James “Pockets” Carter doesn’t say much these days. Working with large animals is hard on the legs, especially when they're high strung racing horses who sometimes kick. Add to that years of standing in front of a stove, and the once-outgoing Pockets is feeling the strain. But Aiken, South Carolina, his home for more than 50 years, is missing its maestro of breakfast.
Breakfast in Aiken means the Track Kitchen. This modest building on a dirt road a short distance from the training track is basically the kitchen table for this Southern horse-racing town. It's open most days during the Aiken season and Carol Carter, Pockets’ wife who has cooked by his side for years, and Avery, his grandson, are cracking the eggs and pouring the coffee these days and his son Bernard helps out on the weekends. But for 30 years, Track Kitchen’s breakfast was just as much about Pockets’ lanky presence behind the counter as what was on the plate. From trainers to owners, groomers to horse photographers, Aiken comes together over breakfast with Pockets and Carol at the Track Kitchen. Color doesn’t matter, age doesn’t matter; it’s all about the horse talk and creamy grits.
James “Pockets” Carter was born in Camden, SC. When he was 10 years old, he lived near a horse farm and fell in love with the animals. He knew then he wanted to be a rider and when he became old enough, he rode and cared for show horses in the area, then moved to Aiken to work for big stables. It was there that he married Aiken native Carol, and was dubbed “Pockets” because he always had his hands stuffed in them. Pockets traveled extensively on the racing circuit, and from 1963 to 1977, specifically worked in and out of New York's Belmont Park, spending the summers there and the winters in Aiken. This is a man who loves horses and racing culture and he came to realize that as his body aged, he could still be a part of it that world through cooking.
Pockets began this new chapter by driving a food truck between the stables, offering simple items such as an egg and cheese sandwich or a cup of coffee for sale to the people he already knew. “I don’t know how exactly I got in the cooking picture,” he recalls. “It was always just something I did.”
He catered if someone asked, digging a pit for a barbecue or whipping up a batch of red rice. But when the owner of the original Track Kitchen moved on, Pockets took his new post off the track, but not far away. Breakfast is where, to use a racing term, he hit his stride, with Carol right next to him.
“He knows your name, knows your horses,” says Ron Stevens, past president of the Aiken Training Track and still part owner in Legacy Stable. Ron’s Track Kitchen breakfast of choice is fried eggs, fried potatoes, and bacon, and just like many of the people I spoke with in Aiken, he loves the images of the horses on the walls. “I like to visit there with my wife and kids,” he says. “You see Aiken eating there, from grooms to oil men up to visit their horses. And all those pictures on the wall of the horses are great.”
“Pockets has so many great stories about the horses he’s rubbed,” says Annie Mitchell-Pezzano, who has wintered in Aiken every year since 1978. “I’d often go into the Track Kitchen to chat with him and ask him about catering an event. I’ve known him and Carol for years.”
Aiken is one of those towns some people from other parts of the country imagine when they imagine the South. It’s anchored in ideas of tradition and the proper way to do things, full of haves and have-nots, been heres versus newcomers, the good old days pitted against times have changed. Aiken isn’t exempt from some of the ideas of race and gender and class that still clearly exist in many ways in this country. But Pockets insists that when it comes to cooking and eating, “It makes no difference what color you were. I cook everything. It’s about what you want. I can make it for you.”
Lisa Hall, Museum Coordinator of the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame & Museum, takes staff members (upon their request) to Track Kitchen for a holiday lunch every year. Cot Campbell, owner of Dogwood Stable, eats french toast and grits most every Saturday for breakfast. Pockets liked to occasionally keep a pot of hog maws and rice on a back burner for people who like a little bowl of soul food. Then there’s eggs, ham and cheese sandwiches, coffee, bacon and all the usuals. But it’s the people, especially Pockets and Carol, who make Track Kitchen special.
“I love it. I miss the people, I miss the work,” Pockets says. Carol adds, “We always said, anybody’s welcome.”