Revolution in Durham dining

Chapel Hill, North Carolina

The crazy success of WD-50 in New York — that wild and renowned molecular gastronomy dining destination led by mad scientist and chef Wylie Dufresne — has led to an onslaught of imitators, of which even North Carolina has not been spared. Foams and funky flavors are all the rage and a hot restaurant in Durham, simply called Revolution, has received acclaimed reviews for its ingredient-sourcing and innovative cooking techniques since opening last year.

This we had to check out.

Revolution is on Durham’s desolate, and somewhat depressing, main drag. Step inside the doors and you’re transported into a clean and modern space. There’s a bustling bar area and lots of dark gray and white. Flat screen televisions sit on the walls, broadcasting not a Duke basketball game (thank goodness) but instead the real source of the evening’s actions: the kitchen.

The menu came with a giant paperclip and after investigating our options, we agreed that our best bet to the meal was a tapas-like approach: three from the raw/chilled section and the same number of small plates. After hearing which dishes we were interested in, our waitress suggested the best order in which they should be served. We nodded and told her to bring it on.

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First up was Ahi tuna with wasabi caviar, cucumber and greens. Topped with crispy fried onions and an over-easy egg, this was a spicy and flavorful plate. Charlotte thought the wasabi was overbearing; for me, it was just right though.

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We followed this with cured parma ham with baby arugula, almonds and preserved orange. There were some sliced figs, too, whose sweetness balanced the saltiness of the aged meat. Stuffed in slices of a warm baguette, this was a winner.

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Next was Revolution’s signature dish, haystack shrimp with lemon-basil aioli. It was hard to determine what the haystack itself was made out of — crunchy, thin shavings that covered the shrimp — although the sweet sauce tasted a little funky with the basil.

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Our eyes bulged as two gigantic diver scallops with fava beans, pork belly and mint emulsion were placed in front of us. This was by far the best dish of the night. Buttery scallops, fatty belly and some mint. A bizarre but creative and delicious concoction.

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We were starting to get full as our Asian-inspired Chinese BBQ pork with shrimp & lobster dumplings. The meat was tender and well-seasoned and the dumplings overflowing.

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By the time our last dish arrived — beef tips in sherry & goat cheese with shitake mushrooms and bruschetta – we were reaching capacity. But it took far too much discipline to stop.

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Revolution served up some of the best food that we’ve had in the Triangle. It was refreshing to see chefs here pushing the envelope and stepping outside the Deep Fried and Bacon Southern Comfort Zone. While the flavors were generally quite unique, we would have liked to see more of that creativity in the presentation.

Could this Revolution compete with Wylie’s WD-50? Not a chance.

But here in Carolina, it’s clear why this spot is causing such a stir – and why the name does indeed live up to its high expectations.

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The gift of cake

Chapel Hill, North Carolina

When Charlotte asked me what kind of cake I’d like for my birthday, it didn’t really require much thought.

It was time to bring back the Lemon-Orange Citrus Angel Cake. A family recipe, she first baked it — and subsequently won my heart — a few years back. Since then, Charlotte has stopped eating most dairy so this time around, modified the simple recipe, using margarine instead of butter. How did it taste? As usual, amazing.

Cake ingredients:
1 1/4 cup egg whites
1 1/2 tsp cream of tartar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 cup sugar
1 cup cake flour
4 egg yokes
1 tbs grated orange peel
2 tsp grated lemon peel

Cake cooking steps:
(1) Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
(2) Grate orange and lemon peel.

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(3) In large bowl, mix egg whites, cream of tartar, and salt. Beat until soft peaks form.

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(4) Slowly add sugar, beating at high speed until stiff, glossy peaks form.

(5) Reduce speed to low and beat in flower until just mixed.

(6) In another large bowl at high speed, beat yolks until thick and lemon colored.

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(7) Then, mix in half of egg white mixture, orange, and lemon peel. Mix in second half.

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(8) In 10 inch circular pan (like that used for angel food cake), dish in heaping tablespoons of both mixtures in to form a checker pattern.

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(9) Bake 35 to 40 minutes. Cool completely.

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Frosting ingredients:
1 1/2 cup powdered sugar
3/4 cup butter (softened)
3 egg yokes
1/8 tsp salt
2 tbs grated orange peel
4 tsp grated lemon peel

(10) In large mixing bowl, beat together on medium speed beat all ingredients until fluffy.
(11) Ice cake, slice and inhale.

