There’s many misconceptions about Asheville from people back home. The biggest is that it’s near the shore. I’ve had several Pennsylvanians message me that they’re going to be in the Outer Banks and I should visit, which always ends up with me explaining that Asheville’s further west than Pittsburgh.
Once I explain that I’m closer to Tennessee than the shore, the misconception moves to thinking Asheville will showcase the kind of Southern-fried slice of life, you can’t get back north. Now, driving just a couple of miles out of Asheville in the right direction gets pretty stereotypical, but my four-hours-north-of-the-Mason-Dixon hometown is 10x’s more Hillbilly Elegy than Asheville.
Still, when my uncle came down recently, I entertained his want to go see a proper “holler.” We’d had a nice reasonable night at Hillman Brewing Thursday, a not-so-reasonable Burial Beer experience Friday, and when we woke up Saturday, he said he wanted to see the “real” Western North Carolina. Since the only “mountain towns” I could think of have similar flavors to Asheville (Brevard, Black Mountain), I allowed him to do some internet research and find somewhere “country” while I wallowed in bed, cursing Burial for serving pitchers of IPAs.
He said he found somewhere called Alexander, a 25-minute ride from my apartment. He suggested we head that way for breakfast, I imagine imagining somewhere heavy on grits and biscuits and lacking in a “g” at the end of “home cooking.”
We didn’t find any hollers in Alexander. Nor breakfast. We didn’t find anything other than a gas station where we stopped and asked for food recommendations. The gas station attendant directed us to a diner in Leicester. Editor’s Note: the majority of the homes in Alexander could’ve been transplanted directly from any upper-middle-class Connecticut housing development.
We had lunch at the Smokey Mountain Diner. They didn’t have grits. They didn’t even advertise “home cookin’. ” We weren’t greeted by Deliverance banjo music that got us pumped for a real downhome experience. It was just a rural diner. The main difference between The Smokey Mountain Diner and anywhere in Asheville was their portions were much larger, prices were lower, and the food was decidedly not farm-to-table. While this may have been leaning closer to what my uncle was looking for, you could’ve stuck this diner and these people four miles outside of our own hometown, and aside from a few errant drawls, no one would know any different. We have these stereotypical views of what the rural south is, but it’s simply not that different from rural parts of the country everywhere (and there’s sadly only marginally more Confederate flags here than in many parts of PA).
Still wanting to explore outside of Asheville after lunch, we headed to Marshall, which I’ve heard excellent things about, but had never visited, as it seemed to be the closest town with anything resembling a downtown (we wanted to avoid our Alexander mistakes).
I know I’m making a lot of PA comparisons in this particular post, but as we drove down into Marshall, I couldn’t help but think it reminded me a lot of Jim Thorpe–brick row homes nestled tightly in a river valley, and before I could vocalize this, my uncle said the same thing. We ended up at the Mad Co. Brew House, a very cool little brewery/pizza spot on the shores of the French Broad. And that’s where our holler hunting stopped because it was a rainy afternoon, and when we walked in, we were greeted by Frankie Valli on the radio singing about that night back in December 1963. That’s the kind of musical choice that will get me pumped to stay at an establishment no matter where it’s located.