They say first impressions are often misleading, but I didn’t actually see Raleigh. Not at first.
I drove into the city late on a rainy Friday, eagerly trying to catch a glimpse of my new home but to no avail. My first taste of Raleigh would have to wait.
When I accepted a summer internship with the News & Observer, I didn’t think much of the fact that I had never been to the City of Oaks. I didn’t think it would take long to get a feel for the place.
My first few days proved just how wrong I was.
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After losing my sense of direction on one too many one-way streets near the state capitol, I had to wait at a crosswalk for a never-ending throng of men and women in suits to pass. I figured this must be a city dominated by state politics.
But the next day, I was assigned a story involving local startups, and I found myself surrounded by young tech entrepreneurs in HQ Raleigh in the Warehouse District. They told me that the shipping container outside was a mobile, solar-powered beer bar that was temporarily setting up shop at the contemporary art museum next door. I imagined the man working the bar sported an ironic mustache and revised my earlier impression; clearly, this was a trendy haven for up-and-coming professionals.
The more I explored Raleigh, the more I began to understand it as a city in transition, a cross-section of urban revitalization spilling out to the comfortable suburbs and small towns sprawling around the Triangle. But even then I didn’t see the full picture. It took a rather momentous occasion for that to happen: my very first pig pickin’.
From the moment I was informed that there was no “g” in the name, I should have known what to expect. But as a Michigan native, I was wholly unprepared for what was in store.
It was a fitting introduction to Southern food culture. A tantalizing whiff of something I could not yet identify drew me towards a seemingly never-ending row of tents the minute I opened my car door. It was my first experience of vinegar-based BBQ, and I immediately vowed it would not be my last.
A cheerful couple hosted a series of pig races, leading the crowd in cries of “Soo-ie!” to get the short-legged oinkers trotting towards their well-deserved prize of Cheese Doodles. At that point I was so overwhelmed in culture shock that when a distinguished-looking elderly gentleman took the stage from a country cover band to begin the awards ceremony with a hospitable, drawling “God Bless,” I was hardly surprised. Capping off the afternoon with a mug full of root beer seemed only natural.
Driving home from the pig pickin’, I finally felt like I had begun to understand why the character of this city is so elusive. Yes, it is a city churning with new life and eager to make itself a hotbed of growth and opportunity. But it is also a city with history and color that isn’t about to fade under the bicycle treads of newcomers sipping Natty Greene’s and celebrating all things local.
If the Red Hats and Citrixes of the world are what’s drawing young professionals like myself to Raleigh, it’s the pig pickin’s that are going to make us stay.