Poppa

I count myself very lucky to have grown up in a family that really cared about good food. The person at the center of this appreciation was my maternal grandfather. His name was Charlie Upchurch, but all his grandchildren called him Poppa. He was born in 1890, either in Raleigh or in a small town close to Raleigh. His father was a farmer who eventually became a cotton broker. Having grown up on a farm, Poppa understood flavor and seasonality, and how the two go together. Lucky for me, his house was a ten minute bike ride from my house. I would go to see him almost every afternoon when I got home from school, sometimes biking directly from school to his house. My house seemed decidedly boring compared to his. He was always taking delivery of large quantities of apples, oranges, grapefruits, pecans. When I would arrive, I would immediately go to the kitchen, where there was all kinds of action. And then I’d head into the den to have a chat with Poppa. My mother Julia Upchurch was his youngest child, and from my vantage point, his favorite. I’ve had two daughters myself, and no sons, but fathers and daughters seem to have a special connection, and my mother was his only daughter. His nickname for my mother was DoBug, or sometimes JuBug. He always wanted to send me home with something for DoBug. And he would always pack up the latest shipment of whatever he thought was best. Then he would tell me the story about the apple, orange, the sourwood honey, the Stuart pecans, so that I could relay the story to my mom when I got home. I loved these stories, and really, this is the model that I used at Wellspring Grocery: finding and procuring exceptionally flavorful food and telling the story for customers to then buy and enjoy the food when they got home. Poppa always bought things in larger quantities. He wanted enough to give away to his family and friends. He had a root cellar in the basement where he could store the country ham, the citrus, the apples. With a shelf there for the sourwood honey, pickled beets, homemade jams and relishes – some of which were made in his kitchen. There was always an interesting cook who was in charge in that kitchen.

On Friday nights, my mom and dad would pack up my brother Doug and I and deliver us to Diddy and Poppa’s house for an overnight. So I was able to eat two meals with Poppa – Dinner Friday night and breakfast Saturday morning.

One thing that I noticed early on was that if the peaches were good, he would have them both Friday night and Saturday morning. The same with his favorite fish – mackerel from the coast. Friday night supper with vegetables, Saturday morning breakfast with grits and eggs. I’m not sure how he managed to get fresh fish from the NC coast to Charlotte, NC, but he did.
He would excitedly tell me ‘The mackerel are running, and we got some nice, fresh mackerel for dinner tonight…’

It’s a curious thing to me that my grandfather’s favorite fish was mackerel, and I can understand why my mother’s favorite fish is mackerel, and even maybe why I like mackerel so much – but my daughter Gillian, who never met Poppa, would also list mackerel as maybe her favorite fish, and always orders it when available at restaurants. Could there be something genetic that predisposes my family to love of mackerel? I don’t know, but it’s interesting to think about.

Poppa loved baseball. And Charlotte had a minor league team called the Hornets. He would often take me to the games on Friday night, and we would usually go out to dinner before the game. If the restaurant was too crowded, we’d have to make do with peanuts and a hotdog at the game. But one of the restaurants that I distinctly remember going to multiple times was called The Drum on East Boulevard in Charlotte. It had a big neon sign of someone in a marching band playing the drum. Poppa thought they had good fried chicken when they did it right. He would always tell the server just how he wanted his chicken – he didn’t want it overcooked, and told them if it was he’d send it back – which I saw him do more than once. He would say he wanted the chicken breast moist, not hard and stiff (a result of too long in the fryer).

Back to the Charlotte Hornets, some years he would travel to Florida to watch spring training before the season began, and on these trips he did a lot of research about citrus. There was a type of orange from Florida called a Temple that was his favorite. I once asked a citrus grower from California if he’d ever had a Florida Temple. And he said ‘Sure, it’s the most excotic flavor of all the citrus fruits.’ I had Poppa to thank for my knowledge of the fruit, which impressed the grower in California. This guy had never met anybody that had even heard of a Temple orange.

Poppa, or CW as his friends called him, was very specific about variety and location when it came to food. Which variety and which locale produced the most flavorful peach, apple, etc. He loved pecans, and I have a vivid memory of sitting in the den with him, where he took pride at being able to crack a pecan in a way that he could pull both sides of the nutmeat out whole. He then would take instruments that I think he got from a dentist friend to remove the bitter inner membrane. After he set it up right, he’d hand it to me to eat. These pecans were from Georgia, and the variety was Stuart. He liked the flavor and the thin shell that allowed for this expert cracking and extraction.

