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Southern Fried Skiing

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Southern Fried Skiing 0204

To those who would question the sanity of a skier who willingly leaves his home in the mountains of Maine to hit the slopes in North Carolina, I have but two words in response: liver mush. Most people are shocked to discover that skiing even exists south of the Mason-Dixon line. Well, it does. The high country of North Carolina, on the far western edge of the state, is home to the Blue Ridge Mountains, a section of the Appalachian Trail and some of the highest peaks on the East Coast.

Beech Mountain, in Banner Elk, N.C., tops out at 5,505 feet, making it the highest ski area in the East; its base is higher than the summits of either Killington or Sugarloaf. Down the road, Sugar Mountain boasts the South's only double black-diamond run. And it's not all snowguns, all the time: They get nearly half the snowfall of us Mainers, an average of 80 inches each year.

But skiing in the South is a bit different. The folks working in the corner store complain about the cold even when it's a balmy 25 degrees. When a decent snowstorm of six inches blows in, the locals call it "a real bad winter." And whereas I wear a heated helmet with a double-pane windshield when I ski in Maine, in North Carolina you see a lot of ball caps and sunglasses.

The South does have other ski areas, some as far down as Alabama. But Beech and Sugar, both in Banner Elk, are the big driving destinations for southern skiers. Sugar, the larger of the two, attracts about 200,000 visits each year. I met a guy on the lift at Sugar who was from somewhere in Alabama. "Is that a long drive?" I ask. "Nah," he says. "Only about eight hours."

Sugar Mountain is run by a genuine Austrian. Gunther Jochl was once the president and owner of Völkl USA. When I ask him how he ended up in North Carolina, he says enigmatically, "I was running a ski area in Pennsylvania, and I liked it better down here." Gunther has a faint Austrian accent, but he's been below the Mason-Dixon line long enough that he also uses that classic southern phrase, "Do what now?" His wife, Kim, is originally from Lee, Mass., and used to race on the U.S. Ski Team.

Sugar's 20 trails are spread over a rounded old mountain covered right to the peak with hardwoods and rhododendrons. The base lodge looks like it's in a time warp from 1975—wood paneling, white-orb lights—but the trails are groomed to perfection. And Whoopdedoo, the South's only double black-diamond run, drops steeply enough at the start that they need a winch cat to groom it.

Beech and Sugar would be second-tier resorts in New England or the West. Here, they're destination areas, but with the charms of neighborhood hills: They're a great place to teach your kids, there's a vibrant NASTAR scene, and everyone in the base lodge knows each other.

When George Harris, from nearby Hickory, N.C., gets on the chair, for instance, a liftie with a voice like gravel says, "You got it made, George!" And perhaps he does. Retired since 1983 after running a wholesale liquor business, Harris owns two private planes, one of which could get him from his house to Killington, Vt., in about two hours with a tailwind. Instead, Harris chooses to ski at Sugar four or five times each week. He says skiing here is like dancing: It's graceful. A perennial NASTAR winner whose son was a ski-racing champion for N.C. State, Harris doesn't generally start his on-snow dancing until after noon. "I like my beauty sleep," he says, "and as you can see, I need a lot of it." It's from Harris that I first learn about liver mush.

It is my belief that wherever intelligent people travel on this planet, they should seek out the fabulous secret stuff that others overlook or downright scorn. Be it a type of music, a trail or a dish, experiencing those singular local sensations make traveling worthwhile. I remember the pilsner in Slovakia, the chevre noir in Quebec, the eau de vie in Switzerland. Sadly, regional distinctions are getting harder to find as the Internet-and levision-connected world becomes one.

But the hills of North Carolina still enjoy a distinctive culture and cuisine, and Harris, I can tell, knows the secrets in these parts. I explain to him that I'm in the South with my skis because I'm looking for good barbecue. Harris explains that barbecue around here isn't served with the traditional tomato-based sauce, but with a clearish sauce made from vinegar. How is it? I ask.

In a way that suggests I won't like it, he says, "Twangy." He's right. Then he mentions corn liquor.

Even after Prohibition ended, this part of North Carolina voted to remain dry, and so it also became moonshine territory. Harris says that's why NASCAR flourished here. "Junior Johnson," a NASCAR driver in the 1940s from a town not far away, "got his start driving as fast as he could in the middle of the night with the headlights off."

The area is now wet again (Harris mellifluously pronounces it "whey-at"), but people still keep a jar of white liquor somewhere in their house. Someone has already told me that if I want some, "the judge brings it by every couple of weeks." (The judge?)

I prefer liquor aged in oak barrels for 16 years. So I keep on pressing, and finally Harris delivers: "Well, there's liver mush."

Turns out a few generations back in these parts, when you slaughtered the pigs in fall, you didn't just turn them into ham and bacon. You cooked the liver with a little cornmeal into a delicacy called liver pudding, or liver mush. "You can probably get liver mush right down at the Banner Elk Cafe," Harris tells me.

The next day I head for Beech Mountain, about 10 miles away. The road to Beech twists so ferociously that many tour buses, I'm told, head to Sugar instead. As I climb the stairs to the Beech base lodge, I swear that I can feel the thinness of the air. Beech has less vertical than Sugar and fewer trails, but some people prefer its Swiss-style base area and the ticket deals, like Two-for-Tuesday and Ladies Days. The summit is treed and rounded, but the 5,000-foot altitude has made the hardwoods look like windswept chicken bones.

