Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Bob's Barbecue and the Ballad of Butner, North Carolina

Every serious eater I know has one:  a culinary ground zero.  Be they taquerias for some, or Vietnamese noodle shops for others, these ground zeros are places of gastronomic reckoning where everything these eaters might have known (or thought they knew) about food is suddenly and irrevocably blown to smithereens, destroyed by that otherwise innocuous morsel of street food at the end of their plastic forks.  They are places of epiphany, agencies of awakening, these eateries, and they show the newly hatched culinary enthusiast that food is not merely fodder for one’s own gob hole whose sole purpose is to kill the biological imperative of appetite, or to negate the physiological response of smoking a joint and jonesing for a jumbo cheese pizza.  No, these places are the holy places of cuisine where the oracles of gastronomy labor in near-total obscurity under mysterious shrouds of grill smoke and in whose cuisines are secreted a thousand tales telling of who they are and from whence they came.  In such places, an eater can learn about the world in a single afternoon, and it often tastes of salvation.

For me, that place is Bob’s.  Situated in north-central North Carolina just off I-85 at the end of an otherwise unremarkable service road where weary travelers go to gas up and buy smokes, and where culinary ambition would seemingly want to crawl off and die, Bob’s Barbecue, with it’s naugahyde chairs and V.F.W. karaoke-night vibe, was where I first became the eater I am today, where I was first dimly able to decode the signs and signifiers on my plate, and where I first realized I had my head so far up my own ass I was incapable of really and truly understanding anything about American cuisine.  You should forgive me that.  I was then a young culinary turk from Missouri farm country newly embarked on a career in the Washington food world, and like all recent converts insecure in their convictions, I was comically overzealous in my adherence to the orthodoxy of my new faith.  If the food wasn’t somehow a derivation of Franco gastronomy, I wasn’t fucking eating it.  No poulet basquaise on the menu?  No coq au vinI’ll go hungry thank you very much was the vibe I was throwing at restaurateurs in those days.  Quite a bold culinary stance to take on a road trip from Washington to Atlanta, I know, because Wendy’s, then as now, wasn’t exactly down with the whole sous vide thing, and McDonalds didn’t offer cote de boeuf on its 99 cent menu.  But it was lunchtime and I was hungry.  Really, really hungry.  As in:  eat or black out at the wheel.  So I pulled off the interstate at Butner and navigated the blight—the McDonalds, the Sonic, the Hardee’s—that American road food has become, determined, in my delirium, that I would rather capture and consume a local house pet before capitulating to the culinary menace of those evil golden arches.  No cocker spaniels died that day, I am pleased to report, because I happened to find Bob’s, looking for all the world like a shopworn Veterans of Foreign Wars bingo palace, but promising authentic North Carolina barbecue by the pig smoke adrift on the mid-day air. 

So I rolled into the gravel lot and entered Bob’s, convinced, as any twenty-something culinary know-it-all would be, that the food before me was going to be bad, hardly worth eating, food for rednecks, a simpleton’s cuisine.  But I was hungry enough to eat my left hand, and no matter how bad Bob’s might be, it would be infinitely better, I knew, than the shit purveyed by the evil laughing clown down the street.  So I ordered.  Grudgingly.  Then I sat.  And ate.  And when I emerged from Bob’s, thirty, maybe forty minutes later, I was different somehow.  Forever changed.  For what I encountered inside Bob’s was an American cuisine so pure, so elemental, so fucking good, that I realized with the kind of clarity that comes only to fools and idiot savants, that I was wrong about everything.  My fixation on haute cuisine, on so-called molecular gastronomy, on the cult of Escoffier, all it had been misguided, a fool’s errand, all of it deeply and profoundly wrong.  I hail from Missouri, after all.  Both sets of grandparents were farmers for crying eye.  I could ride a horse and shoot a gun before I could write my own name.  Bob’s food reminded me of this.  It was a looking glass, of sorts, in which I saw who I really was as an eater, and that this culinary identity of mine was somehow eternally fixed by the topography of my birth.  A new world of gastronomic possibility opened up for me inside Bob’s, a decidedly working-class, farm-and-labor culinary landscape decidedly devoid of the fussy, ephemeral, and sauce-heavy cuisines so central to the largely unsuccessful apprenticeship of my own food self-education.  Driving away from Bob’s after that first visit, I resolved to toss my black turtlenecks, chuck my Gitanes, and pawn my well-thumbed copy of La Technique the moment I got home, and I felt suddenly unencumbered, light-headed, and free at last.

