Who Grabs First?

It all depends

By Clyde Edgerton

The following conversation took place at Rosehaven Assisted Living in rural North Carolina between three Papadaddys:

“What do you do when the TV news is on and your granddaughter is around?”

“Or grandson?”

“What I do is change the channel.”

“What I do is give a lecture. I tell my grandson if he’s not charming, he will lead a sad life, maybe even become greedy, and start thinking he’s got to grab, grab, grab. Greedy men grab. Charming men charm. In the South, real men charm.”

“In the North, too.”

“I wouldn’t know.”

“Well, real women charm, too.”

“Who grabs first if everybody’s standing around charming each other?”

“Who’s on first?’”

“What’s on second.’ I remember that one. Abbott and Costello.”

“No, who grabs first?”

“Grabs what?”

“I don’t know — depends.”

“I’ll slap anybody that grabs my Depends.”

“I heard they leak.”

“Powerful men know how to grab. That’s what made America great. We came over here as illegal aliens and stole all the land and went on to get even greater. Onward Christian Soldiers! Women wouldn’t have done that.”

“Aw come on.”

“Wouldn’t you like to see your granddaughter grow up to be president?”

“Of what?


“What’s on second?”

“Bobby Riggs won that tennis match.”

“That’s right. He beat Billy Bob Thornton.”

“Billie Jean King.”

“Billie won.”

“That’s what I said.”

“I’ll be glad when this match is over.”

“Me, too.”

“Me, too.”

“People would rather watch a car wreck than a pretty sunset.”

“They’ll slow down for a car wreck.”

“TV executives get real rich by knowing that.”

“People used to buy what they knew they needed, like flour and potatoes and green beans. Now they shop for stuff that some slick commercial convinces them they want.”

“Now you can stay home and buy, buy, buy.”

“Walter Cronkite was different — he was calm.”

“Wolf Blitzer talks like his name sounds.”

“I listen to PBS.”


“I like calmness.”

“Now PBS has commercials, too.”

“Selling is an art and a science that is the bedrock of communism.”

“Nobody teaches our kids how to detect lies.”

“We teach kids how to take tests. They learn to shut up, sit still for three hours, and then line up.”

“That’s what we do around here.”

“Don’t badmouth teachers.”

“Right. A lot them are afraid of losing their jobs because they won’t shut up, sit still, and stay in line.”

“Let’s go eat.”

“I vote for that.”

“What are we having?”


“Count me out.”  OH

Clyde Edgerton is the author of 10 novels, a memoir and most recently,
Papadaddy’s Book for New Fathers. He is the Thomas S. Kenan III Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at UNCW.

Life’s Funny

Text Envy

A script for empty nesters in the new millennium

By Maria Johnson

Act I:

[A pair of empty nesters sits in the den one evening after dinner, watching TV. An electronic three-note ping issues from a cell phone somewhere in the room.]

HIM: Was that your phone?
HER: [reaching for her phone on coffee table]

Let me see. Huh! Yes!

[She smiles as she reads a text from her son.]

HIM: What?

HER: He responded to my text.

HIM: He responded to your text?

HER: [casually]


HIM: I sent him three texts about the game the other day. He never responded to me.

HER: Hmm.

HIM: What did you send him?

HER: A picture of the dog.

HIM: Really?

HER: Yeah.

HIM: What was the picture?
HER: The one of him curled up in the raised bed.

HIM: Let me see.

HER: [holds up phone up so he can see]

HIM: That picture?

HER: Yeah, it’s a good picture.

HIM:  [staring at the dog asleep on the floor]


HER: I love the way the dahlias frame his face.

HIM: Yeah. So what did he say?

HER: He said, “hahaha.”

HIM: He said “hahaha”?

HER: [obviously satisfied]


Act II:

[It’s the following week. They’re riding in the car. His phone pings while he’s driving. She picks up his phone from the console and reads the text.]

HER: Oh! It’s him! He says, “Sounds good.”

HIM: Great.
HER: Wait, what sounds good?

HIM: Sunday night.
HER: What about Sunday night?
HIM: I’m taking him to dinner while I’m in town for the conference.

HER: What??!!!

HIM: [smiling]

Yeah. I’m taking him to dinner.

HER: Why didn’t you tell me?

HIM: Because you’re not going to the conference.

HER: Why not?

HIM: Because you didn’t want to. I asked you if you wanted to go with me, and you said no.

HER: We’ll see about that.

[She texts back on his phone, “Should we ask Mom to dinner on Sunday night?” Another ping quickly follows. “Sure.”]

HER: I’m going to the conference.

[then, scrolling through his texts]

How long have you two been talking about this? Oh, my God. You’ve been talking to him for days.

HIM: Look, it’s no big deal. It’s only one dinner.

HER: [looking forlornly out the window]

How could I have not known?

Act III:

[A few nights later. They’re lying in bed. He’s reading a magazine. She’s reading her phone.]

HER: [laughing out loud]

That’s really well done.

HIM: What?

HER: This parody in The New Yorker. He sent me a link.

HIM: He sent you a link?

HER: Yeah. Hold on. I’m replying.

[She taps, laughs some more and hands her phone to him.]

Here, read this.

[He reads silently, hands back her phone, picks up his own phone and starts tapping.]

HER: Who are you texting?

HIM: I’m sending him a link to this column in Scientific American.
He’ll like this.

HER: Hmm.

[A minute later, his phone pings.]

HER: What?

HIM: He says, “That’s great.”

HER: That was fast. His reply, I mean.

[She stares at her phone, waiting for an answer to her text. None comes.]

HIM: It’s a good column. Want to read it?

HER: [sighing and rolling over]


Act IV:

[A few weeks later, they’re eating dinner at home, just the two of them at a small table. They’re catching up on the events of the day.]

HIM: The guys want to know if I can play golf the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Do we have anything planned?

HER: He’s coming home that weekend.

HIM: What? When?

HER: That Friday. He’s flying into Raleigh for a wedding. Then he’s spending a few nights in Chapel Hill and Raleigh. Then he’ll come here and work from home the rest of the week.

HIM: Really? Who’s getting married?

HER: Garrett.

HIM: Garrett?

HER: You know, Garrett from high school. Baseball-playing, rock-climbing Garrett? Who went to South Carolina, then followed his girlfriend to
Chapel Hill, and now they’re both accountants, and she works in New York, and he works in Connecticut, and they’re going to live in New York after they get married?

HIM: How do you know all of this?

HER: I talked to him.

HIM: You talked to him?! With spoken words?? On the phone?? When did this happen??

HER: Today. He called me.

HIM: He called you?!

HER: [smugly]

Yep. We talked for, like, three minutes.

HIM: [drops fork]

Three minutes??!!

HER: He sounds good.

HIM: That’s nice.

HER: He sounds happy.

HIM: Fine. Why did he call you?

HER: I asked him to.

HIM: He never calls when I ask him to.

HER: Well, I guess the twelfth time is the charm. Also, I mentioned that my mom was in a car wreck.

HIM: Your mom was in a fender bender two weeks ago, and no one was hurt.

HER: Correct. As he now knows.

