On first glance, Saxapahaw, a tiny town of maybe 1100 folks nestled in a bend of the Haw River in Alamance County, NC, seems just like any other small town in the rural south. Drive into town from the east, and there’s a gas station on your left. Except instead of “Texaco,” a banner proclaims it “Saxaco.” Local color you guess, and you head into the general store to grab some Slim Jims. Except they don’t have any. Fine. It’s hot out, so you go to the freezer section to find an Eskimo Pie or something, but all they have is locally made ice cream and freezer pops. And it begins to dawn on you that maybe you aren’t in Kansas anymore.
Sure, you can get pet food: organic. Cleaning supplies: environmentally friendly. Condiments: organic ketchup and locally made pickles. There are bins of produce–produce!–in the aisles. And the tags don’t just say “potatoes.” They tell you where they come from and how they were grown. You can tell because the folks at the Saxapahaw General Store want you to know where you food comes from.
Not only that, they want to prepare it for you. Where your run of the mill general store might sell you a bright red hot dog or maybe a frozen burrito microwaved to order, the fine folks working the grill in Saxapahaw will make you a steak and blue cheese salad–made from local beef, housemade dressing and local organic greens.
The Beloved and I made a pilgrimage to Saxapahaw after reading about it in this New York Times article. The old mill, shuttered in 1994, is enjoying a renaissance. As a store. As a school. As a pub and music venue. As a place to live. So we kind of knew what to expect. But what I didn’t expect was to be so moved by the experience. That might sound kind of strange, but I am telling you, the sandwich I ate on the outdoor patio moved me to tears. Was it the best sandwich ever? Quite possibly. But it was the most intentional sandwich I’ve ever had.
I had pastrami and swiss on rye. The beef was locally and humanely raised and house-cured. The onions were local and caramelized. The bread–a hearty rye liberally salted with caraway–was substantial and gorgeous. And I know that the folks who assembled my sandwich, and every plate of food that sails across the pass at the Saxapahaw General Store made it with love and with the intention of showing me and everyone who walks through the door what food is supposed to be. What it can be when it is treated with care and reverence. When the animals live happy lives and are free to roam, not because it is cost-effective but because it is the right thing to do.
A runner served me my sandwich, and I was actively grateful for it. For the life of the cow who died so that I could eat. For the care with which the food was prepared. For the beautiful day we had to enjoy. I bit into it, into the glistening meat with whole peppercorns still clinging to it, into the sweet and deeply-flavored onions, their edges curling, crisp and brown, into the hearty bread with its bursts of almost minty caraway, and I teared right up. As I chewed, the flavors mingled and seemed to expand. And I cried. I really did.
This sandwich was like worship. When so much love, care, attention and intention is poured into food, it is passed on to anyone who eats it. I could feel it, and I was humbled and grateful.
Our visit to Saxapahaw lasted all day and involved a River Walk, a flight of local beers and a local cheese plate at The Eddy Pub–all fantastic, by the way, but that sandwich was the highlight. If you live in central North Carolina, or if you are coming to visit, please put Saxapahaw on your list. And please make sure to eat at the general store and find out for yourself what effect their brand of Intentional Cooking has on you.
From the back of Saxapahaw General Store’s Menu:
At Saxapahaw General Store, we know that local economies help build strong communities. And every healthy community needs a market–a place to meet friends, to find everyday provisions, and to be nourished.
For that reason, we provide the village of Saxapahaw with hearty, soulful food, a caring and familiar environment, and a selection of products that serves the whole community’s everyday needs.
From the front of the menu:
We use local chicken, pork, and beef from farms whose practices we support. We source local produce where available, and 90% of our produce is organically grown.
And from their website:
We are a freedom of choice store where all are welcome. We provide as much local food as possible while also supporting other sustainable production methods. We provide service as a higher calling.
More images from our day in Saxapahaw: