Monday, August 12, 2013

Westward Ho. The Other Half of NC 'Cue


The cannibalistic welcome at Smiley's!
 Last year at about this time, I undertook a one-day grand tour of the pre-eminent BBQ joints in Eastern North Carolina.  This year, I can’t match the range of that sampling, or be certain that I’ve covered the joints that are not to be missed. But I was able to procure a minor sampling of some of the well-known spots in Lexington NC in the course of two visits (one week, heading to Asheville; the next week, returning from it).  Now Lexington is renowned in ‘Q circles as the epicenter of Western Carolina barbecue, so I thought it was worth the slight diversion from the straight shot of I-40 to get a taste or three.  I must also admit that Western style cue has far fewer advocates here in the Triangle, so my familiarity with “the Best Western BBQ” is less certain than what I knew of the Eastern Circuit.  I’m sure I’ve missed some of the finest spots. Including anything and everything NOT in Lexington.
 
A brief primer: there are 2 primary differences between the Eastern and Western Carolina moieties.  1) Eastern style is usually (certainly not always) made from whole hogs, which are finely chopped into a smoky, slightly crunchy mix.  Western style uses only shoulder, and tends to have less weird bits in it - but it also features what is called “outside brown,” the caramelized bit of meat on the outside of the well-smoked shoulders (slightly resembling burnt-ends of brisket for you KC types and Trillin aficionados). 2) the REAL difference, the impermeable divide twixt East and West, is the sauce.  Eastern style sauce is plain.  It’s usually nothing more than cider vinegar and pepper, sometimes a lot of pepper, sometimes red and black pepper, every so often some sugar. But that’s IT.  Western style contains the either dreaded or beloved touch of ketchup, just enough to thicken the sauce (not make it gloppy, but think of the difference between vinegar and a vinaigrette) and add a tomato-y sweetness.  For Westerners, the sauce balances out the smokiness of the pork. For Easterners, it buries the pure flavor of pig under the cover of, well KETCHUP!  I’m not an indigenous Tar Heel, and I have no dog in the fight, so I’m happy to endorse either version.

My first trip was on a Sunday afternoon, which left me with exactly one option: Smiley’s, the only barbecue establishment open on Sundays in Lexington. 
Curb service at Smiley's!
One of the joys of Carolina is that a Sunday afternoon “dinner” will draw a diverse crowd.  
There are always a handful of folks in their Sunday best, fresh from their weekly worship. And a sizable crew that looks like they haven’t slept since they started tearing it up on a dirt oval track on Friday night that featured many a jar of ‘shine.  Saints and sinners, one side looking out for the other, all setting down to a Sunday dinner of ‘cue. This was certainly the scene at Smiley’s last Sunday.

As I seated myself at the table, my waitress handed me my menu and noted “We have chicken today.”  Which I took as a pretty good indication that I better get some.  Indeed, Smiley’s is celebrated for its smoky bbq chicken, as much as its pig, and it is our good fortune that they offer a combination plate.  A quarter chicken and a nice portion of ‘cue, with two sides. In my case, that meant the de riguer bbq slaw – a concoction of chopped cabbage dressed with that tangy, tomato-y sauce – as well as a mess of fried okra.  Where there is meat, there must be bread, and so you can get corn sticks, dinner rolls, or these highly enticing hush puppies.

As you can see, I am happy to recommend Smiley’s . . . 
Let me add that the chicken is not to be scoffed at, which is a rarity in a barbecue joint.  Chicken tends to dry out when subjected to the same treatment as a collagen-laden pork shoulder, but not Smiley’s. How they do it, I couldn’t tell you, but that shouldn’t stop you from eating your fill of it.

Fast-forward one week to the return trip to Lexington.  This time, I headed home and in a bit more of a hurry, so I didn’t stop for a leisurely lunch. But I did make sure to hit up two establishments to sample their wares. First, the Barbecue Center. More or less in downtown Lexington, the Center features a lovely diner banquet that almost demands that you  order a slice of pie.. 