[She gets up and walks to the stove, humming.]

Do you want more risotto?

HIM: [glumly.]

No. Where’s the dog?

HER: Outside. Why?

HIM: [standing up and reaching into pocket for phone]

We’re gonna take some pictures.  OH

Maria Johnson communicates with nonmillennials by email. You can reach her at

Gate City Journal

The Clacker King in Toyland

Remembering Marc Freiburg, businessman and mensch, who made Ham’s
a Greensboro landmark and brought so much joy to so many in the Gate City

By Jim Clark

For the last several years, I’ve made it part of my holiday ritual to visit Bender’s Tavern on Christmas Day to check out the holiday dinner provided to the needy by owner Anna Freiberg. On the drive there, I pass by the old Kroger shopping center on Market Street just two blocks away from the tavern. It was there nearly forty years ago that I spent an unforgettable afternoon with her father, Marc Freiberg.

On that blustery December day in 1978, Marc had summoned me to his new toy store, Li’l Kidz, Big Kidz, ostensibly to interview him for the newspaper I edited, The Greensboro Sun, about this latest of his business ventures. Marc was one of the first advertisers in the paper and over the years he had become a “silent partner.”

Only this day he was far from silent.

He had pulled two stools up to the checkout counter where he had placed the largest Italian sub I had ever seen. “First we eat,” he said, handing me half the sandwich and tearing open a bag of potato chips.

“You know,” he said, looking around the store, “I’ve always wanted my own toy store. That was my first job, working in one — and I loved it.”

Perhaps it was the last of the autumn leaves scurrying outside the big display window or perhaps the memories of that first job, but whatever it was, it sent him into a nostalgic reverie.

“At age 32,” he mused, “I should probably be in The Guinness Book of World Records for the number of failed businesses I’ve had since I turned 21.” The first, he explained, was the Bamboo Lounge on Spring Garden Street. Then he tried a nightclub on the corner of Spring Garden and Tate — the Universal Joint. “If there was any business experience that changed my life more than anything else, it was that place. I had a lot of friends and everybody had a good time — and I lost about $19,000. The place closed up on my twenty-second birthday, I was head over heels in debt — really didn’t know where I was going next.”

Marc went to work in a drugstore and after eight months had saved enough to open the Odyssey down on Tate and Lee streets, black lights and all, a “roaring success,” before the music died.

By then his interests had turned to manufacturing and he started a company called The Leather Sole, which made leather belts, but this venture did not last very long either.

Then he came into an inheritance and set out to be a curb market tycoon, beginning with the Party Mart, which was located in the Texaco station across from Ham’s on Friendly Avenue and Smyres Place.

“I had illusions of grandeur or something because I then bought the curb market on the corner of Aycock and Spring Garden — the Kwik Serv. It took me only ten months to blow all the money I had inherited — and both businesses.”

“And remember the Clacker Factory?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. “How could I ever forget the Clacker Factory?”

The Clacker was a toy consisting of two plastic balls attached by a string to a stick, and when the stick was moved rapidly up and down, the balls would bounce back and forth in semicircles, making an incredible racket.

In 1971, it seemed like half the street population of Tate worked at the factory behind his Party Mart. And in true Marc Freibergian fashion, he saw the factory not only as his ticket to the good life, but also a way to improve the lot of the street folk by sharing the profits.

I would make the rounds in the mornings in my VW van to pick up folks at such College Hill landmarks as the Ghettos on South Mendenhall, the Deadhead house on Tate and the crash houses on Carr. Folks were giddy with the excitement of being part of this new enterprise, and the early light was filled with shouts of “Rise and shine!” to their somnambulistic comrades still snuggled in their sleeping bags, followed by a chorus of voices as I drove them to work: “All aboard! First stop, Clackalacky . . . Hey man, keep it down, ooh my head . . . Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-ay, My, oh my, what a wonderful day . . .  . . . Dammit, I told you to keep it down . . . Heigh-Ho, Heigh-ho, it’s off to work we go . . . Hey man, put that thing out, we almost to the factory.”

Marc shook his head and laughed. “People all over the country were into Clackers. People were going nuts for them.”

And then his dream of being the Clacker King of the South went bust. The Clackers, which were made out of a type of acrylic, would, after one clack too many, explode in people’s faces.

News of the how dangerous the toys were reached Freiberg about the same time his curb markets were going under. He took thousands of Clackers out back and threw them in the dumpster.

He managed to scrape together a little money and once again entered the world of business — this time on Tate Street where he opened Two Worlds, a wine and cheese shop, which did remarkably well and which he sold to Dave Jackson who renamed the shop Friar’s Cellar and moved it across the street to the location of present-day Tate Street Coffee House.

Marc went to work for a local wine distributor while managing the Janus Theatres by night. When he had saved enough money, he rented the Princess Café at 317 South Elm Street and opened a delicatessen. Things went so well he sold the deli and looked for his next big entrepreneurial venture. He didn’t have to look far . . .

The Ham’s building had seen almost as many businesses as Marc had. Back in the ’30s, there was a guy named Newmer Ham who operated a sundry store out of a two-story roadhouse. He sold patent medicine, beer and hot sandwiches. In the early ’40s, Freiberg’s father bought the place but soon sold it and went on to transform the Twin Oaks Curb Market on Battleground Avenue into a restaurant called IPD (an acronym for Irving Park Delicatessen), later Cellar Anton’s, and finally just Anton’s, before it was reborn as Havana Phil’s Cigar Company. In the late ’40s, Marc’s uncle bought Ham’s and turned it into, Marc noted, “your classic ’50s drive-in.” Later that decade, the old roadhouse came down when a new front section was added. His uncle operated it until 1967, later renting it out to others.

By then Marc wanted to give the place a try. Once again, Marc explained, “I almost lost my shirt when I expanded the restaurant and put in a huge selection of cheese.” But suddenly the place became a huge success, not just with Grimsley High and UNCG students, but also with the lunch crowd, which became a who’s who of the city’s legal, political and business community.

Part of what made this incarnation a success, Marc reflected, was making “old-time values and treatment” a part of the place. “Anybody who’s willing to cash a check for somebody without treating them like a criminal has an advantage. But a regular customer comes into Ham’s and wants to cash a check for five or ten dollars, we cash it. It’s just the personal touch.”

But he feared the days of such small-town values were numbered. “Yeah, times are
a-changin’. You know, recently we were forced to put electronic cash registers in Ham’s,” Marc told me back in 1978, “not because I wanted to, but because they don’t make mechanical ones anymore. You’ve got to buy one that goes beep-beep-buzz-buzz. I don’t like it. The old whirr-twang-ring-ring is what I grew up with. Soon the world will be dominated by chips.”

I gave him a puzzled luck and looked at the bag on his desk.

“No, not those kinda chips. Computer chips.” But he wasn’t really sure what they were.

“All I know is that last February at the American International Toy Fair that’s all people were talking about. They are the mainstay of the booming business in remote control toys. They allow computerized toys to think, play chess, sing ‘Jingle Bells’. . . hell, you can even play blackjack with them, and they will probably beat you.”

