At the intersection of Atlantic Avenue and Saratoga Avenue in Brownsville, there exists a direct portal to the old South, or at least to its foodways.
On one corner, a large hand-lettered sign mounted on an old truck jaggedly proclaims SHOTGUN WATeRMeLONS POTATOeS FRUiT NUTS & VEGS, and down the block sit tented stands from Huston and Sons filled with collards, pecans, yams and still more melons, depending on the season. Cross the street and you arrive at an old brick grocery the size of a corner bodega with a maroon awning that flutters in the breeze, its name — Carolina Country Store — spelled out in stagecoach lettering.
The first sighting — a time warp in the midst of the parade of fast-food outlets, car washes and dollar stores on Atlantic Avenue — holds the promise of what you’re more likely to see driving down the stretch of I-95 through the Carolinas, where hand-painted signs once pointed the way to roadside attractions like South of the Border and a slew of small family-run farms.
Indeed, the inventory for these three businesses — peanuts, sweet potatoes, pork and other Dixie staples — is procured just as it has been since they started bringing up products from the South 30, 40 years ago. Sales are negotiated directly with the farmers or business owners, loaded in the back of an 18-wheeler, and then plunked down here on the street to be sold on the sidewalk or the shelves of the Carolina Country Store, whose glass doors greet you with a pair of stickers from Piggly Wiggly, the Memphis-founded grocery chain. In other parts of Brooklyn, the chain’s grinning-pig logo is worn on thrifted T-shirts, but at this store it announces that you are about to enter an evocation of elsewhere.
“When you walk in here it smells Southern,” says Denise Marshall, a police officer who discovered the store about 10 years ago en route to her regular patrol at Broadway Junction and returns often to shop its meat counter. Today she’s buying sage sausage, one of the store’s bigger draws, along with pork cracklings, Roddenberry’s Cane Patch Syrup and liver pudding. Names that, depending where or when you are from, summon either nostalgia or flat-out distaste.
If you grew up in North Carolina, as I did, chances are these are as familiar as the plastic-wrapped, Neapolitan-colored slabs of coconut candy the Carolina Country Store keeps by the cash register. In the Depression, Southern life insurance agents let cash-strapped customers sell this same candy to pay off their policies. As store owner Shawna Redrick tells it, they are her market’s madeleine: “At least 60 percent of my customers come up and say the same thing: ‘You know, my mom used to sell that candy for the insurance company back home.’ And I just nod every time.”
A little while later, another woman in the neighborhood of 50-plus puts in an order of meat to be sliced, adds a candy to the final sale and slips it in the back pocket of her jeans for the walk home.
Many of Redrick’s customers drive to shop at the Carolina Country Store from Brooklyn, Queens or Connecticut, in vehicles that still bear license plates from North Carolina, South Carolina or Georgia. Today the bulk of the store’s clientele belong to a diminishing demographic between the ages of 50 and 90 and came with what is called the Great Migration, when African-Americans from the agricultural South moved to the industrial North in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s looking for work, for the promise of a better life.
The original founder of the Carolina Country Store was among them: the late George H. Lee, born in Magnolia, North Carolina, who somewhere in the late ’60s or early ’70s started trucking up produce from his family farm to sell in a gas station parking lot at the corner across the street from where the store now stands.
He eventually added a sandwich counter — customers started asking for the country ham Lee was frying up for himself on a hot plate — that a few years later had moved across the street and blossomed into a full-service grocery run by Lee’s daughter, Patricia, and supplied by still more farmers back home.
After sales of the prepared food Patricia made took off, in the late ’80s they opened the Carolina Country Kitchen, a meat-and-three restaurant on the site of the original truck stand. That’s where Redrick — Patricia is her aunt — started working as a prep cook after school. When the restaurant shuttered last June (Patricia had sold it to new owners after moving back to Magnolia and starting a catering business and convenience store on the family land), Redrick moved across the street, taking charge of the store.
The farmers Redrick works with are still mostly located in North Carolina’s eastern coastal plains in some of the same counties her homesick customers originally hail from, as well as the Lees. Twice a month a tractor-trailer arrives in Brooklyn loaded with ham hocks and grits and, depending on the season, sweet potatoes, collard greens, kale, cabbage or pecans, all collected from farms the store has been dealing with for four decades or more, like Westwater Country Hams in Warsaw, North Carolina, 10 miles from Magnolia. “Mr. West is in his 80s now and still goes to work every day,” Redrick says of its owner.
Mr. West is only a decade or so older than Huston, who owns one of the trucks that still park just across Atlantic Avenue from Redrick’s store on nice days, occupying a swath of sidewalk and filling a once-vacant lot. “They just call me that, Huston!” he says, after stepping out from a partially refrigerated truck whose back end faces the street. He adds, affably: “I dropped that first name years ago. I’m gonna leave that one alone!” In 2009, the New York Times reported his given name as Jule; his current moniker is at least more proper than his competitor on the same block, an outgoing produce seller named Milton Howell known to most as simply Shotgun.
