The Appalachian Mountains boast breathtaking beauty, whether it be their towering trees, playful streams, or alluring skylines viewed from a deck overlooking a majestic valley. Villages and small towns are sprinkled throughout this territory, quietly minding their own business until word of their attractiveness leaks out and streets swell with crowds eager to get in on the fun.
West Jefferson, North Carolina is one of those little gems. Founded in 1909, it was once a stop on the Norfolk and Western Railroad and home of the only cheese factory in the southeast. With a population of around 1300 according to the last census, it’s the kind of place that invites you to get lost wandering its streets even though it is pretty much impossible to do so.
One of the things you’ll find here is a little restaurant called Black Jack’s Bar and Grill. With a name like that, it sounds better suited for a casino or a pirate’s ship, but in this little town, it’s a happening eatery instead. Founded by a Romanian-born woman named Virginia in 2008, it has since passed down to her son who continues to infuse old country spices into his cooking. One of my sisters introduced me to the town and the restaurant while visiting her a couple of summers ago.
Black Jack’s claims to have been voted the best burger in town. With a population of 1300 there aren’t likely many competitors for that honor so I don’t know if that title really brings much distinction. But I will say the burger I ordered gets a blue ribbon in my book! I chose the Black Jack’s Burger. As for condiments, it features some old reliables like lettuce, tomato, and mayo. The addition of bacon supercharges the flavor. It brings a nice pepper jack cheese to the party as well, which I always enjoy because of its spicy kick. I’m a sucker for a little heat. One favorite photo tucked away in our vacation pictures shows me red-faced, sweating, and obviously happy while devouring a pickled jalapeño at a restaurant during a trip through the Copper Canyon in Mexico. However, it was the new kid on the cheeseburger block that made the Black Jack burger a standout: a nice full slice of pineapple, perhaps ½” thick, grilled to complement the burger with a hint smoky sweetness.
To be honest, I’ve always liked good pineapple. This fruit has never been better than the time I stood in a pineapple field in Costa Rica and enjoyed it freshly picked, then sliced up with a machete and served from the tailgate of a truck. Chalk up part of that pleasure to location and context, but it sure helps when a person knows how to determine a pineapple’s ripeness and can pick it at its peak. I was like a kid in a candy store that day.
Pineapple makes a surprisingly good addition to a cheeseburger. Its sweet flavor blends with its condiment companions in a way that is both distinct yet complementary. It was the kind of bite that reduces me to moans as I savor it. I even closed my eyes while chewing, as though blocking out all distractions increases its flavor. I know that probably makes as much sense as turning down the radio so you can see better when driving in a rain storm, but I guess both strategies help us to focus and concentrate.
To recap, here is the description as listed on the Black Jack’s menu: Beef patty with pepper jack cheese, grilled pineapple, bacon, lettuce, tomato, and mayo.
It is not uncommon after a dining experience like that to try and recreate it back home. Those efforts rarely measure up to the original experience. We have a corn soup recipe from an Egyptian chef that, while very good, never tastes quite the same as it did the time he prepared it. That wasn’t the case in this instance. After enjoying this burger so much, I served grilled pineapple the next time we had friends over for a cookout. It was a huge success! Even now when I recall that burger, my taste buds salivate a little.
I confess I am a bit surprised by this. Pineapple was not unknown or unappreciated prior to tasting it on this burger. It was a simple addition – creative, mind you — but simple. Perhaps it even qualifies as bold or courageous if some doubted pineapple’s place on the menu at all or its ability to make a contribution paired with these other items; but mostly it is just a simple choice.
It brings to mind the lyrics of the old Shaker tune, Simple Gifts:
Tis the gift to be simple, Tis the gift to be free, Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be, And when we find ourselves in the place just right, ‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
Those who sing the song often resonate with the idea that simple things – be they gifts, treasures, or lifestyles – often have a sense of “rightness” that aligns us with our truer, deeper purpose, freeing us from the trappings of misperceptions, over-commitments, and misplaced values. That is not say everything can or needs to be simple, but there are times when it is indeed just right.
Choosing a simple option even if it is a novel one may be the insight this cheeseburger recipe offers. In a world where binary language and algorithms increasingly drive so much of our interactions, even small tasks are supported by complexity behind the scenes. It is good to be reminded occasionally that complexity is not a prerequisite for value, joy, or happiness. How many times have you seen children opt to play with a cardboard box rather than the gift it originally contained? Or experienced your mood transformed simply by spending a little time outdoors?
As many are learning during the practice of sheltering at home, simple gifts and pleasures are within our reach and have the capacity to nourish and renew us. Remove a couple of hours of playing road warrior from your daily schedule or spending all your time rushing through unnecessary appointments or shuttling family members around town and suddenly you find yourself with a slower pace and time to utilize in quality purposes. I have heard from a growing number of people that they and their families are rediscovering this (and each other) together.
As we learn to appreciate simple things, we become more comfortable sharing simple gifts and gestures, which carry their own power to influence deeply. Part of the power of the simple gift is its ability to generate surprise in the new combinations we encounter because of it. Pineapple itself is tasty enough. But the simple addition of it to the texture of a grilled burger or the saltiness of bacon or the picante contribution of the pepper jack cheese introduces something new. Each one on its own has a splendid and unique flavor, but together new profiles are created that are not possible alone.
Sometimes simple choices allow for combinations not yet sampled but eagerly accepted once they are known. This is true for more than just cheeseburgers. Those combinations can create new recipes, friendships, and alliances that introduce new tastes, possibilities, strengths, and solutions. They can cross neighborhoods, economic class, religious differences – all sorts of sociological complexities that, however purposeful they may be, also discourage us from sampling other combinations that would delight us if we ever had the opportunity to experience them.
Simple things – be they gifts, choices, or gestures. Don’t underestimate their power. And if you happen to pass through this tiny town with big taste, have lunch at Black Jack’s. Tell them Jay sent you. They’ll have no idea who you’re talking about and probably won’t give you a discount but you’ll have a conversation starter; and they’ll still serve you a mouthwatering cheeseburger!