Home for the Holidays

Vivian Howard’s Christmas Ode to the Piggly Wiggly

In Eastern North Carolina, a beloved grocery store goes all out

Photo: Diana Bolton

For me, Christmas has always been about setting a mood that tastes, smells, and looks completely different from the rest of the year. But running a restaurant (mine is Chef & the Farmer in Kinston, North Carolina) that caters to special occasions like its livelihood depends on them (’cause it does) means that enjoying that peppermint-scented spirit in December myself can be as unlikely as a good snow in the South. But I’m no quitter. And lucky for me, my local Piggly Wiggly steps in with the aromas, sights, sounds, and flavors of an old-school Christmas when I just don’t have the time to chase its essence.

The Piggly Wiggly at Jackson Heights sits in a rural enclave between Deep Run and Kinston. It’s the least fancy store I know, but it casts a country Christmas spell over me that starts in the parking lot with that all-American symbol of commerce and Christmas: the Salvation Army bell ringer, flanked by Fraser firs and wreaths whose fuller, shinier cousins found their way to a Whole Foods in Raleigh. Behind the trees, the Pig’s windows dance with snow-sprayed images of stout Santas, cheerful snowmen, and red-nosed reindeer. I like to imagine an elderly artist spraying these scenes on the day after Thanksgiving, but I suspect they are actually big stickers. I’ve never asked. I just choose to believe.

Inside the slow, automated swinging door, “Tennessee Christmas” or “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” plays quietly over the already quiet country folk who keep the Pig alive. Many of them shop here year-round. Some of them make a special trip this time of year for whole heads of collards, featuring a mix of sweet, tender inner leaves that when stewed together with the bitter outer ones make for a perfectly balanced pot of greens. Gray-headed shoppers also come to the Pig because it is perhaps the only store left that carries neon green and red candied cherries and yellow orbs of pineapple destined for bricks of fruitcake. Poinsettias swaddled in red lacquered paper form a pyramid in the produce section, but the flowers that make the Pig a prince among peers are the red, green, and white plastic bouquets that get placed on loved ones’ headstones on Christmas Day.

Across from endcaps stacked with Little Debbie Christmas Tree Cakes, the meat cooler holds a seasonal bump in what was already a robust selection of the thing that spells Christmas in Eastern North Carolina: pork. Corned hams, country hams, honey-baked hams, Tom Thumbs, and air-dried, country-style link sausage—a regional delicacy, and with a smear of mustard and a dollop of grape jelly, the only thing my family stuffs in biscuits Christmas morning. We in ENC also apparently drink eggnog—lots of it—which seems odd to me because I grew up in a teetotaling household like many here, and nog needs alcohol to make it worthwhile.

Nog or no nog, sprayed snow paintings or stickers, my stroll around the Pig at Christmas gets me in the spirit no matter what else is on my plate. And in case all this still doesn’t leave me with the warm and fuzzies, there are Advent calendars in the checkout line to remind me that while time creeps by, the Pig stays the same.