Beech Mountain's trails are wider than Sugar's, more like boulevards. White Lightning and Southern Star, Beech's two "expert" runs, would probably be blue trails up north. But again, there's that great local-mountain atmosphere: Never-evers from far away in hunter-orange jackets mix happily with hotshot racers. In the cafeteria, they serve a mighty fine chopped-pork barbecue sandwich. But no liver mush.

I have, of course, taken Harris' advice and investigated the Banner Elk Cafe. It looks like the kind of place where you'd find liver mush—wooden walls covered with taxidermy and framed pictures of fishing trips. The menu makes no mention of liver mush, but it does have two kinds of ham: city and country.

City ham is the wet pink stuff any of us can buy in our local supermarket. Country ham is a local thing, salt-cured, air-dried, a little tougher, a little grayer. I like it. Harris calls it "twangy."

But when I ask the waitress, she says she's never even heard of liver mush. She asks the cook, who reports back, "I wish I had some." No one can tell me where to find it. I want to cry.

To ease my disappointment, I decide I need a spa, so someone points me toward the Westglow, about half an hour away in a cute little town called Blowing Rock. This is a resort area for wealthy Southern families escaping the summer heat. Main Street, with its small stone and brick shops, has the look and feel of Nantucket, and seemingly more Oriental rug stores than Kabul. Jan Karon, author of a series of books about an imaginary town called Mitford, based that town on Blowing Rock.

At the Westglow, I experience the fabulous "Grandfather Mountain" treatment, a two-hour massage aided by the heat of polished stones. It was so soothing and serene that for a while my mind drifted off on a visit to both of my grandfathers, one of whom I'd never met. It's a two-hour, out-of-body, legal high.In her first book about Blowing Rock, At Home in Mitford, Karon mentions sampling liver mush at the Main Street Grill. The real-life model for this restaurant, Sonny's Grill, still exists on South Main Street. While searching for a low-carb Atkins lunch after the spa, I notice from the menu in the window that Sonny's serves North Carolina's best-loved breakfast food, liver mush. I have arrived.

Sonny started the place in 1954, and it still has some of that feel: Formica counter, tall stools, soda in bottles, including a local drink called Cheerwine. The owner, a young man named Robbie with a soup-strainer mustache, has achieved fame in certain circles for his biscuits with country ham and sweet-potato pancakes.

Robbie doesn't just cook. He presides. He warns me to move to a table in the corner, because when the school bus pulls up, the place'll be overrun with kids. He tells another customer whose cell phone rings, "Can't you put that in your truck?" The guy does. On the wall he's got a bigger collection than I do of plaques with cutesy sayings: "I'll tell you why I came home half drunk—I ran out of money." "The rooster may crow, but the hen delivers the goods." "Prices subject to change according to customer's attitude."

Robbie says, "Just yesterday I had a big liver mush sandwich, with cheese, egg, lettuce, mayo and tomato on toasted bread." Finally it arrives, a grill-fried slice of blended pork liver, cornmeal and spices that Robbie calls the "poor boy's pà¢té." And it is, of course, sublime—a little crunchy, a little corny, a lot of smooth, like a cross between scrapple and foie gras.

I think I've found the Holy Grail. And I've been reminded yet again why we travel. Whistler may have more vertical than North Carolina, and Alta more untracked lines. But in neither place would I get to hear an elderly man on the stool next to me lean over and say, "I eat liver mush, ever' darned day. Leads to long life, a sanguine disposition and a full head of hair. And I'll tell you what else—as a marital aid, it's better than Viagra."

For more pictures click on the slideshow and checkout the Liver Mush and Signpost subarticles below.r, out-of-body, legal high.In her first book about Blowing Rock, At Home in Mitford, Karon mentions sampling liver mush at the Main Street Grill. The real-life model for this restaurant, Sonny's Grill, still exists on South Main Street. While searching for a low-carb Atkins lunch after the spa, I notice from the menu in the window that Sonny's serves North Carolina's best-loved breakfast food, liver mush. I have arrived.

Sonny started the place in 1954, and it still has some of that feel: Formica counter, tall stools, soda in bottles, including a local drink called Cheerwine. The owner, a young man named Robbie with a soup-strainer mustache, has achieved fame in certain circles for his biscuits with country ham and sweet-potato pancakes.

Robbie doesn't just cook. He presides. He warns me to move to a table in the corner, because when the school bus pulls up, the place'll be overrun with kids. He tells another customer whose cell phone rings, "Can't you put that in your truck?" The guy does. On the wall he's got a bigger collection than I do of plaques with cutesy sayings: "I'll tell you why I came home half drunk—I ran out of money." "The rooster may crow, but the hen delivers the goods." "Prices subject to change according to customer's attitude."

Robbie says, "Just yesterday I had a big liver mush sandwich, with cheese, egg, lettuce, mayo and tomato on toasted bread." Finally it arrives, a grill-fried slice of blended pork liver, cornmeal and spices that Robbie calls the "poor boy's pà¢té." And it is, of course, sublime—a little crunchy, a little corny, a lot of smooth, like a cross between scrapple and foie gras.

I think I've found the Holy Grail. And I've been reminded yet again why we travel. Whistler may have more vertical than North Carolina, and Alta more untracked lines. But in neither place would I get to hear an elderly man on the stool next to me lean over and say, "I eat liver mush, ever' darned day. Leads to long life, a sanguine disposition and a full head of hair. And I'll tell you what else—as a marital aid, it's better than Viagra."

For more pictures click on the slideshow and checkout the Liver Mush and Signpost subarticles below.

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