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36 Hours in the Research Triangle

Chapel Hill, North Carolina

In planning my frequent travels, I’ve come to rely on a variety of resources.

Most importantly, are people — either those who have visited the places that I’m heading, or better yet, live there. After speaking with them, there are the more traditional targets: TripAdvisor for hotel reviews; Kayak for airfares; Lonely Planet for destinations and sights. One of my most frequently referenced guides though is the New York Times, which I’d argue has the best daily paper travel section in the country.

Every week, the Times puts out a recurring feature, “36 Hours” in which it offers up a weekend-long itinerary of a destination around the globe. You can imagine my excitement then when earlier this summer, it focused it sights right here in the Research Triangle. Would its reporter be able to dig up neighborhood Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill spots and point visitors in the right direction?

Over a 36 hour period, appropriately enough, we set out to investigate.

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What they said: Anyone who has visited the Met or the Getty might scoff at the relatively succinct collection at the North Carolina Museum of Art (2110 Blue Ridge Road, Raleigh; 919-839-6262). But the lack of tour bus crowds means unfettered access to the Old Masters and contemporary heavyweights like Anselm Kiefer. The real treat is the adjacent Museum Park, more than 164 acres of open fields and woodlands punctuated by environmental art like Cloud Chamber, a stone hut that acts as a camera obscura, with a small hole in the roof projecting inverted, otherworldly images of slowly swaying trees on the floor and walls.

What we thought: Although not scheduled to close until September for a scheduled expansion, the museum currently looks like a construction site. The Museum Park had some interesting pieces — although the Carolina Heat didn’t allow us to enjoy it as much as we would have liked. The aforementioned Cloud Chamber was damp and spooky; not nearly as introspective as we had anticipated. Regardless, we would recommend a visit once the museum reopens next spring.

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What they said: There’s no pigeonholing the eclectic wares in this four-story indie minimall collectively known as Father & Son Antiques (107 West Hargett Street, Raleigh; 919-832-3030), and including Southern Swank and 2nd Floor Vintage. The organizing principle, if there is one, might be high design meets kitschy Americana, as the intermingling of vintage disco dresses ($18), Mexican wrestling masks ($20) and Eames aluminum group chairs ($250 to $500) attests.

What we thought: Located in the downtown Raleigh wasteland, this store had a couple of interesting finds mixed in with heaps of junk. For every cool retro floor lamp, there were old typewriters and busted hair dryers. We didn’t go looking for anything in particular — nor did we walk out with anything. Might be worth checking out. But wouldn’t be a big deal if you didn’t.

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What they said: Memorable meals are easy to come by in the Triangle owing to its high concentration of accomplished, produce-fondling chefs like Ashley Christensen. She left one of the area’s top kitchens to open Poole’s Downtown Diner (426 South McDowell Street, Raleigh; 919-832-4477) in a space that began as a 1940s pie shop. Diners sitting in the bright-red booths dig into Christensen’s low-pretense, high-flavor dishes, like a starter of lovably sloppy fried green tomatoes crowned with local pork smoked over cherry wood ($11), and the Royale ($13), an almost spherical hunk of ground-in-house chuck roll seared in duck fat, topped with cheese and perched on a slice of grilled brioche.

What we thought: The location, on a busy street near the Interstate and across from the prison, wasn’t great. But we escaped into this cool, converted space. The focus here is on made-to-order meals; the menu — up on a large chalkboard which we had to walk over to read — changes daily. Our roasted chicken was moist although the portions were a bit meager for the $18 price tag. Poole’s is an informal spot worth grabbing a meal at if you happen to be in Carolina’s capital city and are in search of something a little bit different.

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What they said: For most bars, a popular politician’s visit would be a game-changing boon. But the Raleigh Times Bar (14 East Hargett Street, Raleigh; 919-833-0999) was packed well before Barack Obama showed up the day of the state’s Democratic primary. The owner, Greg Hatem, painstakingly restored the century-old building that once housed its namesake newspaper and decorated the walls with old newspaper clippings, paperboy bags and other artifacts from the defunct daily. Mr. Obama bought a $2 Pabst Blue Ribbon (and left an $18 tip), but anyone not campaigning might choose one of the more than 100 other beers ($1 to $68), including esoteric Belgians and local brews you won’t find elsewhere.

What we thought: This was a hopping spot on our visit — tables were bustling with activity and the crowd spilled over onto the sidewalk. As former journalists, we were suckers for the décor. The Big Boss Seasonal Ales were $6 bucks a piece and well worth it.

