Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Two Days Across Carolina - A Fool's Errand, Revisited

Carolina barbecue.  The preparation seems simple enough, right?  Smoke a pig.  Chop it up.  Season it with vinegar.  Scoop it onto a bun.  Hit it with slaw.  Serve. That’s it.  No rocket science required.  So why should something so simple invite hyperbole with tired old tropes like food of the gods, or penultimate last meal to describe such proletarian fare?  Why should a workaday cuisine so perfectly unfussy become a widely accepted fetish-like lifestyle choice for food obsessives, gastronomic cultists, and competitive amateur cooks, who might otherwise do something better with their time (like find cure cancer, or pursue the last digit of Pi)?  Why should something so central to America’s unabashedly egalitarian culinary self-identity spawn such fiendishly sectarian conflict among barbecue scholastics and devotees as to result in deeply undemocratic name calling, with the nomenclature of slurs based on delineations drawn by seemingly blood-sworn allegiances to tomatoes or vinegar, to animals that go oink and moo?

Because as anyone who has ever eaten a properly prepared Carolina pig knows, barbecue is anything but a simple food.  For some, barbecue is a deeply elemental—even spiritual—ritual involving fire and smoke designed to coerce the Gods-of-Flavor into rendering truly transcendent what had otherwise been a pedestrian section of unremarkable shoat.  For others, barbecue is an infinitely complex exercise in food science, wherein flavor concepts like the Maillard reaction and the fabled smoke ring are pursued the way zealots chase gods, the way mystics hunt ghosts through clouds and layers of dimension.  Even the spelling of the word itself (barbecue v. barbeque v. bar-b-que) has been cause for broken noses and fist-busted lips for decades.

Make no mistake about it:  barbecue is ethereal.  It lives in the most esoteric nether regions of gastronomy, and it’s the foodstuff of the true culinary aesthete.  If Morrissey ate meat, he’d do barbecue as a drug.  And barbecue is why, with just two days left to burn on my most recent Christmas vacation, I chose to visit eight barbecue restaurants across three hundred miles of North Carolina backcountry, searching for the ultimate in smoked pig.  A fool’s errand, I know, and as ill-advised as some Conradian quest upriver to vanquish an ever-elusive culinary Kurtz.  But barbecue will do that to an eater.  It will impair his judgment.  Upend reason.  Imbue one with truly Falstaffian appetites.  And it will incite impulses and behaviors routinely indulged only by junkies and crack heads, whose compulsions are never, ever checked at the door.  Eight restaurants located in five different cities across three altogether distinct barbecue regions of North Carolina.  So off I went, as with everything I do, hoping for the best.


I started my journey here for several reasons:  because it’s about five minutes from my mother’s house; because I’ve been here before; because I’ve always found it a place where I could comfortably reorient myself with the rigors of stuffing my gobhole with barbecue without attracting too much undue attention; and, well, because, I really like the place.  Bar-B-Que House of Oak Island is always good, and ever reliable.  It’s already been subject to one of my pork-fat-smeared reviews, so I’ll not belabor its virtues too emphatically yet again.  Let’s just say I found it as charming as ever for all the ways any always-busy-in-the summer restaurant so sullenly wears its mid-winter, always-slow-in-the-off-season ennui.  I also found it delicious.  Located in sight of the Atlantic Ocean, this restaurant can’t get any more geographically eastern.  But style-wise, Bar-B-Que House defies barbecue orthodoxy by offering ALL the sauces in the Carolina canon.  Lexington.  Eastern.  South Carolina-style.  They’re all here.  And they’re offered with the palpably giddy irreverence that attends all heretics in their happy little hearts.  I ordered pork, ribs, and Brunswick stew.  My chopped pork was a thing of quiet beauty, almost demure in the triumph of being delicious, while the pork ribs—like any better-looking understudy forever trying to steal the spotlight—rang against my teeth like castanets.  New to me was the Bar-B-Q House’s Brunswick stew.  And while thin enough in broth to pass for soup, it came off surprisingly complex for a dish whose sole purpose on a menu is to act as culinary clearinghouse for restaurant leftovers.  Bar-B-Que House is one of the reasons I’m glad where my mother lives where she does.  I get to visit again and again.

