By Jo Ann Holt
We enjoyed a large dose of Southern hospitality on a recent visit to Johnston County in North Carolina. We explored the area with a local tour guide, vivacious Ashby Brame. A Johnston County (JoCo) native, Ashby now works with the Visitors Bureau. My husband and I joined a small group of travel writers to tour some of Ashby’s favorite sites.
One memorable stop was at the Ava Gardner Museum in Smithfield. Created by a longtime fan, Dr. Tom Banks (a local boy who met Ava when she was an older college student) the lovingly maintained museum opened in 2000. They have a wealth of costumes on display from movies like “The Barefoot Contessa” and “Showboat,” plus video and a library filled with portraits.
The glamorous movie star was the youngest of seven children, born in nearby Grabtown on Christmas Eve, 1922. Ava’s photograph, on display at her brother-in-law’s NYC studio, led to an MGM screen test in 1941.
MGM hired the 18-year-old starlet as a contract worker for $50 a week. While her early movies made little impression, her three marriages to famous men made headlines. Ava’s first marriages (to Mickey Rooney and Bandleader Artie Shaw) only last a year.
She married the love of her life, singing idol Frank Sinatra, in 1951. Although they divorced in 1957, “People” Magazine pronounced them one of the “Romances of the Century.” Until her 1990 death, Sinatra sent Ava her favorite roses every Christmas Eve.
Although she traveled and lived all over the world, including stays in Madrid and London, Ava never forgot her rural roots. She returned often to visit friends and family in Johnston County, and is buried in the Smithfield Cemetery.
The JoCo tour was aptly titled “Beer, Wine, Shine & Dine.” We sampled bodacious amounts of all the above. From craft beer distilleries to wineries to a modern-day moonshine distillery, we met entrepreneurial dispensers of true Southern hospitality.
Traveling by party bus from place to place, we sampled Muscadine grape wines at Hinnant’s Vineyards. The family-owned winery features several Ava tribute wines like Santa’s Baby and Ava’s Allure along with their gold award-winning Electric Pelican.
We feasted on delicious crab cakes in Clayton, where Chef Howard Mannings specializes in “regional Carolina dishes with a modern twist.” At Broadslab Distillery, owned and operated by Jeremy Norris, we feasted on fabulous barbecue by Redneck Bar-BQ Lab. The family-owned caterers, frequent competition winners, recently opened their own restaurant.
Pulled pork, ribs, brisket, chicken and turkey, expertly sauced and grilled, were mouth-watering. Sides were collards, cornbread, slaw, and baked beans with cheesecake piled high with berries for dessert.
First we sampled a little “shine,” which will easily clear out any sinus problems. Norris, descendant of five generations of moonshiners, took over his grandfather’s farming and distilling operation. He controls every step of the 100-year-old operation from “dirt to bottle.”
Other tour stops included “Revival 1869, a Drinkery,”in downtown Clayton. They use Norris’ moonshine in some of their cocktails. At Deep River, JoCo’s first legal brewery, we enjoyed a tasting in their taproom. I fell for the watermelon beer.
Dinner by Simple Twist Catering combined beer pairings at Double Barley Brewing. Specializing in dark brews, Double Barley shares space with chocolatiers GerDan Chocolates. A decadent chocolate dessert proved a perfect finish to the farm-fresh food.
My favorite take-away from Johnston County was the terrific cooperation everyone shared. Not only did they dispense hospitality to us, they lovingly support each other. Every place we visited used local produce, beers, wines or moonshine, all while raving about the other places.
To arrange your own Johnston County tour, visit beerwineshinetrail.com. Better go hungry!