Seven years ago, I found myself in Archer City, Texas, famous as the filming location of The Last Picture Show, based on the Larry McMurtry novel. There, a group of creative types had gathered at the Archer City Story Center to figure out how to become better storytellers.
The landscape around that one-stoplight town seemed novel. I saw my first armadillo and a large tumbleweed—something I thought existed only in movies. This was the land of ranchers and oilmen, and we regularly dined on the region’s specialty: kolaches. On the last night of our gathering, one of the program directors, Kim Cross, cooked us a special meal. As I descended the hotel stairs from my bedroom to the dining space, a smell startled me—the earthy spice of dense burning hardwood simultaneously recalled warm summer nights and Sunday-morning-before-church breakfast. Cross explained that the aroma came courtesy of Benton’s bacon and told us about its backstory and her ties to its maker, Allan Benton.
The lingering scent of seared meat clung to my clothes for the rest of the evening, reminding me of the now vacant smokehouses I knew as a little girl. Most of the men who processed and smoked their own hogs back then are dead or too old to do it. Few people smoke their own meat anymore. This slab of bacon had traveled hundreds of miles in Cross’s suitcase before finding its way to me.
In the “waste not, want not” spirit we Southern Appalachians embrace, I snagged the bacon’s rendered fat, using the treasured golden liquid to cook popcorn until the kernels puffed. A little salty, a little smoky, and exquisitely crunchy, the snack tasted perfect. I’ve never made another batch that good, though I’ve tried. The inclination to make use of the fat was just the way things were in my household—always working with what we had, bootstrapping our way through, no strangers to shortages and rationing.
Later, living alone in the Smokies while working on a series of articles about the national park, I needed the comfort of familiarity and decided to make a pot of ham and beans. I plugged Madisonville, Tennessee, the home of Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams, into my GPS and headed in search of the hardwood smoke that still existed on the edge of my Texas food memory. There, I met Allan Benton and explained I was the friend of a friend. Then I told him about my first encounter with his bacon and the way his hickory smoke hit a tender place.
We stood on his shop’s front porch and got to know each other. Benton had been a high school guidance counselor, and his original plan hadn’t included smoking hams. Mine hadn’t included being a writer—the years I had spent trying to pass biomedical engineering classes had proved as much. We marveled at how fate had thrown both obstacles and opportunities into our paths, ones that sent us back to the nooks and hollers that formed our upbringings. At the end of our visit, I returned across the mountains with a trove of porcine odds and ends the likes of which you’ll never see on the price list at Benton’s.
Experiences like this shaped my childhood. At my family’s produce stand, someone might come in with more of a crop than they could use, and they would barter the goods with my father. Sometimes I watched him accept trades for things he didn’t require, because the man that brought in twenty pounds of pecans when we had five hundred pounds in the back room really needed a flat of eggs to feed his children for breakfast. Bartering was a way to get goods when cash was short—and a way of showing compassion. The act also became a work-around for the things my family wasn’t allowed to sell. Our peach brandy, muscadine wine, and I-can’t-tell-you-where-we-made-this moonshine—well over the 5 percent alcohol allowed by state home-brew laws—regularly emerged for those in the know from a well-concealed wool bag bungee-corded into the milk crate hidden by a truck bed cover.
My gustatory life has hinged on these sorts of exchanges, whether a true barter or simply an act of friendship. When I visited Daufuskie Island, the chef Sallie Ann Robinson traded me some of her pear preserves for help figuring out Ancestry.com. One time when I was down on my luck, Tay Nelson of Bobby’s BBQ in Fountain Inn, South Carolina, plopped a container in front of me—smoked shrimp, a dish he was playing with, a not-on-the-menu specialty. Another time, he gave me a brisket noodle soup so euphoria inducing I’ve decided if they don’t serve it in heaven, I might not go.
For more than a decade, I’ve traded bags of barbecue hash for mullet with roe while traveling the Florida coast. In coolers packed with copious ice, I bring back the fish for neighbors and relatives who treasure them (even if I don’t quite understand why). And while I am rarely in the right place at the right time for ramps, pawpaws, or chicken of the woods, I can always find black walnuts, pecans, poke salad, and yellowroot for others while I’m wandering. When foraging fails me, I turn to cookery: Chowchow, crab apple jelly, or bread and butter pickles made with my mama’s recipe regularly bump around in the back of my station wagon. When a friend is struggling with his or her grief, I may drop off some syrup made from mimosa tree blooms, or some beautyberry jelly. My floral caramels get requested the most. To make them, I steep lavender, roses, and honeysuckle from my yard in cream from a local farm.
Seasonal and ephemeral, these foodstuffs become priceless. The amount of time, care, and knowledge involved would make the bill so high that few would be willing to pay for the cost of ingredients and labor. Those of us who still give and trade and barter do it because we love it, because we like to see the delight on the faces of the folks who relish what we have to offer.
The first summer of the COVID-19 pandemic felt fraught with unknowns. In need of fresh air, I headed back into the Smokies, away from people and in search of blooming rhododendrons. I called Allan Benton and told him I was headed over his way. I asked him if there was anything he missed from my side of the mountains.
“Peaches,” he told me. I filled my back seat with the fruit and wound my way to Tennessee, dropping baskets of them on porches for folks who had a harder-than-usual time that year getting that symbol of summer. I returned from that trip with a bounty of comestibles from barters along the way, including honey from my friend the writer and farmer AC Shilton’s bees. No wonder my pantry always looks like an amalgam of pickled things in jars with no labels and bottles with handwritten notes tied with twine around their necks.
As I get older, though, it seems as though the general zest for bartering has petered out. Our society’s current drive to monetize everything makes me wonder what we lose when we don’t trade, when we’re constantly thinking about worth. We have become a cashless society of another kind, one that asks us to swipe a card or enter our personal information to receive anything. The word free often comes with an invasion of privacy, or an expectation of reciprocation. But to me, giving or bartering with abandon isn’t just polite behavior or a show of good manners, but a display of gratitude—for being alive, for having something worth sharing with someone who might appreciate it.
One day at the Kennedy, my preferred hangout in Spartanburg, South Carolina, I learned my favorite bartender, Chris, had had a death in the family. Over the years, I’ve spent hours in the bar’s blue velvet chairs, sipping my favorite cocktails and Chris’s works in progress. We bonded over our love of Benton’s bacon, and I usually brought him some of the cuts of ham available only in Madisonville. Before handing the manager the care package meant for Chris, I went back out to my car and tucked into the brown grocery bag some of the delicacies I keep there, and I wrote a condolence note on the outside of the bundle. This used to be the way so many of us expressed care. Maybe it can be again.