  Alas, no pie for me, just a chopped sandwich and a pound of bbq to go


Then I make my way over to what may be the single-most celebrated spot in the Carolinas: Lexington Barbecue #1.



  As you can see it is HOPPING on a steamy, summer, Piedmont Saturday. As it should be, because this is food you want to partake of whenever the opportunity presents itself.  I am surely not the lone pilgrim to this heaping barn of an eatery, loads of folks passing through, or near – or far – from Lexington have descended on #1 to indulge.
 


Where they put the flavor in that pork at #1

So how does it all taste?? Here you have some highly representative sandwiches. The Center’s wrapped in foil, #1 in butcher paper.  You can really see the red slaw in the Center’s offering – but what is most notable about their ‘cue is how moist it is. 

 Drippy, in fact.  The juices dribble to your elbows as you gobble down the meat on a bun.  This isn’t a bad thing in a ‘cue. It keeps the flavor well distributed, as that drippy juice is mostly, yeah you guessed it, viscous pork fat.  (It might interest kind readers to note that I prepared for this bbq indulgence by going vegan for 6 days in between chopped pork! Maybe that gets me off the hook a bit).  

The sandwich from #1, though, that is another thing.  Yes, it’s moist, but the flavor.  Wow. It is a solid punch in the mouth of smoky, piggy boldness.  It is as good as any sandwich I’ve had on this dialectical peregrination, robust and delicate at once, rich but never cloying.  There’s a reason this parking lot is so jammed, and it ain’t the hype, it’s that pig.


The Leavings.
That’s it.  There is loads more bbq to be had in NC, but this is a very representative selection.  Then again, there are myriad styles yet to be toured, the ribs of Memphis, the briskets of Texas and KC, the rib tips of Chicago (I had a fair number of THOSE in the course of 8 years).  These journeys shall have to wait. I am still full.


Thursday, July 26, 2012

The “Iconic Monuments to Eastern Carolina Barbecue” Tour, Or The Day Whole Hogs Would Die




“Where are You From?” or A Heuristic Anthropological Perambulation

You’ve probably been asked this questions thousands of time in your life, and answered it without even thinking about it.  “I’m from Phoenix” “I’m from New England” “I grew up in Wisconsin” “I’m a Southerner.”  But if you stop to think about it, you’ve probably answered it hundreds of different ways. “I’m from the West Side”,  “Out on the Penninsula” “Just off of Western Ave”  “Right around the corner from the school”.  These are all perfectly legitimate answers to the question, and they show just how complicated that simple query can be.  The answer to the question where are you from assumes an understanding of where you are, and your answer to it is necessarily going to vary depending on who’s asking the question, and where they’re asking it.  In this sense, “Where are you from?” is as much a biographical-  and, really, a historical - question as it is geographical.  Your answer will vary with respect to where you are, as well as when you are (as well as the implicit time frame of the person asking you).  If you reply “Around the corner,” or “over by the grocery store” you imply a very different kind of history- your own, as well as the person asking – then you do with “I grew up outside of LA,” or “We live in North Raleigh.”  “Where are you from?” carries with it all of these personal, historical contexts. 
            For all of these reasons, “Where are you from” always implies another, unstated question, that you need to answer simultaneously – that is: how do you know where you are from? How do you know that saying “I’m a Southsider” is going to make sense when you’re talking to somebody in the Loop, but is probably not what you’d tell somebody when your in the Outback?  Is your hometown a place you haven’t lived in forty years? Or the city you’ve lived in for the last twenty? How do you – how do any of us – recognize where we are from? 
            These are all matter that we take for granted, but how we know such things, is shaped by all sorts of more complicated concerns.  Here, in North Carolina, when you ask someone where they (or where “so and so”) comes from, they’re likely to tell you (something like), “I come from Duplin County,” “Up in Rockingham County,” “Out in Buncombe County” [“Really!!! From Bunkum?!”], or “Down in Beaufort County.”  This was quite disorienting for me, not just because I had no idea where any of these places were, but because I didn’t know how to think about “counties” as places that you could come from.  There are a number of places that I have lived where the counties are quite important.   Los Angeles County is one of the biggest polities in the country. I knew that the LA County Board of Supervisors exercised enormous power.  I lived in Cook County, and thought of “the County of Cook” as being quite antagonistic to the city of Chicago – even though Chicago is in Cook County! But it never occurred to me, or anyone I knew, when I lived in these places to say “I’m from LA County” or from Cook County, or any of the other counties in which I’ve resided.   These are all places, but not ones that you’d come from. 
            When you live in North Carolina, knowing what county you come from and where counties are  - and what they are – not only helps answer the question “Where are you from” but it tells you how you know where you are from. “Why counties” is, of course, an interesting question in its own right, with a history specific to British colonialism, land grants, and the like.  
But what I think this kind of example really shows is that the question “Where are you from” also asks what kind of place are you from.  Is it a place of neighborhoods and landmarks and street corners (“You live in the Jones’ house,” that’s what neighbors told us when we lived in the Fan.  Oh, you don’t know “the Fan”? It’s a residential zone near downtown Richmond, VA)? Is it a place that is assumed to be instantly recognizable no matter where you go - “California,” “New York City”  “The French Quarter” – and so it requires no further orientation?  When you tell people where you’re from you’re always telling people about the meaning of that place.
                   Let me just use my own life as an example of how this has to be the case. Where am I from? Below, I just plot my life out in chronological sequence, and lay it out against some places I’ve resided.  Conveniently enough, my life comes in a nice neat 50 year package, so we can trace a half century of years matched to places. 