Flip's Bar-B-Que
Flip’s Bar-B-Que is the kind of establishment the more nostalgic element of the barbecue contingent dreams of.  It’s that now-down-at-the-heels relic of bygone era of home-style hospitality where rough-handed roofers and roughnecks still congregate along the naugahyde swivel stools of the lunch counter to spill town gossip.  It’s also where the silver-haired proprietor, Bob Church, plies his well-honed talents as the lone cook, lone waiter, and lone all-around-nice-guy.  At its present location for 62 years now, Flip’s has been owned and operated by Mr. Church for the last 26.  And while the glory of Flip’s seems—on first glance—a bit faded (along with its nautical décor) the place should be met on its own terms.  Flip’s advertises itself as home cooking, and that’s the very experience its food imparts.  Eating at Flip’s is like dining at the table of your favorite uncle.  Flavor profiles might not pop as they should—just as your uncle never learned to deploy MSG to wake even the most somnambulant of ingredients—but the food at Flip’s tastes truly homemade.  Everything here is made in-house.  Everything.  The two undisputed heavyweight champions of Flip’s menu are its deep fried mac-n-cheese (a Velveeta-like cheese product likely more addictive than Lou Reed’s personal stash of heroin) and what turned out to be the best barbecue sauce of the entire trip.  The sauce (made on site, bottled by hand) is a wickedly accomplished East Carolina reinterpretation of that uniquely South Carolinian riff on mustard sauce.  Think Jimi Hendrix playing the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock, and you’ll have some idea as to how deeply Mr. Church has fucked with tradition.  Mr. Church sells the sauce by the gallon to places as far removed from the Carolina coast as Bakersfield, California, and it alone is reason enough to visit Flip’s.  A jar of Mr. Church’s sauce would do you good.  Get some.

Casey's Buffet
If you turn left to leave Flip’s, you will, before you can count to ten-Mississippi, have arrived at the stupefyingly bountiful Casey’s Buffet.  Self-described as “Barbecue & Home Cookin’,” Casey’s is more soul food emporium than a traditional barbecue joint.  Consider what must surely be one of the most calorically-dense (and delicious) menus of all-time:  chopped pork, fried chicken, fried gizzards, catfish, whiting, deviled crab, fat back, chitlins [sic], field peas, turnips, collards, okra, hushpuppies.  It’s all here.  And pig’s feet.  Always pig’s feet.  Owned and operated by Gena and Larry Casey since 2005 (Larry being a dead-ringer for famed Mississippi novelist and namesake, Larry Brown) Casey’s is a veritable Mardi Gras of soul food good vibrations.  Patrons are loud, even boisterous (for the normally staid Wilmington eating crowd) and every employee here—on my visit—was clearly dedicated to her mission that no buffet item should be anything less than fresh and piping hot, and that no glass of sweet tea should fail to brim with the sugary good stuff (thanks to the delightful Renee, Jedi-warrior of the tea pitcher).  And while there were minor inconsistencies in the excellence of some savory offerings (expected at buffets so varied and large) all of it was good; some of it flirted with the truly great.  So even for the buffet-averse among you, even for the trotter-phobic, comes an entreaty, from me, to go to Casey’s if you’re ever in Wilmington, and sit elbow-to-elbow with the most spirited group of hungry strangers you’re ever likely to meet.  It’s a dining experience almost without parallel the world over, and it’s little found anywhere outside the deep American South.  And in case you were wondering, the pig’s feet are to die for. 