I visited Bob’s Barbecue last week on a road trip to Asheville.  It was as I had remembered it:  a squat and Post Office-like building marooned at the barren end of a Carolina service road.  And if the women behind the counter were not the same woman in person, they were the same in type:  sweet little old ladies in aprons and hair nets and rose water perfume whom you might imagine having just arrived from a Southern Baptist bake sale and who call you darlin’ as they serve you the kind of barbecue that changes lives.  For Bob’s service methods employ a relic of the old South; Bob’s serves cafeteria style.  You take a tray (by the glass pie case loaded with sweet goodness) and order your protein (presumably pork, though fried catfish and chicken livers are available) from a lady whose job it is to scoop an enormous dollop of chopped pork (with creamy cole slaw) onto a Frisbee-sized bun.  She plates your pork sandwich on Styrofoam, then passes it to the hushpuppy lady.  The hushpuppy lady deposits a gloved handful of hushpuppies into a paper basket, then pushes your tray to the green bean lady.  The green bean lady scoops an enormous portion of bacon-infused beans onto your plate, then hands you the tray and sends you down the line to the cashier.  The little old cashier smiles and asks you if you’d like tea.  You do.  She hands you a Styrofoam cup filled with shaved ice, takes your money, and sends you off with yet another smile and the promise of bottomless hushpuppies.  Oh, yes.  That’s right.  Unlimited fried corn meal.  So you fill your cup with (very) sweet tea, take a seat at a simulated wood grain table, and tuck into some of the best barbecue you’re likely to ever encounter. 

Barbecue aficionados will be quick to point out that Bob’s, by decree of its location, is necessarily of the Lexington school of barbecue, which emphasizes pork shoulder (Eastern Carolina utilizes all parts of the pig except the squeal) and whose approach to sauce is milder and relatively more laid back on the topic of catsup (it usually contains but a dram) than Eastern Carolina orthodoxy allows.  I strongly favor Bob’s pumped up, eastern-styled counterpart (see my earlier blog entry on Wilber’s Barbecue of Goldsboro for that) and yeah, Bob’s pig could certainly benefit from a much bigger dose of hickory smoke, but I dare you to find a barbecue joint anywhere in the state that serves up a superior or more highly distilled essence of rural North Carolina itself.  I can find really good barbecue almost anywhere in that great state, sure.  But nowhere else in my extensive Carolina adventures have I ever found a truer, purer, more crystalline specimen of what it means to eat smoked, chopped pig, shoulder to shoulder with farmers, with mechanics, with sweet little old ladies from the local Southern Baptist Church.  It’s why we eat.  Nourishment.  Reprieve from toil.  Communion with the people at the true still point of this turning world.  And for this eater, Bob’s is my church; it’s patrons, my Carolina congregation.

For the record:  Bob’s serves the best hushpuppies I’ve ever eaten.  And when you visit Bob’s, as I know you will, please wear rose water as your perfume, ladies, and gents, make sure that’s pomade billowing your lovely locks, and for the love of Pete, one and all, enjoy the aroma.  It gets no finer anywhere else in Carolina.

They have no website, praise Jesus, so there is no link to offer.  But there is this.  An address.

Bob's Barbecue
1589 Lake Road
Creedmoor, North Carolina 27522