1962
1963
1964-66
1966-73
1973-80
1980-84
1984-88
NYC
Cleveland, OH
West Point, NY
Shaker Heights, OH
Flintridge, CA
Hanover, NH
Chicago, IL
Med school [dad]
Intern [dad]
Military service
Elementary
Middle, High School
College
Grad School




1988-1990
1990-1993
1993-94
1994-1996
1996-97
1997-2003
2003-04
2004-12
Tanzania
Chicago
Williamsburg, VA
Richmond VA
Santa Fe
Richmond
Chapel Hill, NC
Carrboro, NC
Field Research
Dissertation
Assistant Prof
Assistant Prof
Fellow
Associate Prof
Fellow
Professor

  
Top lines, year> Middle, place > Bottom, Activity.


When you lay my life out flat like this, it’s hard to decide where I’m from.  How should I (how would you, if this were your chronotope) answer the question? Should I tell you where I have lived the longest? As it happens, I have lived in my current home in Carrboro for more time than I have lived in any single residence in my life.  But I would never say that I from North Carolina. When you add Virginia and NC, that’s about 19 years of my life.  As a single block of time, that’s longer than I have lived in any other “region” of the country? But I’m not a Southerner, in spite of that almost 20 years. I spent a solid chunk of time in Chicago  - and these were quite formative years of my life, when I learned my trade, and created a social world that I’m still (mostly) a part of. While I can hardly say “I’m from Chicago,” there are a lot of contexts in which I still do say that I am from Chicago.  When we arrived in Virginia, fresh out of school and starting a new job, saying I was from Chicago told people something about where I was a part of.  Saying I am from Chicago (which only suits certain contexts) tells people something about the meaning of that place, and the kind of place it is, for me.

            But for most purposes, today, if you ask me where I’m from I’ll say, “I’m from Southern California.” And the closer I get to that place the more specific I get. “I’m from near LA” “Outside of Pasadena” “I grew up in Flintridge.”  But, interestingly enough, when I was actually living there, I had a clear sense that I was not from there.  The answer to the question when I lived in “LA” was “I’m from Cleveland” “Ohio” “I’m from back East.” “I’m not from here.”  Throughout most of my life – and this is in some ways idiosyncratic, but certainly not unique to me – “where I’m from” is always “somewhere else.”  Being from somewhere is a reference to acts of moving.  I’m from many places that I have left.