Jackson's Big Oak Barbecue
But if it’s the gold standard of Wilmington, North Carolina, barbecue you seek, if it’s the reigning champion of chopped pork in New Hanover Country, look no further than Jackson’s Big Oak BBQ.  These guys aren’t messing around.  Named for the unbelievably large live oak tree towering behind the restaurant, Jackson’s simultaneously evokes both the down-home charm of a mom-and-pop food stand, and the hurry-up-idiot-the-food-is-getting-cold efficiency of a well-run culinary machine.  As my meal at Jackson’s represented my fourth in as many hours, I kept it simple.  I ordered the pork barbecue sandwich (topped with coleslaw) and a side of their magnificent sauce.  One bite of the pork, and I knew all roads for barbecue enthusiasts in the lower Cape Fear region lead here, to Jackson’s.  Fresh, vibrant, with all the requisite tanginess required of east Carolina barbecue, the pork at Jackson’s was head and shoulders above anything I’d tasted that day.  Credit the freshness of my freshly-chopped sandwich, or credit the steady hand behind Jackson’s perfectly ebullient bright-red vinegar sauce, but what I tasted in Jackson’s pork were barbecue masters at their delicious best.  My only regret was that I lacked any of the requisite internal real estate to pursue their side dishes—the fried okra, the mysteriously-named corn sticks—but now I have an excuse to return to Jackson’s, and return I most certainly shall. 


Smithfield's Chicken 'N Bar-B-Q
So why fried chicken?  Why now, in the middle of all this barbecue madness, with my brain at its most addled with food obsession and porcine fever (and with the prospect of having to eat four more sandwiches that day), would I stop at Smithfield’s Chicken ‘N Bar-B-Q in tiny Warsaw, North Carolina, and order a four-piece box?  Because I would have been a fool not to.  Because on a balmy Saturday in the South, when Smithfield’s (and other local chain restaurants kindred in culinary spirit) are at their busiest, they are most certainly at their very, very best.  To have a piece of perfectly golden, perfectly crusted, peppery yardbird lifted from the fry grease, then moved—within nanoseconds and with ninja-like skill—from a fry basket, to a paper box, to the loving lip-lock of your own waiting mouth, is one of life’s keenest gastronomic joys.  And on days like the day I visited, no one in North Carolina, and I mean no one, is doing fried chicken better than Smithfield’s.  Not the eighty-five-year-old church lady, who fries in cast iron at every Sunday social.  Not the rice-necked, cotton-haired Southern belle, with a grease-stained recipe passed down through every generation of family cooks since Reconstruction.  So look for a crowded parking lot when passing by.  Look for old men in dirty denim shirts, disembarking from pick up trucks, with snake blood on their hands.  That’s when you go to Smithfield’s.  So do.  For the love of Pete.



The Pit
The Pit.  I wanted to hate this place.  Really I did.  For I imagined—on first entering—that I had finally discovered a Carolina barbecue purveyor who was the very anathema of how a barbecue restaurant should look.  How it should feel.  How it should smell.  The problem:  it wasn’t dirty.  It wasn’t dangerous.  And it most certainly didn’t make me regret I wasn’t packing large-caliber heat.  The Pit evoked precisely the opposite.  It achieved that sense of casual luxury that so many restaurants strive for, and few actually attain:  it was nice.  Located in a hipster-dense Raleigh neighborhood of erstwhile warehouses now converted into trendy eateries, The Pit is a lovely destination, offering everything you’d ever want from a restaurant for a Saturday meal.   It’s bright.  It’s clean.  It’s still got that “new car smell.”  And the décor successfully flirts with kinda swank.  They have a highly-competent staff (smartly clad in black, no less), who serve in teams of three to attend your every gastronomic want.  And if that weren’t anti-barbecue-establishment enough, The Pit even has a fucking wine cellar.  You read that right:  it has a wine cellar.  In lesser hands, these culinary heresies would be an affront to barbecue traditionalists.  They would be food crimes.  Injustices.  And they would have purists crying for the pitmaster's head so it could be dragged through the streets.   More often than not, I would agree with that angry mob.  Usually the zealots--and it pains me to admit this--are right.  But in this case, no.  Not here.  Not now.  Because The Pit produces seriously delicious, entirely legit, barbecued pork with Carolina-certified street cred.  I ordered and tucked into a plate of the stuff, buttressed with two sides—collards and black eyed peas—and was deeply impressed (even shocked) that a restaurant so well run, so pleasant to eat in, could produce barbecue this “authentic” for little more than what amounted to a pittance to pay.  And yes.  You also read that right:  The Pit is relatively cheap, all things considered (demographics, location).  Yet another reason for barbecue purists to hate The Pit, I know, but the restaurant's approach to fair pricing is one of several reasons I’ll be visiting The Pit the next time I blow through Raleigh.  And who knows?  I just might toss back a bottle of red.  Maybe two.  Just as long as you’re driving.  The Pit rubs elbows with the county jail.


