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The Tar Heel State Part 1: Durham, Carrboro and Pittsboro

Updated: Dec 21, 2023

Did you know that North Carolina is called the "Tar Heel State?" The exact origin of the name is disputed but, historians agree that the name is rooted in the state's early history as a producer of naval supplies, including tar for ships. Workers extracted tar, pitch and turpentine from the bountiful pine trees in the region. When they went barefoot, the tar would collect on their heels, thus leading to the term "tar heel."

I learned this, and so much more, on my visit to this gorgeous state. From its lush, pine forests to its stunning beaches, I quickly fell in love with North Carolina.

Tiger Rescue

I started my visit to North Carolina in an unexpected way - at the Carolina Tiger Rescue in the city of Pittsboro, with Mr. Exotic, or his cats anyway (more on that shortly). Carolina Tiger Rescue is a non-profit, wildcat sanctuary whose mission it is to save and protect wild cats in captivity and in the wild. They offer public tours ranging from $18.50 - $500.00, depending on the experience you are looking for. I was fortunate enough to get a complimentary, private tour, where I learned a great deal about wildcats and so much more.

Carolina Tiger Rescue is home to numerous wildcats and other animals. Perhaps the most famous of their residents are several of the tigers you may have seen in Tiger King, the true-crime documentary about the life of former zoo keeper and convicted felon, Joe Exotic. This series exposed, among other things, the "underworld of big cat breeding." The picture above is of Naveen (compliments of the Carolina Tiger Rescue). Naveen was one of several tigers rescued from Joe Exotic’s former roadside zoo in Thackerville, Oklahoma.

Other residents include Tasha. Tasha, along with four other tigers, came to the Carolina Tiger Rescue in 2014. They were previously at a roadside zoo in Alabama that has been closed for years and fallen into disrepair. After getting medical care and adequate nutrition, the tigers are now doing well in their new home.

On my tour, I was able to watch the tigers being fed pieces of chicken and steak. Listen closely and you can hear the sound of the tiger's massive jaws and teeth obliterating chicken bones in seconds. Why anyone would think it is safe to try to domesticate these animals and keep them as pets, is beyond me.

Does anyone remember Siegfried and Roy, the German-American duo who performed a magic show in Las Vegas, Nevada for years? They were most famously known for their appearance with white tigers and lions in their act at the Mirage hotel, which would draw approximately 800,000 visitors a year.

During my tour at the Carolina Tiger Rescue, I learned that white tigers, contrary to popular belief, are not their own subspecies of tigers; rather they are a result of a recessive gene found only in the Bengal subspecies of tiger. Both parents must possess this gene for the possibility that a white tiger will be born.

The only way to ensure a white tiger is born, is to breed a parent with one of its direct offspring, which subjects the animal to the genetic deficits of inbreeding, leading to mental and physical defects. All white tigers in captivity today have descended from one tiger, Mohan, who was bred with his daughter to create more white tigers. The cycle of perpetual inbreeding has persisted for decades and today, only 1 out of 30 white tiger cubs that are born are considered “show quality." The other 29 have such severe, physical deformities at birth, that they are simply euthanized.

In addition to tigers, Carolina Tiger Rescue is currently also home to servals (like the one in the video above), cougars, lions, caracals, bobcats, kinkajous, coatimundis, red wolves, a raccoon, a New Guinea Singing Dog and an African Crested Porcupine. All of these animals were formerly abandoned by pet owners who were not able to care for them or were in illegal possession of them.

Incidentally, on the same day that I visited the Carolina Tiger Rescue and learned about all of this for the first time, the Big Cat Safety Act, which in short prohibits the private possession of big cats and makes it illegal for exhibitors to allow direct contact with cubs, was passed. Strange coincidence.

From the Tiger Rescue, it was off to the "Duke Homestead" in Durham, North Carolina. The homestead encompasses the home, farm and factory where Washington Duke first grew and processed tobacco. If you don't know the Duke family as tobacco producers...

Duke University Chapel may know them as the family behind Duke University. In addition to the University, the Duke name can be found all over North Carolina -- at the Duke garden, hospital, mansion, restaurant, an energy company and on and on.

Tobacco Leaf

It was through the farming of this humble leaf however, that the family made their fortune. Washington Duke first planted tobacco, after his cotton crop failed, and just before the start of the Civil War.

After the war, he built this small factory on the property to start manufacturing packaged tobacco, a major innovation. From those initial days, the tobacco industry exploded. The Dukes, who were at the forefront, became millionaires.

The Duke's House

This house on the homestead was built as a wedding gift from Mr. Duke to his second wife, Artelia Rooney. I found it curious that while the Duke name is ubiquitous throughout North Carolina, and the United States because of Duke University, little is said about the fact that the Duke's were indeed slave owners.


After some heavy history and education, it was time to slow down with a snack at a soda fountain.

S & T Soda Shoppe is located in the adorable town of Pittsboro, North Carolina. This restaurant was opened in 1997 by Gene Oldham whose dream it was to open a 1900's style soda shop. Gene passed away suddenly in December of 2020. His wife and sons now run the family business which they have kept true to their father's vision.

S & T Soda Shoppe serves egg creams, malts, ice cream and a menu packed with American classics, in a vintage setting.

Fried pickles

Chocolate Egg Cream

Surprisingly, egg creams contain neither eggs nor cream. They are made using a combination of carbonated water, flavored syrup (in this case chocolate) and milk.

Later in the evening, it was time for dinner with family at Tandem.

Tandem, located in Carrboro, North Carolina, serves modern, American cuisine, and very large portions of it. Tandem prides itself on getting its ingredients from local producers and presenting them in creative ways.

Boxcar Creamery Cheese Plate

Blackcurrant and pear preserve, fig mustard, olives, candied walnuts, toasted baguette.


Chermoula, garlic yogurt, cilantro, crispy poha.

Yellow Lentil Fritters

Farmstead cheese, pickled turnip, serrano buttermilk.

72 Hour Braised Beef Short Ribs

Smoked potato puree, rutabaga, brussel sprouts, celery root, bone marrow jus.

I was not kidding when I said that Tandem serves large portions. Though it is difficult to tell the scale from this picture, this particular dish was served in a pretty sizable Le Creuset dutch oven. It is listed on the menu as an individual entree, but could easily have fed 2-4 people depending on appetite.

Chocolate Pudding Cake

Malted meringue, cocoa crumble, coffee ice cream.

This leg of my North Carolina trip was wrapping up, but prior to leaving the Raleigh/Durham area, I had to try some North Carolina barbecue.

Allen and Sons Bar-B-Que opened in Pittsboro, North Carolina in 1960. This no frills, cozy, restaurant serves eastern North Carolina chopped barbecue and mouth-watering sides.

Fried corn, fried okra, hushpuppies and barbecued pork.

Whether you opt for take out, like I did, or sit down to enjoy your meal in their dining room, you will get a taste of classic North Carolina.

There is more to come on my trip to the Tar Heel State including a trip west, to Asheville and then farther south, to the beautiful, North Carolina beaches. Stay tuned.

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