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Orders for soothing homestyle foods surge in local eateries
AP

Orders for soothing homestyle foods surge in local eateries

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Michael Leroy Darity Jr. couldn’t keep wings in the house.

More accurately, he couldn’t keep them stocked on his food truck, Daddy D’s on Wheels, on the first wing night at Hendersonville’s Dry Falls Brewing Co.

“At first, we were getting bombarded with wing orders and so we started running out of wings,” said Darity, who operates the wheeled outpost of the beloved Daddy D’s Suber Soulfood in Hendersonville.

Faced with ordering from the rest of the menu, a whirlwind tour of southern food that includes baked mac and cheese, candied yams, banana pudding and fried fish platters, the crowd found a new favorite.

“This past Wednesday,” Darity said, “we ran out of the fried pork chops first.”

In four hours the truck served 80-100 people. Darity thinks that’s in part because the power of comfort food is so strong.

“It can turn your worst day to your best day,” he said. “I’ve seen it time and time again — you see people frustrated with how long the food is taking, with endless other problems, and a good plate of food can change your attitude.”

In Asheville, other restaurant owners are finding comfort food to be a strong customer pull in pandemic times.

At Vivian in the River Arts District, co-owner Shannon McGaughey said a relatively new fried chicken meal, which used to be available only one day a week, is so popular she’s had to expand its availability for takeout to Thursday-Saturday.

She credit’s the kitchen’s virtuosity with fried chicken, but also the fact that nostalgic comfort food hits a sweet spot in the pandemic.

“There’s definitely some people who say, ‘I’ve had the worst week ever and I just need this to make me happy,‘” she said. “There’s not a time crispy, salty chicken is not going to cheer you up when you’re stressed.”

MUSCLE MEMORY OF COMFORT FOOD

Sometimes, Darity said, people treat his menu, packed with recipes handed down for generations, as a genuine revelation.

That’s particularly true for those who have never had anything but stovetop mac and cheese, as sometimes happens with northern-born tourists.

Others say southern soul food reminds them of home, as was the case with one man who ordered a fried fish plate with double macaroni and cheese and devoured it in his car.

“When he was leaving, he rolled his window down and said ‘That mac and cheese was the best I’ve had in my life and it reminds me of when I was little,’” Darity recalled. “And he still had a little mac and cheese on his face because he was just tearing through it.”

Darity uses his grandmother’s applesauce recipe and innumerable others from his great-grandmother, aunt and other relatives. He think knowledge of comfort food can settle right in your body like muscle memory.

When he came up short-staffed one day, Darity was forced to cook himself. He worried he wouldn’t be able to pull it off, even though he’d eaten, worked and lived around those very recipes his whole life.

“I was so nervous — are people going to be upset?,” he said. But all of the customers left happy, he said. “At the end of the day, I came to realize, hey maybe it is in my DNA.”

WINNER, WINNER CHICKEN DINNER

At Vivian, McGaughey said fried chicken nights were originally intended to pull in a few extra customers. It was also a way to fully acknowledge the Southern spirit laced throughout an otherwise European menu.

“We wanted a Southern special to put the menu and tried out a couple, and it became abundantly clear people were for the fried chicken,” she said. “It was a winner.”

Pre-pandemic takeout sales were negligible, she said, but with dining rooms either closed or at varying degrees of capacity in 2020, finding ways to pull in extra income became crucial.

She and her husband chef Josiah McGaughey tried selling a variety of homey comfort foods items, including sandwiches and hot wings.

“But the fried chicken — it was like, ‘When can I get more? Why is this not in my house right now?’” Shannon McGaughey said laughing.

Customers emailed constantly clamoring for more and, when Buncombe County ordered restaurants to 30% capacity, fried chicken lovers scored a win.

Now, the meals, which include three cuts of bird, mashed potatoes and bacon gravy, slaw and a buttery biscuit, are available for takeout Thursday-Saturday, with a fried chicken biscuit served for Sunday brunch. Dine-in customers can only have the meal on Thursdays.

“It’s crazy,” said McGaughey. “Some days I look at our to-go sales and think, ‘Dear god, that’s all chicken.‘”

Now, she said, fried chicken represents a quarter of all sales.

What’s the secret? McGaughey said it’s time, attention to detail and a commitment to make even the most common of comfort food sing.

“And super buttery mashed potatoes and bacon gravy and a big buttery biscuit doesn’t hurt the situation as well,” she said.

Vivian is at 348 Depot St.

THE SWEET SIDE OF COMFORT FOOD

Christian Watts’ 10th Muse Comfort Food restaurant wears its mission right on its marquee.

Through a takeout window, Watts serves over-the-top sweets like chocolate chip bubble waffles topped with cookie butter and ice cream sundaes garnished with Chaco Tacos, all in the name of comfort.

During the pandemic, Watts has noticed a trend: people who miss going to fairs are stopping by for funnel cake and deep-fried oreos.

“People get excited about those little things,” he said. “I know that smell is so closely tied to memory. We smell things that have a distinct flavor — like funnel cake and the smell of the deep fryer — and it connects you to places you enjoy like the carnival.”

Sweets, he said, are particularly comforting to people who want to eat their feelings, and there’s no shortage of that going on as the pandemic lingers, cancelling joyful gatherings like concerts and parties.

“You always have savory food, but sweets are something that many associate with a special indulgence, something just for me,” said Watts.

In a time when many have shared space with their families under one roof for so long, having something all to yourself can be a treat all its own.

10th Muse Comfort Food is at 1475 Patton Ave.

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