Nunnery-Freeman Barbecue
What Brownsville, Texas, is to the criminal narco element of Mexican drug cartels, Henderson is to the world of Carolina barbecue.  It’s the gateway.  It’s the where-you-are-going away from the where-you’ve-too-long-been.  In Henderson, lives are changed.  Habits are formed.  Vistas of a lifetime of great eating begin to appear.  And Henderson is where a great many Northerners—Yankees, if we must—leave southbound I-85 with the innocent-enough intention of grabbing a quick bite, only to reenter traffic an hour later, already way, way deep into the barbecue addiction of always wanting more, more, more.  Yep.  That’s Henderson.  It appears, innocuously enough, as any other Southern town will:  happy enough to sleep it off, whatever that “it” might be.  But look more closely, and Henderson reveals itself for what it truly is:  a gastronomic powerhouse.  A culinary capitol.  A place the food gods have too greatly favored with too much really good barbecue.  Case in point:  the institution that is Nunnery-Freeman.  Forget the strange name (the latter being my own).  Forget the fact that it’s housed in a restaurant space so egalitarian, so pared-down, so purely functional as to seem proto-Soviet in design.  There’s nothing inside Nunnery-Freeman that doesn’t belong there.  Why so?  To make more room for the flavor of their barbecue, I say.  The chopped-pork sandwich is workman-like in its ability to deliver the deliciousness of hickory-smoked pig and the sweetness of its pickle-heavy topping of slaw.  The day of my visit saw two delightful ladies at the helm of Nunnery-Freeman, attending the other only patron, a black man in his late-sixties, a retired big-rig truck driver as it turns out, who, seeing the Virginia plates on my car, asked me to name the best barbecue in the Old Dominion.  I was stumped.  So I asked him to name the best barbecue in Henderson.  He simply raised the pork sandwich and smiled.  Evidently, I had found what I was so desperately questing for.  The best.

Skipper's Forsyth's Bar-B-Q
Or not.  Because not a half-mile up Garnett Street from Nunnery-Freeman, is the equally remarkable Skipper’s Forsyth’s Bar-B-Q.  Aesthetically, Skipper’s is the Yin to Nunnery-Freeman’s Yang.  It’s a veritable barbecue restaurant time machine where the cinderblock walls are painted the hue of Jell-O green, and where ghostly harmonies of the Carter Family wouldn’t be out of place, were that a wheezy old jukebox where the television now resides.  And while Skipper’s could hardly be more aesthetically different from its neighbor down the street, the food couldn’t be any more similar.  Nearly identical, in fact.  I don’t mean that in a bad way, of course.  They've achieved the same perfect level of smoke on the meat.  The same chop.  The same bun.  And like twins separated at birth, I wouldn’t have been able to tell the sandwiches apart were it not for the fact that Nunnery-Freeman uses white paper bags, while Skipper’s bags theirs in plain brown.  I know what you’re thinking.  To have your life’s work declared a “tie” in both deliciousness and savor with the food of your nearest competitor by a Missouri farm-boy turned Yankee-food-bitch from Washington, D.C., must be grounds for stringing me up from the low branch of a sycamore tree by my big toe.  But wait.  Here, in this bizzaro world of barbecue doppelgangery, the pronouncement of a “tie” is good for everybody involved, purveyors and consumers alike.  Both Nunnery-Freeman and Skipper’s Forsyth’s Bar-B-Q are both producing remarkably good food; each is truly a jewel in the crown of Carolina’s barbecue supremacy.  Don’t just take my word for it.  As I was leaving Skipper’s, I passed two Vance County Sherrif’s deputies seated at a table by the door.  I asked them who—between Nunnery-Freeman and Skipper’s—had the best barbecue in Henderson.  Neither missed a beat:  both, they said.  The very definition of a tie, if I ever did hear one.