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What they said: One of the Triangle’s charms is that its urban trappings are so easy to escape. A 10-mile drive from downtown Durham brings you to Eno River State Park (6101 Cole Mill Road, Durham; 919-383-1686). Its trails pass through swaying pines and follow the river past patches of delicate purple-and-yellow wildflowers and turtles sunning themselves on low branches in the water.

What we thought: Although we do a fair amount of hiking, we never would have heard about this park otherwise. It was largely empty when we arrived to summit Cox Mountain. The walk, about 4 miles round trip, crossed the Eno River on a suspension foot bridge and continued gradually up a hill that climbed 270 feet in elevation. No great views from the top but a great workout.

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What they said: But for a morning meal on the go that’s equally unforgettable, roll up to the drive-through-only Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen (1305 East Franklin Street; 919-933-1324), where the iced tea is tooth-achingly sweet and the main course is fluffy, buttery and filled with salty country ham ($2.02) or crisp fried chicken ($3.40).

What we thought: We’ve driven by this place for the last year so were excited to finally have an excuse to stop there. Our crisp chicken biscuit was certainly tasty (how could it not be?) but we weren’t sure it competed with that offered at Time Out. And for just biscuits, we think the award goes to Weathervane, the café at Southern Season.

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What they said: Anyone not on a hunt for serious Mexican food might drive past Taqueria La Vaquita (2700 Chapel Hill Road, Durham; 919-402-0209), an unassuming freestanding structure with a plastic cow on its roof, just five minutes from Duke’s campus. But if you did, you’d miss tacos ($2.19) made with house-made corn tortillas, uncommonly delicate discs topped with exceptional barbacoa de res (slow-cooked beef) or carnitas (braised-then-fried pork) that you eat at one of the picnic tables out front.

What we thought: Looks can be deceiving at this roadside food stand. But the tacos were absolutely perfect. Authentic Mexican food is difficult to come by in this area. There are just so many lousy places — Los Potrillos, La Hacienda, to name a few. It was so welcome to find this little gem with fresh and spicy flavors.

All in all, I’ve got to give the Times credit. Not all of its recommendations were the greatest. But many were. Which means that I’ll keep checking out “36 Hours” each Sunday morning for inspiration and travel advice. Whether that’s halfway around the globe or right outside my door.

The perfect sandwich at SANDWHICH

Chapel Hill, North Carolina

We had already been meaning to visit SANDWHICH, the much talked and hyped about lunch joint on Franklin Street, before last month’s barrage of media attention.

First, Vanity Fair listed the grass-fed meatloaf with crispy bacon, Vermont cheddar, sliced tomatoes and balsamic glaze on sourdough toast in a feature called “Our Favorite Sandwiches Across the Country.” Next, Huffington Post jumped on the bandwagon, calling the sandwiches “heavenly” and “using only the best ingredients from nearby farms.” And these two swooning reviews were only in the last month — indeed, just about every foodie has left singing its praises.

It was time to check this place out for ourselves.

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By the time we arrived at the small and minimalist space at around 2 p.m., much of the lunch crowd has dispersed for the day. Indeed, besides a small group finishing up their meal, we were the only ones there. SANDWHICH’s menu is an example of the locavore movement taken to the extreme; all of the premium ingredients, from the chicken to the vegetables to the bread, are locally-sourced. Which means they’re amazingly fresh — and not cheap.

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My choice was made with little debate: the meatloaf sandwich ($9.50), which VF said had a “cult following.” Charlotte opted for the house-roasted turkey breast ($9.50), with bibb lettuce, tomatoes, avocado and Harissa mayo on toasted wheat. We both were enticed by the house made potato chips ($2) and freshly squeezed lemonades ($2.50).

All together, lunch for the two of us was just under $30. As we took our seats in the shady courtyard outside we wondered if it would be worth it.

Twenty minutes later, finishing up the meal, we shamed ourselves for ever questioning SANDWHICH — my sandwich was quite possibly the best that I’ve ever had. The meatloaf was perfectly seasoned and piled with melted cheddar, vine-ripened tomatoes and (this being North Carolina) a couple strips of bacon. The chips were thinly sliced with some garlic, kosher salt and minced fresh parsley. A small dish of pickled carrots was quite good, too.

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SANDWHICH is so confident in its sandwiches that it offers a money-back guarantee if they aren’t “fresh” or “delicious” enough.

I’d be surprised though if any diner has ever taken them up on the offer.