“Watch this,” he said, and he sent an 18-wheeler truck cannonballing down the aisle toward three women checking out the doll displays. The women moved away from the truck and scooted down another aisle, where the truck stealthily awaited them. They moved behind a display of Gene Simmons KISS dolls, and the truck backed away around a corner, then as soon as they stepped back into the aisle, the truck re-emerged with a blast of its horn. Marc chuckled, “You ever see that great Spielberg movie, Duel, with Dennis Weaver and that vindictive demon truck?”

He pointed to a huge Star Wars display. “Anything to do with space or science fiction, you just can’t keep it in stock. People seem more interested in the future than the present, like they think someday things will be better — when science does all its wild things.” Then Marc noted a dark side. “Of course, war games are another incredible seller right now, and many serious war gamers design their own battles. I wonder what that tells us about the future.”

Like all his businesses, Marc knew this one was a big gamble. “Each February I go to the Toy Fair in New York and it’s fourteen days of bedlam — the wildest thing I’ve ever been to in my life. You go, look, and try to make intelligent decisions on what you think will sell next Christmas. If you aren’t careful, you can end up with a roomful of last season’s slot racing cars when slotless are suddenly the thing or with toys that buzz when TV is selling beeps.”

But he remained optimistic about his new venture, dubbing it the Greatest Toy & Hobby Store South of FAO Schwartz. Marc got a faraway look in his eyes and fell into a solioquy.

“What I’ve learned with all my failures is this: Anybody with a new idea or product can make money if there’s a real legitimate need for it — or a real, really illegitimate need — like Pet Rocks. And you can make money if you’re willing to treat people reasonably and really enjoy what you are doing. Sometimes all you need is a hot meal and a chance to turn your life around. God knows, I’ve been there a lot, wondering where my next meal would come from.”

The Clacker King surveyed his emporium and smiled. “Toys are just kind of a neat thing. At Christmas, people buy toys for their kids — but they really buy the toys they wanted when they were kids or the toys and games they want today. No matter how bad or rushed the world is outside, they come in here and they’re suddenly different. They come in — and suddenly their ‘kid’ comes out to play. I’m still a kid, I guess, and I always will be. I Iike to play. Now, enough of this armchair psychiatrist stuff.”

Mark got up, turned the lock of the front door, and flipped over the sign to CLOSED. “I guess I chased away my only customers with that truck.” He rubbed his hands together. “Let’s have some fun . . .”

And we did. He introduced me to the new kids on the toy block: Simon, and Merlin the Electronic Wizard, and Little Professor. We raced radio-
controlled Lamborghinis through the aisles, tried our hand at Aurora Air Hockey, had a shootout with Nerf Rockets. We tested our agility with the Jaws Game, Hungry Hungry Hippos, and the Blip the Digital Game. He liked leaving the toys on and soon the store was abuzz with the sound effects of Star Wars, Star Trek, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, along with the high-pitched whistle of a Casey Jones Musical Train and the occasional Bronx cheer from an offended toy.

Suddenly, the store grew quiet, and I could not find Marc. Then I saw him in the back of the store leaning over a model railroad layout. I knew Marc was an amateur model railroader — in fact, one of his signature touches at Ham’s was an elevated train up near the ceiling circling the restaurant.

He turned on the transformer and we watched the tiny train meander through the small town below. He loved blowing the train’s horn and watching the warning gates come down with a ring. “You know, I’m making the most money off all the newfangled futuristic stuff, but this is actually my favorite thing in the whole store. Doesn’t this little town remind you of Greensboro? Quiet, every place very reachable in just a few minutes . . .
Well, we aren’t going to remain this sleepy little town much longer.” He shook his head. “Greensboro is about to make a giant step toward big-city life if it passes liquor-by-the-drink. Now, I’ll put liquor-by-the-drink in Ham’s if it passes because it’ll mean money in my pockets. It’ll be great for restaurant businesses. But I don’t know if I’m going to vote for it or not. I have nothing against it, except it seems the final progression to whatever it is that Greensboro is going to become. It could be good, it could be bad.”

When Marc finally achieved his great success with Ham’s he did not rename the place, never thought about putting his name in big letters on the building. No, instead, he put a billboard atop the building with a giant picture of himself. “I think I’m smiling, looking down at the passing traffic,” he chuckled.

Marc died way too young (at age 50) in 1997. But every Christmas afternoon when I leave Bender’s Tavern and drive down Friendly toward my College Hill home, I pass Smyres Place and I can still almost hear the sweet click-clack of success coming from the Clacker Factory filled with his troupe of long-haired elves at their worktables.

And always as I pass this spot, although the old Ham’s is gone, the place transformed into the Mad Hatter, I can still feel Marc Frieberg’s presence up there smiling down on the lively, restaurant-filled city he knew we would become and, as they say, we didn’t turn out so bad after all.  OH

Jim Clark, Director of the UNCG MFA Creative Writing Program, says he has had a lot of great teachers over the years. His favorite “classrooms” for learning simply how to live one’s life were Marc Freiberg’s Ham’s and the original Jay’s Deli in Friendly Shopping Center, headmastered by Sol Jacobs, a candidate for mayor of Greensboro in 1979.

White Christmas, Dry Christmas

How the spirit(s) of the hippest holiday in memory were dampened by a state court system determined to play Ebenezer Scrooge

By Billy Ingram     Illustration by Harry Blair

"Sydney Australia - March 3, 2009. A vintage Barbie, one of the first editions of the doll to be created,  isolated on white. 2009 marked Barbie's 50th anniversary."
“Sydney Australia – March 3, 2009. A vintage Barbie, one of the first editions of the doll to be created, isolated on white. 2009 marked Barbie’s 50th anniversary.”

The year 1966 brought the grooviest Christmas season Greensboro will likely ever see, a time of unprecedented prosperity in a nation embracing a Space-Age future, in an era when the provincial collided with the outlandish — at a moment that just might have been the tipping point when Pop became forever enshrined as America’s dominant culture.

The Gate City was basking in the dawn of the Go-Go Years. At a time when you could purchase a Moravian star for $3 at The Corner on Tate Street, Thalhimers Department Store would custom-decorate your Christmas tree . . . if you opted for a natural one. Original model aluminum trees with a rotating lighted color wheel, sought-after collector’s items today, were at the time considered the height of tackiness — or chic, I’m not sure which. To each his own at Christmastime, right? When I was a kid our neighbor Jane King absolutely hated blinking lights on a tree. Naturally dad made sure there was at least one bulb that flashed on and off just to get a reaction from her that was as much a holiday tradition as can-shaped cranberry sauce.

Every evening hundreds motored way out High Point Road to cruise slowly past Pilot Life’s Nativity scene (currently on display at Greensboro College). The first reception at a decrepit Blandwood Mansion kicked off a fundraiser that would eventually save the property, leading to our modern-day Preservation Greensboro. City and county leaders got behind a referendum that would raze the 56-year-old courthouse to erect a new municipal center.

The affairs of the Court — with its back-and-forth rulings on the use of alcohol — would be on everyone’s minds, however as the twelfth month of that pivotal year arrived. Especially on the minds of convivial gals in pillbox hats and little black dresses, or daring new mini-skirts, and guys in Sansabelt pants and velour mock turtlenecks, fashions of the day that would ultimately descend into that hippy-dippy madness we think of as the late ’60s.