            And this, I think, is not an unusual way for many, many people to think about where they are from.  Let me take a completely alternative example.  I can think of people in my family – and especially my wife’s family – who have lived their entire lives in the “same” place.  Many of my wife’s aunts and uncles – and her father – were born, and raised, and raised their families, and worked, and retired (and you get the picture) in Niagara Falls, NY. And whenever I talk to them about “the Falls” (and I make no claim to pursuing the matter in anything like a systematically ethnographic way) and where they’re from, they always talk about how different the place is. How the neighborhood has changed. How the downtown has died. How the jobs have left.  How new people have moved in.  This is not just a chronicle of decline. It shows that even those living in exactly the same place that they were born have a sense that they are from  “somewhere else.”

            That, I think, is a useful way (just a heuristic! Don’t shoot me!) to think about contemporary Americans' sense of  where they’re from, and the meanings of the places that they have come from. And – if I can really stick my neck out – it’s even a useful way to start thinking about BARBECUE.  Let me say what I mean by that outlandish claim.

            How does it happen that North Carolina has “Carolina Barbecue”? If you’re from North Carolina – and even if you’re not – you might know (you SHOULD know!!) that barbecue is directional.  There’s Texas BBQ, Memphis BBQ, Northern Alabama has its peculiar “white sauced” barbecue.  Kansas City (something of a liminal gateway city on the fringes of the West and the South) has its own style of ‘cue.  Chicago barbecue is sort of a displaced, “Up South” hybrid of Memphis pork and KC saucing. And of course, there isn’t just Carolina Barbecue (in fact, there may not be such a thing as Carolina Cue, tout cours): there’s Western Carolina Barbecue and Eastern Carolina Barbecue.  Here’s a short primer:  What distinguishes Western Carolina Q is its sauce, a tomato-y (i.e. ketchup) base with vinegar and pepper (red and black).  Western Carolina BBQ is (almost always) slowly smoked pork shoulders, which are then very finely chopped  - and sometimes pulled, and even more rarely sliced – and doused with that “red” sauce.  Eastern Carolina BBQ, by contrast has NO KETCHUP (ack!!) in its sauce – in some places it is nothing more than cider vinegar and black (or red – or both) pepper. And sometimes a bit of sugar for balance, too.  Whole hogs are slowly smoked, and then every BIT of the beast is chopped (fine, but somewhat shredded – not pulled, but not as fine as Western Caroline as I’ve had it) and doused with that vinegar.  You definitely want little crusty bits of crackilin’ skin, and other less mentionable bits, strewn through your ‘cue (trust me, you may not think you do, but you DO!).

            So much for this primer on a contrast that has produced generations of fierce loyalists and impassioned rhetoric and heated shouting matches across the state (in the same families, even).  But why do we have this directional divide? Why is there Eastern Carolina BBQ?  In the same way that answering the question “where are you from” requires you to say something about the meaning of the places that you’re from, so too, barbecue is one of the things that allows that place – Carolina, Eastern or Western – to be recognizable as a place.  It makes these regions places.

            How can we say that Eastern Carolina barbecue are good examples of the way that the places that we come from are always “somewhere else,” some place that isn’t there any longer. One of the ways to think about this is to think a little about the history of Eastern North Carolina, a region of low-lying, swampy fields and forests, with an extensive history of both sharecropping and independent homesteading. 

North Carolina isn’t known for the intensive production of a single staple crop – except perhaps for sweet potatoes, which are grown extensively, but aren’t exactly a “staple; and tobacco, which is grown all over Eastern NC, but isn’t exactly a “staple” either.  But lots and lots of people raised pigs.  There were literally thousands of homes in every county (remember those?) that raised pigs, and most of those counties had facilities where small farm owners could take a pig or two to be slaughtered and put up for hams and bacon and all that other good stuff.  As more than one past or current resident of the region has told me “Having a pig was like having money in the bank.” You could store your resources in your pig, and readily convert it to cash on a seasonal basis, or in a crisis when funds were short.  I have no doubt but that communities across the region have a long (even recent) history of working collectively, coming together to slaughter one another’s hogs, salt and put up the hams and bacon, let the wives grind up the small cuts for sausage, clean the chitlins, and render lard.  It wouldn’t be unusual (and it occasionally still happens) that these neighbors would roast up a hog and have a pig pickin’.  The pig pickin’ is just what you did at slaughter time. Or on the 4th of July. Or for a funeral.  “Whenever you’d have a whole lot of people get together,” is how one of my friends put it.           

