The newest addition to DBAP's menu
Posted June 10, 2013
If you've attended games at Durham Bulls Athletic Park so far this season, you may have noticed a new selection in concessions, the Nuke Dog, a hot dog named after Nuke Laloosh from the movie Bull Durham, made with a spicy pepper relish. This special dog—putting the "hot" in dog—is the brainchild of Samantha Swan of Chapel Hill's Cottage Lane Kitchen, and last week it finished runner-up in a national Minor League Baseball food contest. I recently visited Samantha and went in search of her inspiration for the Nuke Dog.
I notice it within a few minutes of our first conversation: Samantha Swan has spice—and not like the habanero or serrano in her spicy relishes. I discern the subtle hints of sophistication in her accent, acquired from 13 years living in London. She has a shiny little diamond stud in her nose, which I later find she got just four years ago in Spain. And she’s wearing a sassy black button-down, embroidered with a cursive Cottage Lane Kitchen.
As it turns out, this spice is the perfect ingredient for a small business owner. In October of 2011, Swan founded Cottage Lane Kitchen as a venue to produce and share her spicy pepper relish made from her great-grandmother’s recipe. How it came to be, like the ripening of a fruit, was all a matter of timing.
“I’ve always been surrounded by food. When I was a student at UNC, I always worked in restaurants. I worked at Swensen’s when it was here, Carolina Coffee Shop, and the Flying Burrito,” Swan says.
After getting her degree in Art History, she went to work in different museums and commercial galleries.
“I worked in art galleries in Texas and London, but then [my husband and I] didn’t know what we wanted to do. My husband had owned various businesses, but I became burnt out. That’s when we decided to leave London and travel for two years.”
During their travels, they collected sauces as souvenirs from each place they visited. When I ask if any particular sauce stood out, Swan gazes away, as if she’s been whisked away to a certain time and taste.
“One sauce that we will never be able to forget was in Mexico, at Playa del Carmen. It was 13 years ago, on the main street in some little grocery store in a small bottle with no label on it. The next day I went back to get the all the rest of it to take it home with us, but then we found out this woman’s husband was in the hospital, so she couldn’t make it anymore.“
I ask Swan what it tasted like, and she gets the look in her eyes of someone trying to describe what it’s like to be in love.
“It was indicative of the landscape, a lovely fresh flavor.”
But that’s all she can offer me. Words seem unworthy of this pleasure.
“We always think about going back and trying to find that sauce again, but the woman was elderly,” she says. “It’s possible we’ll never be able to taste that sauce again.”
Swan always recognized the importance of condiments, not only in her family, but specifically with cultural food. She says it best herself on her website:
After all what would Mexican food be without salsa, Chinese dishes without soy sauce, Sushi without Wasabi, Hot Dogs, Hamburgers & Fries without ketchup, and BBQ'd meats without sauce?
So, when traveling led her back to North Carolina, Swan couldn’t help but want a taste of her own family’s history.
“It was my great-grandmother’s recipe. I used to watch my grandfather make the relish with a meat grinder. He would make the year’s pepper relish with whatever peppers were in season and can in it old Ball jars. My dad would bring it to me for my birthday or Christmas, but he had never made it without his father. The originals we had stored were running out, so I asked him to make it when we came back.”
Her husband got on board after one taste, and Swan set to work developing an exact recipe. She says her timing was serendipitous.
“My love of food grew as the food culture did. With the local food movement, the doors are wider than they probably have been before. I don’t think I would have been able to do this ten years ago.”
And so Cottage Lane Kitchen was born. Swan and her husband moved back into Cottage Lane with her father in January of 2013.
It wasn’t just that Cottage Lane was “where it all began” in terms of Swan’s business or love for food. Cottage Lane was the origin of Swan’s family many years ago. They’ve got what she calls “established roots.”
“My family is from Orange County, going back to pre-Revolutionary War. My grandfather was the postmaster at the post office on Franklin Street, back when it was the main post office, and my grandmother was a professor at Duke.”
She tells me her family has lived in a little house at the dead end of Cottage Lane for four generations. I ask to see the kitchen at Cottage Lane, but Swan is at first reluctant.
“After four generations, it’s pretty… cluttered.”
I, of course, dismiss this as modesty, and come to find “cluttered” synonymous with fascinating.
When I walk in, I note the string of peppers framing the window like curtains. Swan’s father offers me a peanut butter sandwich. Everything from the wheat-colored cat Kashmir to the forest green gingham curtains to the triple-tiered hanging wire fruit basket (just the one my grandparents have) makes me feel right at home.
Everything, that is, but fridge. With magnets from Namibia and Newfoundland, the Outer Banks and Islas Canarias, the Cottage Lane Kitchen fridge is as eclectic as the food that comes from it.
But I notice one more thing about the fridge. Prominently featured on the right side is the 2013 Durham Bulls schedule.
“I’ve always gone to Bulls games. I love Wool E. so much! One time at a game I was sitting next to a woman that said Wool E. went trick-or-treating with her sons, and I was so envious!” Swan says.
Having grown up attending games in the old historic ballpark and more recently transitioning to the new one, Samantha had aspirations to take her relish from the quaint kitchen to a larger arena.
“It was one of my abstract goals to get my relish on a hot dog at the new ballpark. Last year I was late proposing my relish. I went to Carolina Packers”—a sausage and hot dog company based in Smithfield—“but the Bulls season had already started. The gentleman there that I worked with said he liked my relish on the dog, but that I had missed it for that season.”
Serendipity set in for the next season.
“The North Carolina Department of Agriculture does a local food expo, and they placed my relish on the display next to the Carolina Packers’ hot dogs. I would send them little updates with pictures of my relish next to their dog, and this year, they sent it to the Durham Bulls. I found out it was going to go on a dog within three weeks of the first opening game.”
Thus came the Nuke dog. Named for Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh, who was known for his fireball pitches, it features Cottage Lane Kitchen’s “Get Me a Switch” pepper relish and a Carolina Packers’ dog made with crushed red pepper. Not too long after its creation, the Nuke dog became a runner-up in MiLB’s FoodFight competition for the minor league’s best ballpark concession.
“It’s great to see that Center Plate”—a large concessionary company for sports nationwide—“works with North Carolina people. It’s a true North Carolina hot dog,” Swan says.
There are a lot of flavors at a Bulls baseball game—a spicy Nuke dog, or an ice-cold Mexican chocolate Locopop, or a Foothills Carolina Blonde ale. But there are other sorts of flavors, too. A career-ending injury of a star player might leave the season with a bitter taste. The harsh summer weather might make a season too hot. There will always be some sweet, like an eight-year-old boy fist-bumping Wool E. Bull, as his little sister bashfully peeks from around her dad’s legs. There will always be spice from a fan’s ardent disagreement with an umpire’s ninth inning call. There will always be the fresh flavor of a new fan’s first game and the savor of the seasoned pro. Add all these flavors up, and it makes you think—baseball is a lot like a small batch of relish.