But in ’66 mock-Ts and LBD’s were de rigeur for restaurant patrons and tipplers, who’d walk into restaurants with brown bags or knitted cozies containing the hooch of their choice, which a bartender would take and measure into cocktails, then charge for set-ups. Cin Cin! Bottom’s Up! Here’s mud in your eye!

Since 1935, a state-controlled Alcohol Beverage Control distribution and tax system had been in effect for those communities passing referendums allowing liquor sales. That didn’t happen in the Gate City until 1952. Even so, you couldn’t stroll the ABC store aisles to make your selection as you can today; that was done by no-nonsense clerks who kept the merchandise behind a counter. Moreover, bars and taverns couldn’t sell liquor throughout the state, so a wink-wink, nudge-nudge practice known as “brown bagging” was instigated. So called “bottle clubs” like the Sir Loin Room inside McClure’s Restaurant in the Summit Shopping Center allowed repeat diners to store their booze on the premises. Country clubs offered liquor lockers to their members.

While swinging singles were out swilling, kids were left chilling to primetime shows, all broadcast in “living color” for the first time ever, giving many families an excuse to rush out and purchase top of the line Curtis Mathes console television sets retailing for around $700 at Steele & Vaughn (where Pryor Brewery is today). A dented model from the Sears Outlet Store on Lawndale was a money saving option for cheapskates like my dad.

Equally appealing to impressionable young minds as Bewitched and Batman were the commercials. Toymakers opened the spigot to feed the insatiable maw of Baby Boomers coming of age, expanding the fantasy universe of established best-sellers like G.I. Joe, Johnny West and Barbie, while launching new franchises such as the inexplicably popular Suzy Homemaker appliance line that included an oven, washing machine and dishwasher. Seemingly reinforcing the stereotype that a woman’s place was in the home, how could these little girls imagine they’d be working two jobs when they grew up?

What kids hollered most for, introduced in 1966: G.I. Joe Astronaut with floating capsule, Debutante Ball Barbie and her mod cousin Francie, Twister, Batman Utility Belt with Batarang and Bat-Cuffs, 330-piece Fort Apache battle set, Baby Teenie Talk with moving lips, Major Matt Mason and Captain Action action figures, See ’N Say, Lego Car Repair Shop, Spirograph, Operation, Creepy Crawlers Thingmaker, those Show’N Tell ersatz-TV record players synced to a built-in slide projector, the Addams Family Thing Bank with a little green hand that snatches the coin away.

Weaponry and subterfuge were all the rage for kids as a Cold War gripped the nation. The Mattel Zero M was by appearances a transistor radio that, at the touch of a button, expanded into a cap firing assault rifle. Along with a Luger that transforms into a submachine gun, the ISA 07-11 Super Spy Attache Case featured a built in telescope, working hidden camera and walkie-talkies that could transmit a signal up to a 1/4 mile away as long as there were no impediments like walls or buildings, which was kinda the whole point so they were basically worthless. For the purist there was Mattel’s M16 Marauder, just like big brother carried in Vietnam, with realistic Braap-Braaaaaap, Brap Brap sound. Nothing compared to the Johnny Seven O.M.A. (One Man Army) by Topper, the ultimate killing machine with a grenade launcher, anti-tank weapon, antibunker missile, armor-piercing shell and detachable pistol for when the fighting gets close.

For $70 Santa scored a chrome-plated Schwinn Fastback Stingray bike with a 5-speed stick shift and elongated banana seat; the Slik Chik model for girls came with a flowered wicker basket up front. Low-riding youngsters rolled in style in AMF’s Mustang metal pedal car with spinner hubcaps. If Dad wanted his own ’66 Mustang, Friendly Ford was all too happy to hand over the keys for around $2,200.

Ah! Nothing succeeds like excess! (I wish I’d thought of that line first.) Just ask His Royal Greenness. Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! aired on TV for the first time in 1966, and as mean a one as Mr. Grinch was, it was the N.C. Supreme Court, with hearts two sizes too small, that handed down a draconian ruling that threatened to torpedo the holiday season, criminalizing perfectly normal behavior while setting up a situation where anyone could be hauled off by police for re-gifting that fruitcake from Aunt Betty.

Wait, what? Stick with me . . .

North Carolina has always had a tortured history with alcohol. The state enacted Prohibition a full decade before the nation followed suit in 1919. The General Assembly passed the Turlington Act a few years later declaring that the consumption of spirits was allowed only in the privacy of one’s own home (medicinal and religious uses exempted). How it was supposed to get into the home when it was illegal “to manufacture, sell, barter, transport, import, export, deliver, furnish, purchase or possess intoxicating liquor” was anyone’s guess but it led to a labyrinth of shady practices and elaborate delivery schemes, one of which evolved into what we now know as NASCAR. Small wonder, spiriting bathtub gin from one surreptitious rendezvous point to another was as much sport as commerce. For three decades Greensboro residents purchased liquor in dark alleyways, carefully hidden inside a bushel of apples bought on Commerce Street or slipped surreptitiously from under the counter at Fordham’s Drug Store on South Elm, until the aforementioned brown bagging became a common practice in ’52. For almost fifteen years it seemed a reasonable coexistence between wet and dry forces had been reached.

That peace was shattered on December 1, 1966, however, when citizens awoke to the news that the N.C. Supreme Court had unanimously ruled brown bagging unconstitutional, that “the Turlington Act is still the primary law in every area which has not elected to come under the ABC Act.” Once again a person could possess liquor only in their own private dwelling or while traveling to and from the ABC store. No more than a gallon of liquor could be transported across state lines, any more than that in any one place carried with it the presumption of intent to resell.

Potent potables could be served to guests in one’s home but nowhere else, not even a rented hall or private club hosting a wedding reception or holiday party. It was suddenly illegal to bring a $2.79 pint of Old Crow to someone’s house (as it should be), present a giftbox of Chivas Regal to your dinner host or give a bottle of Smirnoff to your uncle. Gifting baked goods containing rum or brandy? They may as well have been pot brownies — you’re going to jail, Grandma!

Mass confusion ensued. Restaurateur J. W. McClure expressed a frustration felt by many, “I don’t know what the laws are and I’m afraid nobody does either,” he declared with exasperation. When a Mecklenburg judge suggested the ruling could be postponed for the season, the State Supreme Court, with “unprecedented swiftness,” dispatched a marshall from Raleigh to Charlotte with a copy of the proclamation to be recorded immediately at the Mecklenburg Superior Court, something no one had ever recalled happening before. Their adjudication was effective immediately and would not be forestalled, not even by the Supreme Court in Washington D.C., which refused to intervene. The state ABC Board announced that no warrant was required for their officers to infiltrate any venue where festivities were underway to enforce compliance and arrest offenders if necessary.