And, important as all this undoubtedly is to the history, and appreciation of barbecue in these places, this isn’t (exactly) the same thing as Eastern Carolina Barbecue.  I’m certainly not saying the Eastern Carolina Barbecue is an “invented tradition.” There’s a long-standing practice of raising pigs, roasting them whole over hardwoods in a pit, and serving them up to a hungry crowd. But, at the same time, the notion that there is a singular style of doing so that is peculiar to “Eastern Carolina,” or a “foodway” that is Eastern Carolina Barbecue with all the standardized fixins that accompany it, relates (in some ways) to the fact that those pigs are no longer there. Or rather, they’re no longer in the same places that they were in Eastern Carolina.  They’re no longer in everyone’s backyard, finishing off the old sweet potato vines, turning the ground where the tobacco is going to be planted.  Most of them – indeed, almost all of them, and in unimaginable numbers- are on a very few confined operations that supply the Smithfield facility in Bladen County, where 8 million hogs are slaughtered and processed – in a single plant - each year. [Interesting note: in 1986, there were 15,000 farms with at least one head of hogs in the state. By the year 2006, there were only 2,300 such farms remaining].  And these hogs are concentrated in counties – Duplin, Sampson, Bladen – that are in Southern North Carolina, not really the heart of Eastern Carolina.  Though they do supply most of the meat for “Eastern (and, oh by the way, Western) Carolina Barbecue,” they’re no longer “money in the bank”.
            In this way Eastern Carolina Barbecue is a lot like the “hometown” that you come from and that now is somewhere else, somewhere very different from where you are.  Eastern Carolina Barbecue is the concrete evidence of the way that pigs really aren’t there any more. Of course, there still are some folks with hogs, of course there are backyard pig pickin’s, of course there’s tobacco and sweet potatoes.  But Eastern Carolina Barbecue is proof of the fact that the ways of the past are changing. Today, Eastern Carolina Barbecue is part of the legacy of the region, and part of what makes this region a place. What makes it possible to say “Eastern Carolina, that’s where I’m from” is the fact that it is a place that lies elsewhere, whose heritage is now preserved and protected in Eastern Carolina Barbecue.   

Part of the way we know that Eastern Carolina Barbecue is a cite for preserving tradition is in the bbq establishments themselves.  The ones that are recognized as the places one goes for “the real stuff” bear with them traces of a past that is in the present, yet so different from it.  That is, most of them appear to be falling into utter disrepair.  They may be neat, and tidy and immaculate.  But they evoke decline, and loss, and something antiquated
 The smoke house regularly burns up.  The floors are uneven and unsteady.  The humble tables and chairs totter under dim lights.   All of this evokes the past – and its collapse – in the present.  Nancy Munn talks about how New Yorkers understood the rapid transformation of the city in the antebellum period when they described the past as being “swept away” by such change.  This didn’t mean the past no longer existed, or that traces of old New York were nowhere to be found. It meant that what New York was for a great many of its residents, was a place that was “becoming past”. Eastern Carolina Barbecue is part of this “becoming past” of the state, and this region, and these lives – this place. Part of what makes it such a place is that it is no longer what it was - in many ways, indeed, it’s no longer even there.

