Livers & Gizzards: Our Time at the Golden Skillet

By Eliza Williams, 2014

We dropped our bags in the room and collapsed onto the bed. After a long day of driving and seeking out the best of the best in the three towns we visited along Highway 64 Taylor and I were tired, but most importantly – hungry. Knowing nothing about the town of Plymouth where we stopped for the night, the two of us slugged our way back to the front desk to consult our new friend, Matt, for any viable dining suggestions. With a small variety available to us, we hopped in the car and drove down the road to the Golden Skillet, a restaurant that caters to Southern cuisine, however strange it may be.

Inspired by a recent class in which we had watched an episode of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, I decided I was putting my taste buds to the test. Slowly, we approached the cashier, a jovial high-school age girl with a Southern twang name Phyllis. Not having a clue what half of the dishes on the menu were, Phyllis gave us some advice on some of the locals’ favorites. A Maryland native, and lover of seafood of course, Taylor chose a “fish n’ chips” meal – far from the British version, I would venture to say. When I asked what “livers and gizzards” were, Phyllis was stunned that neither of us had never heard of livers and gizzards, one of the menu options. After a while of indecisive banter with Phyllis and Taylor, I threw the towel in and chose something that was as foreign to me as it’s name indicated – Livers and Gizzards.

Now, I would like to think I know a thing or two about cuisine; however, I really had no idea what had just come out of my mouth, let alone, what I had consciously decided to dine on that evening. From the title I gathered that livers would be appearing on my plate along with…gizzards? Whatever those are.

Phyllis kindly told us that she would bring us our food when it was ready, and so we went to a table with enough space for us to spread out and work on transcribing our notes for the day. Surely enough, Phyllis appeared not too long after with a tray of food. Taylor dug in without any hesitation. I, on the other hand, examined my food for a minute but then, realizing that I had chosen this path for myself, picked up one of the fried “chicken parts,” as I later learned they were, and took a bite. It had a soft and chewy texture and looked as though it was darker meat than the other pieces scattering my plate. The taste was somewhat bitter and I decided that it was not my favorite. Without being able to tell a true difference, I picked up another larger piece. By examining it it appeared to me that this was a lighter meat. Not only were my instincts on spot but this piece was so tough to eat that Taylor had about finished her meal when I was barely half way done!

The Golden Skillet

Our kind friend Phyllis came over to check on how we were liking our food and educated me on which were the livers and which were the gizzards. The gizzards, as it turned out, were the more tough pieces; I assumed that they were comprised mostly of some sort of muscle from the chicken. Apparently the gizzard is a part of the chicken that is found in its throat, hence all the muscle. The livers are, well, you can guess. I don’t know how they acquire these “parts” but all I can say is thank goodness they fry them because I don’t know how anyone would willingly put them in their mouth otherwise. While I wasn’t a huge fan of the livers, the gizzards were not terrible – despite the fact that it took me about 15 minutes to eat two full ones. This new food experience made my admiration for Anthony Bourdain much, much greater. Perhaps I was not a huge fan of livers and gizzards but, I’m still alive so, that says something. Right?

If you are in the area and looking for a great place to try some foods foreign to your taste buds, check out the Golden Skillet in Plymouth, NC. Ask for Phyllis – I’m sure she’ll remember us.

Garden Spot Cafe and Bar

By Noah Manneville, 2013

At midday on the Friday in October when we arrived in Plymouth, the town seemed to be at a standstill. Every door was shut and locked, and the only signs of life were outside the town hall and the police precinct. We had stopped in downtown Plymouth to find a bite to eat, but were disappointed to find the town empty. Just as we were about to leave to find a fast food joint, we passed a building with a sign reading “The Garden Spot.” I peered in through the window and noticed a young man looking back at me. Just as I was about to break the awkward eye contact by walking to the car, the man strode over to the door, opened it, and said we should come back in a few minutes when they opened. Instead of making us stand on the front porch while the restaurant prepared to open, he asked us what we were doing in Plymouth, and suggested we check out the Port ‘O Plymouth maritime museum down the road. After wandering through the museum (which was closed, except for the pier where a replica of a Civil War era ironside was moored) we returned to The Garden Spot and took a seat by the window.

The restaurant was cozy- I faced a mural of a garden scene that featured quotes encouraging good living. The young man introduced himself as Hunter Askew, a native to Plymouth and a waiter at The Garden Spot. After taking our orders, we sat enjoying sweet teas while scanning the quiet street outside the window.