Just so there was no doubt about the seriousness of this decree, the Greensboro and Sedgefield country clubs were formally notified that, from that point forward, beer and wine alone could be served on the premises. The Sand Hills Country Club dismantled their signature bar shelves stocked with members’ bottles. The manager of the Reidsville Elks Lodge declared, “This is going to bring back the hip flask and the lady with the big pocketbook.”

The effect on the hospitality industry was swift and devastating. McClure’s Steak House saw receipts drop 59 percent, forcing the closure of its members-only bottle club. Reservations for New Year’s Eve parties at nightclubs and eateries plummeted by as much as two-thirds. Supper clubs suffered the most. The Tropicana ceased operations entirely while Fred Koury’s Plantation experienced a 70 percent revenue drop. Waitstaff at Cellar Anton’s, McClure’s and The Colony grew used to diners, those they had left, sneaking back to their cars in the middle of a meal for a quick nip.

That December, Harold Driggers and the Six Key Brothers were opening for Jerry Butler at the Plantation when they recorded a regional hit single at Copeland Sound Studio in Greensboro called “Brown Baggin’”, a Paramount Records release riffed on an earlier soul tune, “Barefootin’”. It quickly became the second most requested song on WCOG with scintillating lyrics:

I just heard Mr. Fred say I know what to do.

I’ll brown bag if you brown bag too,

And if the brown baggin’ crowd is big enough,

I don’t think they’ll try to lock us all up.

Of course, to toddlers and teetotalers this was all much ado about nothing, for most folks the holidays soldiered on without a hitch despite a dampening of spirits. Shoppers jockeyed for parking spaces downtown in front of Prago-Guyes and Belk, or a few blocks down South Elm at Tiny Town Toyland. Big Bear at Lawndale Shopping Center prepared family sized Christmas dinners for $8.95. Moon Wyrick brought up the rear as Santa in the Holiday Jubilee parade following WFMY’s Old Rebel and Pecos Pete waving from a Model T Ford, while, just up ahead, Little Miss Sunbeam tossed miniature loaves of bread to an eager crowd from her fanciful float.

As it happened, there were no arrests locally for unlawful partying but the ABC board reported lower sales than the previous December. Within a few months the 1967 legislature bent to the will of the people and reinstated brown bagging. It wasn’t until two decades later that Greensboro residents could walk into a bar or eatery and order a drink without a bottle in hand, a concept known fifty years ago as “whisky by the drink.”

My most cherished memory of Christmas ’66, besides that cool Lost in Space Roto Jet Gun that rained spinning plastic projectiles on my younger siblings for weeks afterward, was the storm Christmas Eve that delivered nearly 3 inches of snow just as St. Nick began making his rounds. It was a White Christmas that found children of all ages hopping onto new Flexible Flyers, carving deep ruts into the Greensboro Country Club golf course while others rocketed down slippery slopes on Northwood in Latham Park or down Fairmont in Lake Daniel.

In a scant few years the Big Wheel rendered pedal cars and tricycles obsolete, and Barbie had long ago stopped hanging out with her hard-partying cousin Francie. Still, an amazing number of 1966 sensations are still with us. Spirograph, Twister, Operation and sophisticated Lego systems haven’t lost their allure. I even saw one of those Addams Family banks not long ago, although I suspect there won’t be many Batarangs with handcuffs under trees this Christmas. And who needs walkie-talkies and hidden cameras? We carry them around everywhere we go.  OH

Billy Ingram was so far into Santa he wrote and starred in five hours of Christmas specials for the Bravo network in 2005—06 and portrayed Father Tobias in A Killer Christmas Carol film. He has an extensive tribute to Christmases of old on

Short Stories

Talent Show

You can thank Nancy Guttman for having a good eye and the good sense to recognize that the breadth and depth of artistic talent in Greensboro’s Jewish community deserved more public attention. Hence, Artists in Our Midst on December 10th at Temple Emanuel (1129 Jefferson Road). From 7 to 10 p.m. you can enjoy dessert and beverages to the tinkling strains of a jazz piano (and moms and dads: a babysitter will watch your little ones, gratis), while you feast your eyes on works rendered in clay, oils, glass, fiber and more.  They are the creations of such prominent figures as Jay Rothberg, Gary Fisher, Noe Katz, Laura Pollak and Alexis Lavine and Beatrice Shaw. You can take any of it with you, if you wish; the works are available for purchase. Don’t think of your spree as an indulgence as much as vital support for local artists. Info: (336) 292-5716 or

Counting Crows . . .

. . . and cardinals, jays, nuthatches and all manner of winged creatures. Be a part of the longest-running citizen science survey in the world: The Audubon Christmas Bird Count, which er, took flight across North America on Christmas Day of 1900. Established to assess declining bird populations, the annual count, which takes place between mid-December and early January, serves as a kind of census for birds. The Piedmont Bird Club will coordinate the bird count for Guilford County on December 17th.  So don warm gear and bring a pair of binoculars to assure that our fine-feathered friends won’t fly away. Info:

The Greensboro Review Turns 50

In 1965 the UNCG English Department started its M.F.A. Writing Program, which was greeted with scorn, recalls Fred Chappell, one of the founders: “How many Pulitzers have your little crew picked up so far? . . . Hemingway would never have taken an M.F.A. degree.”

A year later the students wanted a journal in which to publish their work, and The Greensboro Review was born. In addition to discovering generations of new writers, the journal has produced some of the most talented student editors around: Claudia Emerson won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in poetry, and this year Greensboro’s own Kelly Link was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction.

A half-century after its humble beginnings, when Review editor Jim Clark is asked how many Pulitzers his crew has won, he answers, “Only one . . . but we’re just getting started.”

Copies of the 50th Anniversary Issue are available at Scuppernong Books (304 South Elm Street).


On December 17th at the Terrace of the Greensboro Coliseum, be a part of the Greatest Gingeration by competing in or admiring the confectionary constructions at the Panera Bread Gingerbread House Competition. If you’re not busy raising the roof with your teammates (each team consisting of up to six people, ages 12 and up) schmooze with Santa, nibble on cookies with cocoa or punch,
mug for the photo booth camera, enjoy crafts music until the judging begins. Proceeds from spectator admission ($10 at the door) and registration fees benefit and critical breast cancer research. To register by 6 p.m. December 16th: (336) 286-6620 or

Moments of Clara-tea

Make a dream come true for your child while helping out a good cause by having Tea With Clara, the annual fundraiser for Greensboro Ballet at Carolina Theatre (310 South Greene Street) on December 17th and 18th In addition to sipping on a nice cuppa and munching on sweets, you’ll get to meet the heroine of The Nutcracker, learn the Lullaby Dance, meet other members of the cast and take home a box of treats. And don’t forget your camera! This is one occasion worthy of a photo opp. Reserve early. Tickets: (336) 333-2506 or

Fa-la-la-la Folly

Meaning, Körners’ Folly, one of three destinations at A Kernersville Yuletide, a self-guided tour of downtown K’ville on December 10th from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wander through the quaint Victorian manse at 413 South Main Street (admission is $10 for adults, $6 for children ages 8 to 18), and marvel at its unusual rooms and halls bedecked with garlands and Christmas trees. At the Kernersville Moravian Church down the street (No. 504), you’ll learn all about tradecrafts such as candle making, tinsmithing, basket weaving and quilting — to the accompaniment of live organ music — and don’t forget to grab some sugarcake while you’re there. Then wind down with a cup of hot cider at Paul J. Ciener Botanical Garden Gift Shop (215 South Main) and find a sprig of this or a pot of that for the gardeners on your Christmas list. Info:

