Make holiday memories along the new Moravian Culinary Trail in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, this month.
From the singing of carols to making of beeswax candles, tasting of Moravian ginger cookies to candlelight tours of historic homes and strolls along cobblestoned streets, Winston-Salem is a special place to visit any time of year, but especially at Christmas.
North Carolina’s city of arts and innovation has its roots in the town of Salem, founded in 1766 by the Moravians (a Protestant sect that began in part of Europe that is now the Czech Republic). Missionaries that had established earlier towns in Pennsylvania, the Moravians brought with them their architecture, trades, gardening and holiday baking.
At the center of baking in Winston-Salem are Moravian cookies, sometimes called the world’s thinnest cookie and traditionally flavored with ginger. Not far behind are Moravian Sugar Cake (traditionally made for Easter) and Moravian Chicken Pie — all local delicacies featured on Winston-Salem’s new Moravian Culinary Trail. The best place to get a taste is in Old Salem, a living history site in the center of town that tells the charming story of the Moravians through costumed interpreters.
Winkler Bakery is located next to the haberdashery along Old Salem’s cobblestone streets and has been baking breads, cakes and confections for 200 years. White-bearded bakers still roll out dough and bake Moravian Sugar Cake in an original wood-fired dome oven while visitors look on. Dewey’s Bakery is a household name in the area, specializing in Moravian cookies for the masses in flavors from Ginger Spice to Chocolate and Meyer Lemon. The bakery’s flagship location can be found in the Thruway Shopping Center, with a second location at Reynolda House and holiday store locations around town and in surrounding areas.
To see more cookie action, Mrs. Hanes in Clemmons offers public tours that show visitors the process from dough rolling to cutting and packaging. Mrs. Evva Hanes, a seventh generation Moravian cookie baker, her husband Travis, along with son Mike and daughter Mona and staff, ship 80 percent of their products in the last three months of the year and owe part of their success to Oprah Winfrey, who named the cookies one of her favorite things in December 2009.
I can roll 100 pounds of sugar cookies in eight hours.” – Evva Hanes of Mrs. Hanes Moravian Cookies
While Moravian cookies can be found all over town today, they weren’t always quite so plentiful year-round or quite so thin. “Ginger cakes or cookies have developed over time with Christmas,” explains Joanna Roberts, assistant director of interpretation in Old Salem. The cookies were a little bit thicker, but extremely popular.”
Get the recipe for Moravian Christmas Cake (Cookies) here.
According to Roberts, the Moravian Lovefeast was a way of celebrating any type of special event and those on Christmas Eve offered gifts to local children. Young ones attending the feast would often take home a wax candle, Bible verse from the Christmas story and a ginger cake (what we now know as the cookie). As time went on, Roberts says the ginger cake began to go out of style and become almost exclusively associated with Christmas in the Moravian Church. “You get into the 1830s and ’40s up into the ’60s, and you have people writing home saying it’s not Christmas without ginger cakes,” she says.
In rural communities, the cookies were shared with visitors by the basketfull and hung on the tree as gifts. As Christmas became a bigger celebration in America, the Moravians began to decorate with fresh greenery and miniature village scenes called putz inspired by the Nativity. “The earliest decorations were illuminations or painting of the Nativity scene or verses on linseed oiled paper so at night you could shine a candle through the back and light it up,” Roberts says.
All of these traditions, along with plenty of paper Moravian stars to take home as souvenirs, can be seen throughout Old Salem during the month of December. “Some people are used to more Victorian stuff and have said, oh, you don’t really decorate for Christmas, so it is kept very simple,” Roberts says, “greenery on poles and fences and doors. All of the buildings are decorated inside to try to show that progression through our buildings.”
The earliest buildings, like the Single Brothers’ House, have illuminations and putzs, with 19th century buildings featuring greenery on mantles and windows in public spaces, and a Christmas tree can be found in an 1840 building where the family was known to have a new grand-daughter that year and put up a tree to celebrate. Self-guided tours are available through December 31, with special events including visits with St. Nicholas, Christmas By Candlelight Tours, concerts and the Christmas Lovefeast at St. Philip’s Church December 11. A Salem Christmas event is scheduled for December 13, with demonstrations, sampling, carol singing and the lighting of the Christmas Pyramid.
To expand your tastebuds from just sugary treats, local restaurants have their own cookie creations on the menu. The Tavern In Old Salem specializes in fresh Moravian cuisine and often sources produce from the surrounding heirloom gardens of Old Salem. Chef Jared Keiper’s signature menu item is Moravian Cookie Crusted Frenched Lamb Rack, and homemade ice cream made with spicy ginger crumbs is sometimes offered as a special. For that aforementioned Moravian Chicken Pie, a sort of pot pie without the vegetables, of course The Tavern has its version, but Spring House is another great spot to try the delicacy. Chef Tim Grandinetti has created the deconstructed chicken pie — a rich, savory sauce full of chicken ladled into a cradle of delicate puff pastry with vegetables served on the side.
Spring House is one of Winston-Salem’s newest and most popular restaurants, but it’s housed in the last remaining grand home on what was Millionaire’s Row, the historic neighborhood of R. J. and Katharine Reynolds. Founded in 1875, the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company put Winston-Salem on the map. Reynolds bought his first factory building from the Moravian Church, and the company’s headquarters were located in the Reynolds Building downtown until 1977.
