It started as just a cookout on the banks of the Yadkin River, but after a drowning teen was rescued from the rain-swollen water, the meal was especially comforting.
Catawba College communication arts lecturer Cyndi Allison Wittum was excited about being selected to host a Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24 meal. Foodbuzz is the third largest international "foodie" website, and they consider proposals and sponsor 24 chefs showcasing 24 meals over a 24 hour period with cooking blogs to follow. Cyndi did not, however, bank on her son rescuing a drowning teenager right in the middle of the meal she prepared on Saturday, May 30th.
"Eli went in the river," said Evelyn Allison (Cyndi's mother). "They can't find him."
Cyndi had no idea what was going on. She knew her son Eli, a 16-year-old sophomore at West Rowan High School, had had Boy Scout training in swimming and lifesaving, had just passed the YMCA lifeguard classes at the Salisbury Y, and that he had been hired to start work there next week (week of June 1). She couldn't imagine that he'd be in the Yadkin River with the water up after rain during the week.
"It didn't make sense," says Cyndi. "Eli is a solid swimmer, but he would not be out there with the water churning the way it was on Saturday. He'd know it wasn't safe to swim."
Cyndi dropped her tongs and ran down the edge of the bank looking for Eli. Some fishermen told her that the kids had made it to the bank on the other side. She headed back to the Carolina Cook Out site at the Bull Hole and hoped that her son was safe as sirens blared in the background.
"The men in the group were much faster and were on down the river," says Cyndi. "I just started putting chicken and hot dogs on the grill. I knew that I needed to stay busy. I've been grilling so long that I can do that on auto pilot. I didn't want to let my imagination go wild."
One of the men returned to the grill area and said that Eli had gone in the river after a local teenager who was drowning. Eli grabbed the boy who struggled and then sunk under the water. Eli dove under and pulled the teen above water, then drifted down with the current until he was able to grab some low hanging tree branches.
"His head was rolled forward," said Eli. "I yelled, ‘Tip your head back.' And, he did. Then, he started to cough."
Some men fishing helped pull the teen through the mud to the edge of the Yadkin where he drifted in and out of consciousness.
"He was breathing and talking some," said Eli. "He would open his eyes and say ‘thanks.'"
Eli borrowed a cell phone and called 911 for help. The Rescue Squad and Cooleemee police officers responded quickly and took the teen to the hospital.
Eli and a friend who had tracked the action down the edge of the river returned to the cook out covered in mud. Eli had a lot of scratches from hitting the trees with the drowning teen locked under one arm. But, he was, otherwise, fine.
"I was so thrilled to see Eli walk up," said Cyndi. "Even when people tell you that things are fine, you have to wonder. Maybe they are just waiting for someone else to come with the bad news."
The Foodbuzz Carolina Cook Out continued on with burgers, hot dogs, chicken, pork loin, corn on the cob - all off the grill. There were plenty of side dishes provided by family and friends and some traditional North Carolina desserts like Strawberry Punch Bowl Cake, Coconut Cake, and watermelon.
Most of the meal featured area products like beans with Frank Corriher sausage, strawberries from Patterson's Farms, cantaloupe from Wetmore Farms, Lowe's grill gear, Food Lion for supplies, and Cheerwine.
"I wanted to share our culture and the things that make our area special," said Cyndi. "Foodbuzz is international, and I was happy to have a chance to tell people around the globe about our home town and the things that make this a great place."
In addition to Cyndi's family, she had friends visiting from other towns across North Carolina and alumni from Catawba College at the Carolina Cook Out on the Yadkin. It was an interesting mix of people ranging in ages from toddlers to senior citizens.
"In the end, the Carolina Cook Out was about what matters," said Cyndi. "It's family. It's friends. It's people you don't even know who step up and help when needed. Good food is the icing on the cake. Every bite was sweet with everyone safe and sitting there at the Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24 cook out with red plastic plates filled to overflowing."