation past, where things were made and sold and the finicky nature of Southern soil received due attention. A line trails from the ATM machine. In this past-place, credit cards will get you nowhere except into that queue.
These places, or the pockets where interaction trumps convenience, are few, but folks like Thomas Jr. are becoming more prevalent, arguably more important. Neil Thomas Jr. is talking about all the things he is, and like his sauce, he is a lot. He is today's American, doing what he can, doing what he must.
Next weekend, he explains, he will sell Thomas' Holy-Glory Blessed Ribs and Bird Sauce and plates of food in a parking lot off New Bern Avenue. Proceeds will go to the church, whenever he may find it.