Backyard BBQ Pit
False epiphany is poison to food writing—to all writing, for that matter.  Food writers, more than any other, I suppose, are tempted to manufacture and graft a narrative arc (rising action, denouement) onto stories about their food quest and consumption—stories that are otherwise as flat as the Kansas prairie—or falsely set the fairy-fire of sudden culinary wisdom dancing above their own heads.  Food writers buy.  We sit.  We eat.  We leave.  That’s pretty much it.  So that’s why I hesitate to describe what was easily the single greatest barbecue sandwich of my most recent two-day quest.  Because were I inventing my own food epiphany, this is precisely how I would write it:  intenerate food professional (me), driving a late-model VW station wagon with a little girl’s pink bicycle lashed to the roof (long story), approaches a roadside barbecue stand in a highly distressed part of a well-known Southern town.  Our good food professional (still me) then enters what is easily the dirtiest, strangest smelling restaurant he’s ever been in, only to witness a fight between two combatants in the restaurant’s tiny kitchen—the very same fight that sends the elderly dishwasher scampering out into the dining room with but a single proclamation for the world:  they have knives!  Naturally, our tale must take a turn toward the surreal as the breathtakingly beautiful girl behind the counter pretends that nothing out of the ordinary is taking place.  She smiles a radiant, perfectly coquettish smile, and asks our brave food professional (yep, still me) if she might take his order.

The story has it all.  Conflict.  Interracial sexual tension.  Barbecue.  Knife play!  And it would nicely lay the framework for the “big reveal,” wherein I tell you that this place, this ramshackle, graffiti-covered, violence-filled place, was where I discovered what was far and away the best barbecue of my entire trip.

Only now I wouldn’t be making it up.

Because that is how it all went down.  That is how it actually happened.

I don’t know why we journeyman eaters always find the best food in the worst of places.  It’s happened countless times to me, where the best this-or-that I’ve eaten comes at great personal risk, be it as bad as a stabbing, or something as relatively minor as freckling the bowl for a few colon-cleansing hours.  I’ve polled friends on the subject and their answers invariably follow three explanations:  that the threat of poisoning by food greatly heightens awareness of what one is actually eating, and because of that, flavors are more pronounced; that our already-hard-wired sexual response to eating (swelling lips, quickening breath, increasing salivation) is further stimulated by the taboo of putting ourselves—our bodies—at risk; or that some of the most interesting flavors often come from the dirtiest of places and the most unlikeliest of flavoring agents like, well, dirt.

This, of course, in no way suggests the magnificent Backyard BBQ Pit—scene of my most recent “greatest meal”—is out of compliance with the sanitation codes and safe food-handling practices of its governing jurisdiction.  It is to suggest, however, that the Backyard BBQ Pit is the kind of restaurant that barbecue enthusiasts spend days and nights dreaming about:  ramshackle, bombed out, devoid of white people, a still-obscure source of truly amazing, somehow indigenous-tasting chopped pork. I ordered just the sandwich, and I opted to forego saucing it to better pursue a purist’s joy of naked pork.  How was it?  Pork this good should be criminal.  Because I wasn’t half way through my sandwich before I was inventing ways to quit my job, ditch my family, pull up stakes, and move close enough to Backyard BBQ Pit to eat it every single day.  My only condition:  that the lads in the kitchen work out their differences.  Hug it out, maybe.  And no more knives.

So what kind of epiphany did two days of eating at eight restaurants across three hundred miles of Carolina backcountry produce?  A real one, I fear, delivered in three equally damning parts:  that I had not the time (nor the stamina) to eat in the very important barbecue epicenters of Lexington and Greensboro, and had, insodoing, missed additional chances at porcine glory; that culinary greatness—or the pursuit of—often produces gastronomic homogeneity; and that I now know enough about Carolina barbecue to realize I actually know nothing about it at all. 

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