Sundaes at S & T Soda Shoppe

Chapel Hill, North Carolina

My culinary adventure to taste the best of the best continues. I’ve been wanting to visit S & T Soda Shoppe since reading about it last year — located in Pittsboro, a quaint town about 20 minutes from here, S & T is said to have the area’s best ice cream sundaes.

When my good buddy Mike drove up from Charlotte today, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to give the place a shot. S & T is housed in an old pharmacy that dates back to the early 20th century. The joint reopened about 15 years ago yet manages to maintain an authentic feeling of 1950s Americana. There’s an antique jukebox in the front, old classic memorabilia lines the walls and its wood tables and booths have been rescued from a legit soda fountain.

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We were seated quickly and only a couple of minutes later, were served up heaping sundaes. There are over 30 homemade flavors to choose from — birthday cake and peanut butter cup sounded good to me — and it came topped with whipped cream, hot chocolate syrup, rainbow sprinkles and a cherry. The whole shebang.

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Mike went with the birthday cake and moose track, which we learned is essentially vanilla ice cream with peanut butter cups and fudge. It was so good that he finished the whole dang thing!

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And at just about $4 a pop, these sundaes weren’t just delicious — they were a steal.

I’ve got a feeling I’ll be back.

Tarheels take the title

Chapel Hill, North Carolina

You can be sure that my undergrad experience at Cornell never saw something like last night.

We headed up to the Library on Franklin Street at around 6 p.m. With a solid three hours to burn before tip-off, we played some iPhone battleship and drank Bud Lights. The bar exploded when the Heels took to the court and then remained in a general state of euphoria as Carolina opened up a 20 point lead and proceeded to steamroll Michigan State.

As the clock wound down and the buzzer sounded, an estimated 30,000 fans streamed onto Franklin Street from all directions. With helicopters roaring overhead, jubilant (and stupid) students climbed telephone poles, trees, and buildings. There were dozens of bonfires — which we later learned that the fire department had attempted to preempt by dousing the streets with water. Fireworks exploded, chants of “TAR HEELS” filled the air and plumes of smoke rose to the sky as we celebrated our school’s fifth national title.

If one moment ends up defining my experience at UNC, this might very well be it.

Dinners in the dirty

Chapel Hill, North Carolina

The last few days have been a pure gastronomical delight here in Carolina. They’ve exposed me to some of the best cooking I’ve had since moving to Chapel Hill — while at the same time, reminded me that Southern cuisine is amazing in part due its utter disregard for health.

On Saturday, we visited an iconic joint, Crooks Corner, which has been in business for over 30 years. It’s famous not just for a long history, having served as a fish market, taxi stand and pool hall, but for having gained a national reputation as “the birthplace of shrimp and grits.” An honor not taken lightly.

We kicked off the meal with an order of jalapeno-cheddar hushpuppies. An overflowing plate of the fried balls of goodness soon arrived at our table, along with a bowl of spicy cocktail dipping sauce. Next up was the legendary dish, the shrimp & grits: sauteed shrimp with hunks of bacon, fresh mushrooms and thinly sliced scallions, served over thick, cheesy grits. We were already past the point of no return, so we splurged on the Crook’s hot fudge brownie, served with pecans, fudge sauce and homemade vanilla ice cream. The wheel barrow to cart us back to my car was not included.

Then, last night, it was back out for dinner at Acme, an eatery right on Main Street in Carrboro. This was another great spot — they have local Triangle Belgian Golden Ale on-tap, although it’s $7.50 a glass, which was okay because someone else was picking up the tab. The fried oyster salad with fresh baby spinach, bacon and a bourbon vinaigrette was a tasty start. Then, the freshly caught Carolina grouper, over a bed of Israeli couscous, was light, flaky and cooked perfectly. And, just because everyone else was ordering, the nightcap was a delicious warm two-crust apple pie, topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

But while I’ve been impressed with the culinary offerings of Carrboro (the tapas bar Glass Half Full is another great spot), it was the homemade meal from this weekend — cooked with love and neither fried nor topped with bacon — that took top honors in my book. I’ll spare the recipe (LottieB has that covered), but will provide some magazine worthy shots of the Napa Valley seasoned NY Strip Steaks, potatoes au gratin, simple side salad and Gigi’s carrot cake.

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Needless to say, as much as I’m loving dinners in the dirty, I’m equally glad that O2 is just across the street.

