“On a frosty February morning in North Carolina’s Piedmont region [near Burlington], the enterprising trio who has finally broken America’s strange truffle curse walks beneath orderly rows of loblolly pine, trying very hard not to step on the precious nuggets beneath their feet….
“For the past two years, I’ve been hunting truffles around the world for a forthcoming book. I’ve followed some very muddy dogs through medieval Italian landscapes in the dead of night. I’ve dug black truffles in the arid oak plantations of the Spanish highlands. I’ve watched deals go down in Hungarian parking lots. I’ve seen stupendous truffle patches. But I’ve never seen a patch as productive as the one in these pines — especially not in America, where truffle farming has been a 20-year train wreck….”
— From “Has the American-Grown Truffle Finally Broken Through?” by Rowan Jacobsen in Smithsonian magazine (June)
A decade ago North Carolina’s fledgling truffle growers found a different way to make national headlines.
“On April 29, 1864, a delegation of six black men from North Carolina—some born free, others enslaved—came to the White House to petition Lincoln for the right to vote. As the men approached the Executive Mansion, they were directed to enter through the front door—an unexpected experience for black men from the South, who would never have been welcomed this way in their home state. One of the visitors, Rev. Isaac K. Felton, later remarked that it would have been considered an ‘insult’ for a person of color to seek to enter the front door ‘of the lowest magistrate of Craven County, and ask for the smallest right.’ Should such a thing occur, Felton said, the black ‘offender’ would have been told to go ‘around to the back door, that was the place for niggers.’”
“In words that alluded to the Sermon on the Mount, Felton likened Lincoln to Christ:
“We knock! and the door is opened unto to us. We seek, the President! and find him to the joy and comfort of our hearts. We ask, and receive his sympathies and promises to do for us all he could. He didn’t tell us to go round to the back door, but, like a true gentleman and noble-hearted chief, with as much courtesy and respect as though we had been the Japanese Embassy he invited us into the White House.”
“Lincoln spoke with the North Carolinians for some time. He shook their hands when they entered his office and again when the meeting ended. Upon returning home, the delegation reported back to their neighbors about how ‘[t]he president received us cordially and spoke with us freely and kindly.’ ”
— From “Black Lives Certainly Mattered to Abraham Lincoln” by Jonathan W. White in Smithsonian magazine (Feb. 10, 2021)
“The worse it gets, as I wade and stumble through the Great Dismal Swamp, the better I understand its history as a place of refuge. Each ripping thorn and sucking mudhole makes it clearer. It was the dense, tangled hostility of the swamp and its enormous size that enabled hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of escaped slaves to live here in freedom.
“We don’t know much about them, but thanks to [Dan Sayers], the archaeologist hacking through the mire ahead of me, we know they were out here, subsisting in hidden communities, and using almost nothing from the outside world until the 19th century….
“ ‘I was such a dumb-ass,’ says Sayers. ‘I was looking for hills, hummocks, high ground because that’s what I’d read in the documents: ‘Runaway slaves living on hills….’ I had never set foot in a swamp before. I wasted so much time. Finally, someone asked me if I’d been to the islands in North Carolina. Islands! That was the word I’d been missing’….”
“This winter, amid the news of the FBI’s arrest of the remaining occupiers of a national wildlife refuge in Oregon, another story unfolded more quietly in the Appalachians. At the heart of it were a small plant that plays a significant role in eastern mountain forests — American ginseng — and Billy Joe Hurley, a North Carolina man who had just been released from prison for stealing ginseng plants from Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
“Hurley, 47, has been convicted at least five times
, stretching back nearly two decades. While ordinarily such a case would be the stuff of the local paper’s police blotter, Hurley’s malfeasance is unusual, garnering national coverage, both because American ginseng roots fetch high prices in Asian markets – hundreds of dollars a pound — and the oddity of a plant heist resulting in a [six-month] prison sentence….
“The history of the park and its creation in the 1930s still stings for some who feel their grandparents were swindled out of their land through eminent domain to establish what is now America’s most visited park…. A few descendants today use that grudge to justify taking ginseng from the park. But for most, like Hurley, ‘ginsenging,’ is a tradition handed down one generation to the next.”
Can a list of “The 20 best small towns in America” really include none in North Carolina?
So says Smithsonian magazine. What say Miscellany readers?