Poppa’s vocation was selling cars. Before my time, he sold luxury American cars: Packard, and the Pearce Arrow. After both of those car companies went out of business, he started with European cars: Reynaud and Peugeot from France, and Mercedes from Germany. His dealership, which was called C.W. Upchurch, was in downtown Charlotte. Because they didn’t have dealerships like his in other parts of NC, if people wanted the kind of cars he sold they had to come to Charlotte. I have a memory of being there with him and as was his practice, he didn’t ask the usual question my father and other men tended to ask when they first met someone, ‘What do you do?’. Instead, he would say his name and then ask his new acquaintance ‘Where are you from?’ After finding out where the new potential customer was from, if they said they were from somewhere in the western part of the state he would talk to them about apples. He’d tell them his favorite variety and ask them what theirs was. If they were from south of Charlotte he would talk about peaches. He used his knowledge of food to break the ice and to maybe learn something he didn’t already know.

There’s another fond memory I have about a summer meal he designed around the summer tomatoes, and a variety of green bean called the half runner. He called this meal the Juicy Bite, and I’ve written an essay about the meal. In the fall of the year, he waited for his favorite apple, a Stayman Winesap, to come before we’d have apple pie on Sunday after lunch. So many people never had any homemade apple pie, but rather just the frozen one from the supermarket.

Growing up with Poppa, I not only got to have homemade apple pie, but a pie made with the specific variety of apple he felt like had enough fruit acid to balance the sweetness and make the best pie.

My grandmother, Priscilla Poteat Upchurch, wasn’t much interested in food, and spent her time with literature, opera, and planning her next trip. She wasn’t much of a cook, but she did make two things: pound cake and a cheese spread served on crackers before dinner. It was a pimento cheese of sorts.

I don’t want lower prices

I continue to get questions about the Amazon acquisition of Whole Foods Market – A company I spent from the late 70s to 2001 working full time to build into the company it became. My first year at WFM the sales were 140 million. The year I left, they were 2.2 billion. My M.O. was to push in every way I knew how to improve quality of product and customer service. But the company who owns all the stores now is all about price and convenience. While Amazon is busy figuring out how they can deliver products to your car without the keys, I wish there was someone working with that same amount of effort towards improving the quality of the products in the store. But it’s my intuition that Amazon is more interested in the real estate of WFM, strategic locations in every major market in the country, than the grocery business. I received a direct mail promotional flyer last week promising new low prices on items in the bulk bins. Hey Amazon, I’m not interested in lower prices – I want better, fresher products in the bulk bins! With all the different food companies using low price as a way to position their company and get people in the door (Costco, Wal-Mart, Food Lion, Sam’s Club, and every other supermarket chain) doesn’t it make sense for one company to sell on the highest quality??

Here’s a quote I used to inform my strategy during my retail food days:

“It’s unwise to pay too much, but it’s worse to pay too little. When
you pay too much, you lose a little money – that’s all. When you pay
too little, you sometimes lose everything, because the thing you
bought was incapable of doing the thing it was bought to do. The
common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a
lot – it can’t be done. If you deal with the lowest bidder, it is well
to add something for the risk you run, and if you do that you will
have enough to pay for something better.” – John Ruskin

Here’s a story that illustrates that point: I had a dinner party a long time ago, but I can still remember it vividly. I decided to make a lamb and white bean stew. The meal was in the cold-weather months, and I decided that a slow-braised lamb stew would be good on a cold evening – and I could do it ahead of time so I could visit with the guests instead of doing a lot of last minute work in the kitchen. But the white beans were old, and wouldn’t cook back to a buttery bite – even with soaking and hours and hours of simmering. I would have been happy to pay a little more for fresh beans – because all the money I spent on the lamb, chopping the vegetables, etc were lost – because one of the ingredients of my stew was not capable of doing what I bought it to do – because it was old. Old beans don’t make you sick – they’re just not capable of being pleasurable at the table.
The next time I was in the store a few days later, I mentioned to the highest ranking member of the team I could find ‘Look, I know you’re going to give me my money back but that’s not what I want. All my time, and my meal was spoiled because your beans were no good. I’d rather not have my money back and have you fix the problem.’ But anybody at the store level can’t fix that problem.
There was some talk that Amazon, being so good at logistics, could fix things like this at Whole Foods, and I’m sure hoping that will happen. And really, that’s some of my motivation for writing this.
When you’re in the food business, you hear a lot of people talk about quality control. I think you need to work towards quality improvement – you’ll be sure that the quality will not decline if you’re always trying to make it better.