Auld Lang Syne

Bid Old Man 2016 farewell and greet Baby 2017 with some sweet sounds at a New Year’s celebration, courtesy of the O.Henry Hotel — with no cover charge. In the Social Lobby of the O.Henry Hotel (624 Green Valley Road) you’ll have your choice of two performances: Early birds who want to celebrate in time to go home and slip into their jammies can hear Dave Fox and Jessica Mashburn from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Night Owls can come out for Randy Craven and Sheila Duell from 9:30 p.m. to midnight. Reserve dinner at the Green Valley Grill — or stay for brunch on January 1. Info: (336) 854-2000 or

Lunch and Listen

What a waste of a lunch hour! Holiday shopping amid the
frenzied throngs, standing in line to mail packages. . . But for High Point residents, there’s a way to unwind at midday — by listening to some live, seasonal music. From 12:10 to 1 p.m. the High Point Baptist Church (405 North Main Street) hosts brief concerts on most Wednesdays in December — Linda Brown and Caroline Kolbert on the 7th, the Honors Vocal Ensemble from Southwest High School on the 14th, and UNCG School of Music’s Holiday Brass ensemble on the 21st. After each performance, sate yourself on a lunch of hot soup and a sandwich for a mere $6 and then return to work refreshed — and full of the Yuletide spirit. Info:

Ogi Says

Just because it’s December doesn’t mean your holiday agenda doesn’t have to include everything Christmas. A couple of items on my own sked are, in fact, Christmas-related, but they all promise to get you in the spirit, one way or another.

• December 2, Carolina Theatre: The C of CSN and sometimes Y has parted ways with his old mates and is in the midst of a solo tour. This show will offer a rare chance to get up close and personal with David Crosby in a way that would’ve been heretofore impossible. This may be one where you’ll want to save your ticket stub.

• December 3, Muddy Creek Music Hall: If you haven’t made it over to Winston-Salem to this outstanding venue yet, now’s your chance. Lonesome River Band regrouped around everybody’s favorite banjo player, Sammy Shelor, several years ago, and is, once again, among the elite groups in all of bluegrass. I’ve traveled farther than this to see them.

• December 4, Blind Tiger: What started off as a group of talented ladies getting together last year at the behest of Sheila Klinefelter to record a CD and play a couple of gigs has now turned into an ongoing project. The Gate City Divas are eight of the area’s top-shelf vocalists and songwriters whose bold sound belongs on a big stage, literally and figuratively.

• December 11, Greensboro Coliseum: For many, the date that the Trans-Siberian Orchestra comes to town marks the official kickoff of the holiday season. They’re a little late this year, but well worth the wait. Trust me, a Christmas show like no other.

• December 18, The Crown: Wait, I take that back. While TSO is astounding, Piedmont Songbag’s Umpteenth Annual Christmas Show is really, really like no other. The venue has changed this year, but the zany, irreverent, bawdy take on Christmas from the brilliant-yet-twisted mind of Don Morgan remains intact.

Food for Thought

The Proof of the Pudding

And don’t spare on the Christmas Brandy Butter

By Serena Kenyon Brown

ìI am always surprised to hear British cooking maligned by Americans: So many of our best dishes, especially in the South, are absolutely English.”

— John Martin Taylor, Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking.

If you happen to be leafing through the pages of an early American book of receipts for your fall and winter menu plans, you might be struck by how many of the dishes we still eat today. Fricassee, velvet cakes, pilau, fried oysters, kohlrabi. There are also a large number of dishes that graced the American table in days of yore, but would now be considered strictly British fare. Mrs. Rorer’s Cookbook of 1886 gives a recipe for shepherd’s pie and another for bread sauce. In The Virginia House-wife, first published circa 1824, Mrs. Randolph offers the reader a glorious receipt for using up leftover roast beef.

And the Yorkshire pudding?

Sure enough, it’s there. Look for Batter Pudding in Mrs. Rorer’s Cookbook. Or try Mrs. Rundell’s American Domestic Cookery (1823). That venerable lady also offers a Batter Pudding with Meat that sounds a lot like the British classic Toad-in-the-Hole.

While plenty of British dishes have remained part of American cuisine, many more have fallen away. In those early books there are whole chapters devoted to puddings, yet open up a modern American cookbook and you’ll be unlikely to find much beyond the familiar bread pudding.

A pudding might be crumbly and cakey or oozily moist. It is generally boiled or steamed, but can also be baked. The sweet variety tends to be cooked in cotton cloth as opposed to the intestine or stomach that traditionally encases the savory kind.

As the nights stretch into the cooling days, few things make a more warming, rib-sticking ending to a feast than a dark, glossy pudding. It’s time for a restoration. The holidays aren’t far away. Let’s return the plum pudding to the American table.

You’ll find many delectable recipes, both old and new, online — look for “Christmas pudding” as “plum” is an archaic term for a raisin or currant. If you’d like to try your hand at an authentic 19th-century plum pudding, something Dickens himself, the godfather of the holiday banquet, would have recognized, Mrs. Hale gives the most comprehensive method in The Good Housekeeper of 1839:

“As Christmas comes but once a year, a rich plum pudding may be permitted for the feast; though it is not healthy food; and children should be helped very sparingly. The following is a good receipt.

“Chop half a pound of suet very fine; stone half a pound of raisins; half a pound of currants nicely washed and picked; four ounces of bread crumbs; four ounces of flour; four eggs well beaten; a little grated nutmeg — mace and cinnamon pounded very fine; half a teaspoonful of salt; four ounces of sugar; one ounce candied lemon; same of citron.

“Beat the eggs and spices well together; mix the milk with them by degrees, then the rest of the ingredients; dip a fine, close linen cloth into boiling water, and place it in a hair-sieve; flour it a little, then pour in the batter and tie it up close; put it into a pot containing six quarts of boiling water; keep a tea-kettle of boiling water and fill up your pot as it wastes; be sure to keep it boiling, at least six hours—seven would not injure it.

“This pudding should be mixed an hour or too (sic) before it is put on to boil; it makes it taste richer.”

What would also make it taste richer is the addition of a fine brandy. In a brief survey of historic receipts it seems Southern cooks were much more freehanded with the liquor than their Yankee contemporaries. In this grand tradition the British still so saturate their puddings that they can be made a year or more in advance. Silver charms are stirred in for luck. Especially lucky for the person who finds them — and their dentist.

Before serving, the pudding is doused with yet more brandy and set alight. Carry in the pudding triumphant, blue flames dancing around it (though do be careful if you’ve decorated with a lot of greenery). Allow the flames to subside, then dig in.

Whether your pud be Prohibition or 100 proof, you will need some brandy butter to accompany it. A word of warning — you may find your holiday guests making late-night raids on your fridge for this. It’s irresistible, especially in wee hour spoonfuls straight from the saucer.