The Reynolds lived on an estate outside of town that included formal gardens, a farm, outdoor recreation areas and even a post office and blacksmith shop. Today, the farm buildings make up Reynolda Village, a popular spot for shopping and dining near Wake Forest University, and Reynolda House Museum of American Art designed for self touring the period rooms and exhibition galleries. Seasonal and candlelight tours are currently available in December, with the home decorated for Christmas, holiday greeting cards from the Museum Archives and a full place setting from Katharine Smith Reynolds’s Tiffany & Co. china on display.
Not far down the road is Graylyn Estate, another historic home that calls to mind PBS’s wildly popular Downton Abbey. For those planning to spend a few days taking in the holiday sights and sounds of Winston-Salem, this is where you want to rest your head. A connection to R.J. Reynolds can be found here as well; Bowman Gray, son of a founder of Wachovia Bank, worked for Reynolds Tobacco Co. and was chairman of the board when his home was built. Construction of the more than $1 million manor house in the Norman Revival architectural style was done from 1927 through 1932. Just some of the home’s most impressive points are square footage totaling 46,000, 35 bedrooms, an indoor swimming pool and a circular stair tower.
Guests at Graylyn today can experience the luxury that the Gray family lived in, with butlers on call, 86 guest rooms across the property and 55 acres to explore. Pretend you’re a queen or king for the night, especially with the Historic Holidays Package, which includes gourmet breakfast, a manor tour and tickets to Old Salem Museums & Gardens and Reynolda House. Graylyn also has its own cookie tradition named for the Gray family’s beloved Scottie dogs, Butter and Scotch. Guests staying in The Mews — just over a curved stone bridge from the Manor House — can enjoy Mrs. Gray’s fresh-baked Butterscotch Cookies each afternoon.
Whether you choose to spend the holiday in Winston-Salem by candlelight, tasting sugary confections or contemplating Christmases past, there’s no doubt you’ll make sweet memories and come to appreciate the Moravian traditions that have thrived here for over 250 years.
Highlights From the Winston-Salem Holiday Calendar
“A Victorian Christmas” at Körner’s Folly
Through January 4
Located in downtown Kernersville, just 15 minutes from downtown Winston-Salem, Körner’s Folly has been an enchanted holiday destination for more than a century. Named “the strangest home in America,” its 22 peculiar rooms are lavishly decorated with floor-to-ceiling garlands, glowing lights and beautifully decorated Christmas trees in every room. Christmas Puppet Shows in the children’s theater located inside the house are also available.
Tanglewood Park’s Festival of Lights
Through January 1
Every year, visitors witness the Southeast’s largest holiday light display over four miles of rolling countryside. Ride along in your car while listening to your favorite holiday tunes or experience the lights by horse-drawn carriage or a classic hayride. Midway through the route, stop at the gift village in the red barn to browse handmade craft items, roast marshmallows and enjoy a barbecue dinner.
Anniversary Lovefeast at St. Philips African Moravian Church
The Christmas Lovefeast at St. Philips African Moravian Church in Old Salem is held annually to commemorate the first service held in the church on December 15, 1861. North Carolina’s oldest standing African-American church, St. Philips invites visitors to experience a traditional Lovefeast service accompanied by Moravian Lovefeast buns and tea.
Salem Christmas at Old Salem
Celebrate Moravian Christmas traditions throughout the historic town of Salem with rifle firing demonstrations, Moravian culinary treats, marzipan making, hearth cooking, painting a Christmas fraktur and singing carols at the Tannenberg Organ. At 5:15 p.m., gather in the James A. Gray Jr. Auditorium in the Old Salem Visitor Center for carol singing and the lighting of the Christmas Pyramid.
A Christmas Memory at Reynolda House
This two-decade long tradition continues, as Robin Voiers returns as Truman Capote’s older cousin Sook in an original adaptation of A Christmas Memory, Capote’s tale of his own humble childhood holiday traditions.
Peter and the Wolf Concert at Old Salem
Enjoy a musical performance of the beloved classic musical fairy tale “Peter and The Wolf,” featuring the Carolina Chamber Symphony Players Woodwind Quartet and percussion. The musical performance is located in the Gray Auditorium inside the Old Salem Visitor Center.
New Year’s Eve at Graylyn
December 30-January 4
Dining experiences, overnight dinner packages and a “Party Like a Gray” dinner party package with a private butler and personal chef are all available.
See the full holiday calendar here.
Photo credits, from top: Cutting dough at Mrs. Hanes and Heritage Bridge in Old Salem courtesy of Visit Winston-Salem, cutting dough at Winkler Bakery video, packing cookies at Mrs. Hanes and Evva and Travis Hanes by Deep South, costumed bakers making cookies in Old Salem and deconstructed Moravian Chicken Pie at Spring House by Deep South, inside Reynolda House courtesy of Visit Winston-Salem, Graylyn Estate from graylyn.com and choir in Old Salem courtesy of Visit Winston-Salem.
Special thanks to Marcheta Keefer with Visit Winston-Salem and Diane Jackson of Tribute Media who hosted me on a culinary press trip to Winston-Salem in May. Their hospitality and planning was unmatched, and the magic of the days spent exploring Old Salem, meeting chefs and farmers, tasting North Carolina wine and resting at Graylyn Estate are hard to put into words. I’ve tried to do the city and Old Salem justice here and hope I’ve succeeded.