Wandering Billy

Jigsaws, Jiggers and Great Red Eye Gravy

December’s gifts to the Gate City

 

By Billy Ingram

“I want my home to be that kind of place — a place of sustenance, a place of invitation, a place of welcome.” — Mary DeMuth

Searching for something to give that proverbial guy or gal who has everything? Why must they vex us every year with their very existence?!? Whoever that inscrutable individual might be in your life, they surely don’t have these two locally sourced items.

The first is hot off the presses, the other freshly uncasked.

Strolling aimlessly around the Tate Street Festival last fall, I ran across artist Susan Wells Vaughan displaying her collection of fanciful greeting cards and 1,000-piece puzzles based on her dioramic pastiches of historic North Carolina municipalities. Vaughan limits her subject matter to places she’s lived, showcasing her knowledge about the people and history of the region. Naturally, her initial paintings were confined to the Outer Banks where she’s been residing for the last 30 years. “Nobody else was doing it,” Vaughan notes. “People were painting dunes and the birds; I wanted to do something different. And I love architecture.”

Lithographs of her representational paintings of Manteo, the town of Duck and Kill Devil Hills were selling all up and down the coast, business brisk as the afternoon breeze. When the recession hit, sales floundered. “I have these big prints that cost quite a bit to matte and frame,” Vaughan says. “I guess people didn’t want to spend money on something they didn’t really need.” Harking back to her childhood when her grandmother introduced her to jigsaw puzzles, Vaughan says she had an “aha” moment. “I imagined her saying, ‘Make puzzles!’” At first handling manufacturing through Chinese sources, the artist teamed with Heritage Puzzles, which also features jigsawed versions of William Mangum’s Rockwellian cityscapes.

A Greensboro native, Vaughan turned her artistic eye on her hometown this year for her latest creation. In the top left corner of her colorful collage you’ll spot Yum Yum Better Ice Cream, the Minerva statue at UNCG just below. Scattered throughout are Amtrak’s Carolinian, Bennett College water tower, Jefferson Standard whatever-it’s-called-now building, the statue of the Greensboro Four, a bust of Edward R. Murrow, West Market Street Methodist, and Blandwood, to name some of the delightful highlights Vaughan incorporates into her vision of our city.

Give a close look at the puzzle’s bottom right corner where she pays tribute to one of O.Henry magazine’s own: “Not many people know Harry Blair designed the Greensboro logo,” Vaughan says. In the late 1960s, Blair was teaching commercial art at Page. “I decided to give that a try,” she recalls of that pivotal moment from her high school days. “Harry was so cool, he played records, told us stories. He created an environment that made you feel relaxed. That’s the greatest thing an art teacher can do, in my opinion.” Inspired, she decided on a career in the arts.

Susan Wells Vaughan’s creations can be found in the Greensboro History Museum’s gift shop, Blandwood, Scuppernong Books and online at Heritagepuzzles.com. According to neurologists, assembling jigsaw puzzles is especially effective at improving short-term memory. No more wandering into a room only to forget why you’re there. You have a puzzle to finish!

***

Mitchell Nicks and Tom Bruce have introduced a new spirit into the season, Gordian Knot Reserve Rum. A French-trained cuisinier well-regarded in Greensboro and beyond, you may recognize Mitchell Nicks as head chef of the former Tessa Farm to Fork and Muse restaurants. Applying his exemplary culinary palate to this challenge, “It’s not like adding basil or spices to food because alcohol is such a pure medium,” Nicks says. “We knew we wanted a certain regality to it, like you’ll find in a cognac or a scotch.”

After a worldwide search for raw materials, they began importing aged rums from the mother countries — Barbados, Trinidad and Jamaica. A protracted experimentation phase testing multiple flavor combinations followed, out of necessity requiring considerable imbibing until the field was narrowed to 52 iterations. “When Mitchell got it down to three there was one that stood out,” fellow entrepreneur Tom Bruce says of a flavor profile with hints of toasted hazelnut, caramel, butterscotch, pepper and cinnamon. A veritable rainbow of flavors emerge naturally from the oak casks used during the aging process: “A lot of people say this drinks like a bourbon,” Mitchell says, “That’s because of the weightier ‘mouth feel’ we have.”

Judged a favorite at both the Miami and Charleston Rum Festivals, Gordian Knot Reserve Rum can be found on the drink menu at popular dining spots like Tripps, Coast and the High Point Country Club, as well as your neighborhood ABC store. Sample it this season in your eggnog, hot toddy, and buttered-rum recipes. Or simply place a bottle by the bedside and allow the festivities to wash right past you (as you drink responsibly, of course).

***

Eye mentioned Coast, a casual upscale seafood restaurant in High Point garnering rave reviews after opening just a few weeks ago on Samet Drive. Years ago one of its chefs, Nathan Stringer, watched as I made red-eye gravy for grits. I couldn’t believe an unabashed country boy like him had never encountered red-eye gravy before but that seems to be the case with most of these modern-day, digitally distracted whippersnappers. At Nathan’s suggestion, Coast is now offering red-eye gravy ladled over their sumptuous shrimp and grits.

I learned the recipe for red-eye when I was a kid. Dad and I were the only family members up early in the mornings, so he taught me to make breakfast the way his mother taught him. For red-eye gravy Dad-style: Remove the pan from the stove after frying country ham, preserving the caramelized remnants on the bottom of the pan. Add a little more coffee than you have drippings, whisk it together with a fork. You’re done. It might take a few attempts to get the balance right, but how can you beat the taste of salt cured ham with coffee? Like Jerry Lee Lewis once said, “If God made anything better, he kep’ it for himself!”

***

Visiting relatives over the holidays? After a decade away, a nightclub that rocked the 1990s and early-2000s, Flat Iron, is sizzling again. Perched in that strategic location on Summit and Church, it’s much like you remember with subtle changes rendering it less dive-y, more lively. Under the auspices of Common Grounds’ Dusty Keene, Flat Iron hosts a broad range of top-tier local musicians and touring bands. My fave local party band Corporate Fandango will undoubtedly blow everyone away, as they do, on December 7th. On the 20th, Dusty has booked an event called Ace’s Basement Reunion Show for those who frequented that rough-and-tumble hardcore venue located underneath a sketchy motel on what was then High Point Road. On December 28th, Jake HaldenVang from NBC’s The Voice takes the stage. At press time, there’s no way to know whether HaldenVang won that contest or not. “Wouldn’t it be crazy,” Keene asked, “if he wins and then plays here right after?”  OH

Billy Eye sincerely wishes everyone reading this a fantastic holiday season filled with light, love and just a dash of selfish overindulgence!

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