Askew, wearing an Orange Slice soda tee shirt, answered all our questions about Plymouth. After learning we were writers, he offered to introduce us to his father Dennis, the manager of the Domtar Paper Mill, which is the largest employer in Eastern North Carolina. Shortly after this conversation, our food arrived. Both plates looked delicious. I had fried flounder and grilled lemon pepper scallops with a side of red skin potato salad and hush puppies. The cocktail sauce and the tartar sauce were both homemade, which added to my delight. My classmate, with whom I was traveling, ordered the flounder as well, with grilled shrimp and fried okra. The Southern comfort food was filling and flavorful, and despite being a Northerner and having post-unhealthy meal guilt instilled in my very psyche, I had to stop myself from ordering seconds.

After eating, we decided to tour the upstairs bar. Exiting the café, we took a left and turned the corner. A fried oyster was drawn on the wall next to a stairwell that led to the second floor of the building. At the top of the stairs was a small art gallery, and past that the walls opened up to the Garden Spot Oyster Bar. Grabbing two seats at the empty bar, we were greeted by Tim, a local to Plymouth who had spent most of his life in New Jersey. Being the only customers at the time, Tim struck up a conversation with us. I told him where we were from, and he reciprocated. I ordered a dozen oysters, which Tim shucked at the bar while telling us about his personal friendship with First Lady Michelle Obama that had formed while he was bartending in New Jersey. “She sure loved to dance,” Tim said. “She was a great dancer.”

Locals began to trickle into the bar around six o’clock, at which point I pushed back from the bar, satisfied with a belly full of seafood and beer. Before the room filled, we paid the tab and thanked Tim and Hunter. Though Plymouth itself seemed asleep, by the time we left the Garden Spot bar it was as lively as any big city restaurant. I couldn’t help but feel that perhaps I had not given people in Plymouth as much credit as they deserved. Though the streets were empty, the people in the Garden Spot seemed at home.

Domtar Paper Mill

By Noah Manneville and Dannie Cooper, 2013

The Domtar Paper Mill in Plymouth, NC has been and continues to be the largest and most important source of income for Washington County over the past century. Opened in 1937 by the North Carolina Pulp Company, the mill itself has changed hands twice in its long history, having been bought by Weyerhaeuser in 1957 and then Domtar in 2007. At its peak, the mill employed over 2,000 people, (practically half of the population of Plymouth) making it the largest employer in Washington County, which it continues to be despite cutting down to just 450 employees.

The current mill manager, Dennis Askew, has been working at the Plymouth mill for 25 years and was promoted to manager five years ago. Dennis was born and raised in Plymouth. He met his wife, Lisa, in high school. “We were high school and college sweethearts,” she says. At age 19, Dennis began working at the mill, working part-time while studying civil engineering at North Carolina State University. Lisa studied politics at Campbell University, and then at the University of South Carolina Beaufort where she majored in nursing. They married in 1987 after graduating from college, and moved back to Plymouth, where Dennis continued to work at the mill while Lisa found a job in home health.

As we drove around the mill, Dennis’ knowledge and experience became evident. The way he describes the mill’s process makes it seem like he has held every job in the plant. He often highlights the extent of modernization in the mill, taking special pride in the mill’s most recent production highlight- lignin, a complex chemical compound that has potential as a fossil fuel alternative. Dennis explained that the mill itself no longer makes paper; it now produces two main products for sale. The first is fluff pulp, wood that has been chopped into chips, soaked in water, bleached, and dehydrated. The fluff pulp is used in feminine hygiene products, diapers, disposable medical gowns, and sanitary cleaning pads, such as the ones companies like Swiffer use. Most of the fluff pulp is exported through the Norfolk port in Virginia, where the Domtar mill enjoys the title of the port’s largest exporter.

The mill uses Loblolly Pine trees, the same tree that can be seen planted universally around the mill grounds to make all its products. About 300 loaded trucks pass through the mill every day, each carrying about four tons of un-stripped lumber. The wood is all local; trees felled for processing at the mill come from within 100 miles of the plant. Upon arriving at the plant, the trees are debarked in a rotating steel drum before being passed along a conveyor belt to be either processed immediately or removed and stacked in piles reaching over fifty feet tall. The bark and sap from the trees is retained and then burned to make electricity, which means that the mill produces no waste and converts enough thermal energy to remain entirely self-sufficient. In fact, the process is so efficient and there is such a large volume of material that the mill is able to sell excess energy back to the state power grid.

“Working in the home health field, I can see the demand for the products the mill makes,” said Lisa, who noted that disposable medical gowns were in high demand in her field. But this isn’t Lisa’s only tie to the mill. Lisa’s father and grandfather also worked in the mill. “Without the mill, the town would not survive,” Lisa said. She described Plymouth lovingly, but feared that the historic town was dying as places like the Domtar mill became less reliant on manpower and more computerized. It’s no wonder she feels this way either.  With her grandmother, parents, and her family including her twin sons, Hunter and Chance, all living in Plymouth, the future of the mill affects her entire family, as well as their beloved hometown.