Brandy Butter

4 ounces softened unsalted butter

4 ounces powdered, caster or soft brown sugar

2 tablespoons brandy

Mix the butter and sugar and beat until soft. Add the brandy very slowly and mix it in. Cover and refrigerate. It will keep for about a week, though it won’t be around that long.  OH

Serena Kenyon Brown is an Anglo-Southern writer. Before her recent return to Blighty, she was senior editor at PineStraw magazine in Southern Pines.

O.Henry Ending

A Time of Light and Latkes

A Hanukkah story

By Amy Lyon

At my fifth-grade
winter assembly we lined up single file,
each with a candle in an aluminum holder, and walked through the darkened auditorium singing, “When you walk through a storm hold your head up high and don’t be afraid of the dark.” At 10 years old I was awed to be entrusted with a live, yellow flame, especially since it was a dark time for me. It was my first year at a new school, and a few classmates, who I thought were new friends, were bullying me.

We sang, “Though your dreams be tossed and blown, walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart and you’ll never walk alone.”

This reflects the essence of Hanukkah — hope, light and renewal.

The Jewish holiday Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days, lighting up the darkest time of the year. During each night at sundown, we light one candle of the eight-pronged candelabra called a menorah, until the eighth night, when all the candles blaze bright. We do this to remember the miracle that happened in Jerusalem 2,200 years ago when the ancient Hebrews, led by Judah the Maccabee, reclaimed the temple in Jerusalem from their enemy. When it was time to light the menorah, the eternal flame, there was only enough oil to last for one night, but instead it lasted for eight.

When I was growing up, my family numbered into the dozens, and we’d all gather at my grandparents’ home to light the menorah, exchange gifts, play the holiday game called dreidel and eat special foods. Dreidel is a four-sided spinning top, and on each side is a Hebrew letter that is an acronym for “a great miracle happened here.” The side where the top lands dictates how much of the pot of candy or pennies the spinner gets to take out or put in: all, half, none or the dreaded put one back in.

No one goes hungry on Hanukkah, because this is the holiday of the latke, the famed potato pancake. It’s the latke, that is, if you are descendant of the Ashkenazi and trace your roots to Eastern Europe, as does my family. Or, if you’re from the Sephardim branch, who long ago migrated south from the Middle East through the warmer Mediterranean countries, then your family fries up doughnuts, called sufganiyot. One way or another the holiday is a deep-fried affair.

That winter I was surely in my grandmother’s kitchen helping make the latkes, since her kitchen was the center of my universe and — in essence — still is. Nana was always putting on, wearing or taking off an apron, and there was always a kind, accepting smile on her face. On Hanukkah everyone wanted to be in the kitchen, if not as a self-anointed latke maker, then hanging out at the threshold to snatch one of the sizzling pancakes fresh from the pan. 

Latkes are a simple affair I learned to make by watching Nana’s hands as she laboriously grated potato and onion, delicately broke open the eggs and — with practiced elegance — flicked just enough leavening agent, sprinkled snowflakes of flour, added a pinch of salt and flaked in black pepper. She’d cup just enough batter in the palm of her hands, squeeze out excess liquid, and drop it into the pan of hot oil. Then she’d watch and wait. At just the right moment, when edges began to brown, she’d pat the pancake once or twice with her spatula. Then, when she knew it was right, she’d flip it over, pat it again and let the other side get crispy. And from there to the platter with the topping of choice. There are two camps when it comes to latke toppings, the savories who enjoy sour cream, or the sweeties who prefer applesauce. I fall into the applesauce group, preferably homemade.

In my 20s I opened Amy Cooks for You, a specialty food store and catering company, and for Hanukkah we turned out scores of latkes, of course my Nana’s recipe. In the years when my son, Max, was growing up, we started the tradition of having our own Hanukkah party for friends and family. Along the way, the simple brass menorah that I received as a bat-mitzvah gift the year I turned 13 was joined by a paper doll of Judah the Maccabee, the warrior-hero with honeycombed pants, shield and a long sword. One year the guests numbered close to 50, which made it a 250-latke occasion. It isn’t Hanukkah unless the aroma of fried onions and potatoes soak into the furniture and draperies, emanating for days.

This year I’m in particular need of the warmth and inspiration of the gleaming brass menorah, of traditions and remembrance of miracles. In February my mother died and my internal light is dimmed by a rendering sadness. I look forward to placing the tattered-but-persistent paper Judah the Maccabee on my table, spinning the dreidel and grating, flicking, sprinkling just the right amount to make the latkes. And when we light the candles of the menorah, once again, the darkness will be dispelled.  OH

Amy Lyon is the author of The Couple’s Business Guide, How to Start and Grow a Small Business Together and In A Vermont Kitchen, Foods Fresh From Farms, Forests, and Orchards. She’s lived in Wilmington for ten years and can be reached at

December Almanac 2016

By Ash Adler

How did it get so late so soon? It’s night before it’s afternoon. December is here before it’s June. My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?

– Dr. Seuss

Mistletoe bunch hanging from a red ribbon isolated on white XXXL
Mistletoe bunch hanging from a red ribbon isolated on white XXXL

Nature Whispers

According to Celtic tree astrology, those born between Nov. 25 and Dec. 23 draw wisdom from the sacred elder. Highly intelligent and energetic, elder archetypes are known as the “seekers” of the zodiac. Variety is this sign’s spice of life, but they’re most compatible with alder (March 18 – April 14) and holly types (July 8 – August 4).

Narcissus — aka daffodil — is the birth flower of December. Those familiar with the Greek myth know that Narcissus was a beautiful hunter who fell so deeply in love with his own reflection that it killed him. Speaking of hunters, the sun remains in the astrological sign of Sagittarius (the Archer) until the winter solstice on Wednesday, Dec. 21. Consider gifting your favorite Sagittarian with a potted daffodil, a vibrant spring perennial that carries messages of rebirth, clarity and inner focus.

December birthstones include zircon, turquoise and tanzanite — all blue, the color of communication and truth. In 2001, a 4.4 billion-year-old piece of zircon crystal was found in Jack Hills, an inland range north of Perth, in western Australia. Known as the “stone of virtue,” this ancient stone offers grounding and balancing energies to those who wear or carry it.

Kissing Bough

The ancient Druids believed that the mystical properties of mistletoe could ward off evil spirits, while Norse mythology rendered it as a symbol of love and friendship. ’Tis the season, and nothing spells romance like cutting a sprig of it from the branches of a sacred oak, apple or willow. During the early Middle Ages in England, mistletoe was used to ornament elaborate decorations made of holly, ivy, rosemary, bay, fir or other evergreen plants. Kissing boughs, as they were called, symbolized heavenly blessings toward the household. If you find yourself standing beneath one with someone you adore, consider it a heavenly blessing indeed.

hyacinth and daffodils flower on window sill in early spring
hyacinth and daffodils flower on window sill in early spring

Winter Solstice

As we approach the winter solstice — the longest night of the year — we look up to the planets and the stars to gain insight into the final hours of 2016. The Geminid meteor shower is expected to peak on the night of Tuesday, Dec. 13, until the earliest hours of Wednesday, Dec. 14. Although a full moon will make viewing conditions less than ideal, the possibility of sighting upward of 120 meteors per hour is reason enough to add the Geminid shower to your list of things to do this month. You’ll also want to note that Mercury goes retrograde from Dec.19–31. This will be a good time to review plans and projects. Test your soil. Think about next year’s garden, reflecting on the crops that fared well — or didn’t — in 2016. Consider waiting until Mercury goes direct on Jan. 1 to order seeds.