The story of Hansel & Gretel

Chapel Hill, North Carolina

One of my favorite activities back in D.C. was visiting the United States Botanic Garden. On more than one occasion, that steamy greenhouse provided a welcome respite from a chilly winter’s day — and, strolling among the tropical, lush plants, a temporary illusion of being somewhere far south of the nation’s capital. Now, I’m living about 4-hours south in Chapel Hill, where one doesn’t need a greenhouse to escape the cold. Because winters here are nonexistent.

To prepare for my trip to Patagonia next week, and also try out my new hardcore Lowa Boots, we visited the North Carolina Botanical Garden this afternoon. It’s not nearly as intense as its counterpart in D.C. but offered a bunch of nice paths to meander on in search of the first signs of spring. We hopped across streams, spotted an elusive Chickadee and enjoyed a typical 65 degree mid-February day here in Carolina. Completely normal.

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And somehow managed to look like complete Rock Stars while doing it all.

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Obviously.

I’m a believer

Chapel Hill, North Carolina

If basketball is a religion here at UNC, then we’ve just visited its inner-most sanctuary.

After countless unsuccessful attempts, I finally won student lottery tickets to the Heels game this afternoon against Virginia. The entrance for students is phased in stages — we were phase 1, which meant seats on the risers immediately behind the basket if we were willing to arrive 2.5 hours before tip-off. We weren’t, and instead headed up to Carolina Brewery for a couple of Sky Blue Golden Ales and a plate of beer-battered boneless wings.

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About an hour before game-time, we hopped on the free trolley offered by the brewery and joined the mass exodus to the Dean Dome. Despite the huge influx of fans, UNC actually does a great job of directing and moving traffic and people (guess practice makes perfect) and the shuttle bus dropped us directly in front of the stadium. We hopped off, joined the sea of 20,000+ Tarheel Blue-clad fans and made our way to Gate D.

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Inside, we found that much of the student seating had been filled and our best bet was on the second tier, in section 205A. We hiked to the top and found a pair in row R. While they weren’t nearly as good as the reserved seats from my last Heels game, it was still pretty fun sitting among all the die-hard fanatics. The first 20 minutes of the game was pretty sloppy, with the Heels shooting terribly. At half-time, Hall of Fame inductees, including Larry Brown and the man, Dean Smith, were honored as a new banner was raised to the rafters.

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The second half was a different story and the Heels soon pulled away. Leaving the Dome, with thousands of exuberant fans — faces and chests painted, wearing every imaginable shade of light blue — who were excited and proud of their team, made me realize what a spectacular place this is. The sense of spirit, camaraderie, community is unparalleled.

And it’s another reason that I’m glad to have “joined the faith” and become a Tarheel.

Life outside of the bubble

This is cross-posted at the Kenan-Flagler blog, where I’m also now contributing.

I’ve often heard business school described as “living inside of a bubble.” It’s said that the first-year experience is so demanding and all-encompassing that life revolves around the same activities, people and places. Students go to class, meet with study groups, grab lunch in the cafeteria, hit the gym, have dinner or drinks with friends, head home, do work and hit the sack.

Rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat.

In some ways, my first three months in Chapel Hill have followed a similar rhythm. There is so much to juggle, so many opportunities to get involved, so many interesting and smart students to work with, that you almost forget that there is life beyond McColl’s walls. Not to say that this is necessarily bad. In fact, the strength of the community at Kenan-Flagler, fostered in part by this bubble, is one of the reasons that I’m here. But it’s also important to occasionally take a step back and experience life outside.

An opportunity to do so came at the beginning of this mod, the Sunday before classes began. I’d read about the North Carolina State Fair — one of the largest fairs and agricultural expositions in the Southeast — and had to go check it out. We drove the 20 minutes to Raleigh, parked for $5, bought our tickets and headed inside to the overwhelming sights, sounds and smells.

With growling stomachs, we first hit the Wisconsin Cheese Shack and ordered up some fried cheese sticks with a spicy ranch dipping sauce. The verdict: Delicious.

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Next, we wandered through the Midway, filled with carnival games and rides before shelling out a dollar to see the World’s Smallest Woman (who indeed was small — the world’s smallest, not so sure).

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Our last stop were the agricultural expos, filled with livestock, fruits and vegetables all competing for the blue ribbon. This 8 pound monstrous sweet potato was even bigger than the ones they sell at Whole Foods! (Joke.)

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We ended up spending around three hours at the fair, taking it all in. The drive back to Chapel Hill was refreshing. We had experienced the fantastic people, place and culture that make North Carolina such a unique and cool place to live.

And we realized that yes, indeed, there is life outside of the bubble.