Huston’s history is similar to George Lee’s. He came to New York City from Macon, Georgia, in 1960 at the age of 19, moved in with family members and began working a series of odd jobs in Brooklyn — “factories, different companies, nothing I wanted to do, but things I had to do to make a living.” Hard work was familiar — back in Macon, he’d grown up growing his own food. “It was like any other country Southern farm back then: You grew only what you needed, just enough to feed your own family.”
Like Lee, but a decade later, Huston began driving north with a truckload of Georgia watermelons to sell on the streets of Brooklyn. Before long he’d acquired the empty lot he now sells from; a network of stands across Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx all run by different relatives; and a trucking company to bring back produce grown across the Southeast. (That includes a turquoise 18-wheeler parked behind the tents, with a Pegasus hood ornament and, painted below the Huston and Sons insignia on the door, the names of the cities the truck navigates between, Macon and Brooklyn. (“It’s a ’96,” Huston says with pride: “Air-conditioned, got TV.”)
In addition to melons, Shotgun and Huston deal in turnips, collards and mustard greens; at Huston’s stand, which has the feel of a shaded porch, bags of fresh pecans hang from the stands and retail for $13, intriguing yet unfamiliar to many of his newer customers, some of whom speak little English.
“Lotta people up here don’t know what these are,” he says, and sure enough, moments later, a family of four walking down the block pauses to inspect them. “See?” Huston says, cracking a shell and placing the shelled pecan in the mother’s palm as a sample as her daughter interprets. “They’re soft inside,” he explains. She takes a bite, and begins counting out dollar bills.
When the weather is warm, watermelons are what make most people pull over. For Huston, the season begins in Florida, then Huston’s trucks follow the path of the crops northeast and northwest to Orlando and Tampa, on to Georgia (where Huston gets red, yellow and seedless varieties from Cordele, near his hometown), and on up through the Carolinas and Virginia to Delaware. In high summer, melons will fill two covered stands and a shopping cart outside, while inside the refrigerated walls of the truck that serves as his office and his hangout spot in between customers, there are rows of still more bright-green fruits, and signs — reading COLD CUP WATERMELON — promoting shelves full of the fruit cut up to go. Another shelf is built into the back of the truck for storing Mason jars of pickled green beans and preserves, more like what the Carolina Country Store sells across the way.
In the early years, George Lee and Huston were competitors, but over the decades they’ve evolved in separate and distinct directions. Nowadays, Huston’s closest rival is Shotgun’s stand down the block (“Put it this way: I wouldn’t call him a friend but I wouldn’t call him an enemy,” Huston says in his genial way), while the little store Lee founded does brisk business selling meats and pantry specialties.
Among the items on the Carolina Country Store’s shelves today are canned tomatoes, okra, seasoned lima beans and Luck’s Fried Apples; there are spicy and sweet versions of Mrs. Campbell’s Chow Chow, a Winston-Salem brand I remember seeing in my grandparents’ house, as well as Lake Side Enriched Yellow Grits from Rutherfordton and House-Autry Hushpuppy Mix from Four Oaks, a town off I-95 so small even I had never heard of it before.
The barrel of raw peanuts by the front window is accompanied by an admonishing sign: YOU!!! Crack them: You Brought [sic] them!!!, and in the window sits a statue of a dog, a joke can claiming to hold “potted possum,” and something called Heartbreak Ridge Coon Stew.
The store also sells Duke’s mayonnaise (it being the glue if not the foundation for true Southern pimiento cheese); Scott’s Barbecue Sauce, the tangy, vinegary hot pepper sauce whose ingredients allegedly came to its inventor “in a dream” (it’s made in Goldsboro, a town that represents the eastern contingent in North Carolina’s ongoing turf war for the title of best chopped barbecue pork); and red-hot smoked sausage (a flaming iridescent, utterly unnatural shade of red instantly familiar to almost any North Carolina native who has ever attended a local baseball game or county fair) from Brightleaf Bologna, a family-owned operation out of Smithfield.
These names are the draw for regular shoppers, like one retired bank employee who moved here from Fayetteville 50 years ago with her husband; she is buying grits, Lance Chocolate Nekot crackers, sausage, Pender’s Pork barbecue from a town called Rocky Point and souse, technically head cheese that has been pickled in vinegar. She even has a sister who lives in Charlotte and who comes to the Carolina Country Store every time she visits New York expressly for the Pender’s liver pudding, a scrapple-like rectangle of liver, cornmeal and spices she packs in a cooler for the return drive down South.
Which sounds backward, or at least like a hell of a detour, but these days, she says, her sister can’t find liver pudding in the supermarkets back home.
Learn how to cook your own country ham — Brooklyn-style — here.
Photo credit: John Taggart