I Heard a Bird Sing

I heard a bird sing

In the dark of December.

A magical thing

And sweet to remember.

“We are nearer to Spring

Than we were in September,”

I heard a bird sing

In the dark of December.

— Oliver Herford, From Welcome Christmas! A Garland of Poems
(Viking Press, 1955) 

– Botanicus –

Oh, Christmas Tree!

How North Carolina became the fertile crescent of the Fraser fir

By Ross Howell Jr.

Chances are the tree you decorated for your home this holiday season is a descendant of natives in the North Carolina mountains.

The Fraser fir, Abies frasieri, owes its name to an enterprising, “indefatigable” botanist, a Scotsman named John Fraser (1750–1811). Fraser was born in Tomnacross, near Inverness, Scotland, and moved to London in 1770. There he pursued various trades before — through frequent visits to the Chelsea Physic Garden, founded in 1673 as the Apothecaries’ Garden — he hit upon his true interest, horticulture.

Fraser took up a career in botanical exploration and collecting. After returning from his first voyage to Newfoundland in 1780, he founded a commercial nursery in London to sell the plants he brought back. On later expeditions he trekked the Appalachian mountains, following Native American hunting and trading trails, becoming the first European to discover the Rhododendron catawbiense, which he was able to propagate in England, selling the plants for “five guineas each.”

During his career Fraser would travel the world, locating plants for clients as diverse as William Aiton, the director of  The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, to Catherine the Great, empress of Russia. Fraser is credited with introducing his eponymous fir, along with about 220 other plant species from the Americas, to Europe. His sons continued in their father’s business, and his grandson John would be elected a member of the Royal Horticultural Society.

The firs John Fraser discovered grow wild only at high elevations — 3,900 feet and higher — in the Appalachian chain from northern Georgia to southwestern Virginia. Mature trees may reach a height of 30 to 40 feet. Their needles are flattened, like the native hemlocks growing at lower altitudes. From September through November, they bear cones upright on their branches, like candles on a nineteenth century Christmas tree.

North Carolina is the center of the Fraser fir’s habitat, and that’s important. According to, trees can be found wild in nine counties of the Old North State, but in only one county in Georgia, and in only two counties in Virginia and Tennessee. That’s it.

Sadly, like our native hemlocks, Fraser firs are under attack. The number of trees in the wild is being diminished by acid rain, by air pollution, and especially by nasty little creatures called balsam woolly adelgids (whose equally nasty cousins have put native hemlocks at risk). These insects have wiped out whole stands of the Fraser fir, leaving behind only “skeleton forests” on the high slopes of the mountains.

Of course, we don’t clamber over bare rock faces on the steep pinnacles of western North Carolina to harvest Fraser firs today. Remember I said it was likely the tree in your house is a Fraser fir? Just how likely is it?

The North Carolina Christmas Tree Association notes that more than 50 million Fraser firs are grown in our state, and they represent 90 percent of all the trees grown in North Carolina for use as Christmas trees. These commercially grown Fraser firs can get hefty — as tall as 80 feet, with a trunk diameter of a foot and a half.

When you’re relaxing at home this holiday, say, just minutes before Santa’s to arrive, and you’re admiring your Fraser fir’s lights and its sweet balsam fragrance, take a moment to imagine its ancestor, high on a cold North Carolina peak, an upright cone or two pale in the moonlight, reaching toward stars so close they seem to be tangled in its wild boughs.  OH

Ross Howell Jr. grew up in the mountains of Virginia, where his family usually harvested a native white pine Christmas tree from the farm woodlands, along with running cedar and spicewood berries for decoration.

The Vine Wisdom

A Glorious Glühwein Christmas

Add a little “glowing wine” to your holiday traditions

By Robyn James

This holiday season, consider adding some European customs to your festivities for an Old World feel. Here’s a concoction that dates back to the 1400s in Germany and the 1300s in cookbooks in Great Britain.

Glühwein, known throughout Europe and South America by many other names, is a staple at Christmas and throughout the winter months.

Glühwein literally means “glowing wine” in German and is reported to be originated by folks who had red wine that was on the cusp of spoiling, so they added cinnamon sticks, cloves, star anise, oranges and sugar, then heated the wine up to make it palatable so it would last longer. Occasionally they would drink it “mit Schuss” (with a shot) of rum or another liquor. The glowing wine term stems from the contraption (irons with long handles) they used to heat up over a fire and then dip into the Glühwein mix to mull it (warm it up).

Throughout all the little villages in Germany, there are pockets of charming outdoor markets that sell goods and feature their own Glühwein by the glass and the bottle during the holidays. Each individual market has its personal recipe of Glühwein and the signature little pottery mug you can purchase to drink its particular Glühweins. They are coveted German souvenirs.

What food does Germany pair up with Glühwein? Yum, “Lebkuchen,” a chewy German spice cake, along with roasted almonds, potato pancakes and “stollen,” a very dense fruitcake. In Sweden the typical accompaniment is gingerbread and “Lussebullar,” a type of sweet bun with saffron and raisins. Norway pairs its Glühwein with a traditional cold rice pudding.

Glühwein is not exclusive to Germany and England; it is common in the Alsace region of France and many other European countries, including Sweden, Denmark, Romania and Hungary. They all have their native names and twists on the recipes. In France it is referred to as “vin chaud,” meaning “hot wine.” The French back off on the honey and sugar in their Glühwein, preferring a drier version.

It’s not the norm but you can find some German markets that sell white Glühwein, and a little bit is imported to the United States. A small amount of spices and fruits are just infused into a full-bodied white wine.

While Glühwein is a very traditional drink for the entire Christmas holidays, there is a traditional German version for New Year’s Eve called “Feuerzangenbowle” that uses the same recipe but incorporates a rum-soaked, cone-shaped sugar loaf that is set on fire and drips into the wine.

In Great Britain they traditionally use a combination of orange, lemon, cinnamon, nutmeg, star anise, cloves, cardamom and ginger. They may boil the spices in sugar syrup before they add the red wine. They have been known to blend the spices with port, brandy or ginger wines. They often use a tea bag of spices added to the heated wine and served in porcelain or glass mugs with a garnish of an orange slice studded with cloves.

St. Lorenz winery out of the Mosel region of Germany exports its Christkindl Glühwein into the United States in a colorful one-liter bottle priced under $10. This wine is already infused with cinnamon, cloves, oranges, lemon and sugar so all you have to do is gently warm it up and break out the gingerbread cookies! Give Glühwein a try this holiday season!  OH

Robyn James is a certified sommelier and proprietor of The Wine Cellar and
Tasting Room in Southern Pines. Contact her at