Doing work on “pastured-pork” in the Piedmont of NC, friends and colleagues often ask me what I think about barbecue. And usually I say, not much.  Pastured- pork has very little to do with what most people in the state eat when they go for ‘cue.  Often the fatty pigs that thrive outdoors, and make for great hams and chops, are lousy for barbecue – they’re so full of fat that they burn up when you smoke them over wood.  Of course, there’s an interest in revitalizing even old-timey barbecue traditions.  NC Choices has made an effort to supply outdoor hogs to fine establishments  - like the Pit in Raleigh – but these efforts are fairly limited (and a great many aficionados of Eastern Carolina Barbecue would- and do – say “that ain’t the real thing.”)  But, in its way, pastured-pork in the Piedmont emerges out of the same social and historical process as Eastern Carolina Barbecue.  Each is a way of evoking the past and tradition, and their contemporary decline.  These pigs aren’t just raised outdoors, they’re “heritage breeds”, in dire need of conservation because of the ravages of industrial ag.  “Heritage Breeds” like “Eastern Carolina Barbecue” bespeak the “becoming past” of where we are.  Eating their succulent meat, we reflect on who we are, and where we’re from.  We consume our own desuetude.


The Tour!

To which I say: bring it!!  Or, in this case, Mohammed will go to the mountain –a big, fat, low-lying meaty mountain.  On a daylong slog, I packed on the miles along with the pounds of barbecue on my “Iconic Monuments to Eastern Carolina Barbecue” Tour.  Let me show you the relics from my pilgrimage. 
First stop: Dudley, NC, a few miles south of Goldsboro. 



  At the end of a long road to nowhere, and after more than one wrong turn, I found “Grady’s Bar-B-Q.”  And boy am I glad I did.  I had some trepidation as I headed out. Grady’s is only open 4 days a week, and I was pretty sure that Wednesdays were one of them  (my informants were sketchy).  As luck would have it, it was open! And at 11:30 the kitchen was dishing up some simply astonishing food.  Knowing that I had a long day ahead of me, and limited space, I resolved only to purchase barbecue, and avoid the extras. Ok, sauce, I’d have to get sauce.  But at Grady’s, I also decided to get a sandwich to go with the two pounds of well-packed ‘cue. 



Ordering at Grady's

  Hey, I’ve got to eat something for lunch, and I’d just driven 100 miles. I was only a mile or so from Wilber’s, the reputable establishment in downtown Goldsboro, and I thought I’d get my bbq, and add some hushpuppies to go with Grady’s sandwich (all documented here). 
Grady’s may not be the best sandwich I have ever eaten, but it is easily as good as any sandwich of any kind, that I have ever had or hope to have again.  The language of food eating (as opposed to “food writing” a typically execrable genre, with some exquisite exceptions) is pretty thin, but let me give it shot.  Grady’s pork is – porky! It has a rich, full aroma – an ODOR, even – that is unmistakably redolent of the pig that provided it.  The meat is strikingly moist, but not drippy, or greasy, or fat. Though it is nicely mixed with chunks of flavorful fat and crisp, but not rockhard skin and – um, other stuff.  Above all, Grady’s pork achieves exquisite balance. The spicing pervades the meat, and never tastes added on. There’s some sweetness in the sauce, some heat in there, too.  The sandwich comes, by definition, with a cole slaw that is maybe a touch creamy from mayonnaise, without being the least bit greasy, or – well- mayonnaisy.  It clings to the meat, and the bun forms the whole into a compact, integrated whole.  It is one fine sandwich.

        The hushpuppies from Wilber’s, down the road, are a very nice accompaniment.  They are not greasy, the crust is crisp, but not hard, the interior is well cooked. Not light and airy, but not leaden, or gooey.

   


Cakelike might describe it, if you like your cupcakes deep-fried.  It was a helluva lunch, and a good start.


            Wilber’s is an institution, not a joint.  Gingham tablecloths.  Uniformed waitresses (!!), tourist paraphernalia (t-shirts, ball caps, swag galore). But the place is pretty full, and the line for take-out is long for a Wednesday lunch, so they have surely been doing something right for 50 years. The governor, Bev Perdue, was literally in Wilber’s the day before I was to celebrate their anniversary. 



            Next up: the town of Ayden, on the way to Greenville.  The Skylight Inn has achieved a bit of national notoriety, James Beard Awards, and Road Food panegyrics, and such.  
I was eager to try it, but primed to be skeptical.  The Inn sits at the edge of a field in a surprisingly clean and airy establishment.  A minimalist aesthetic to be sure, nothing fancy. But it is well lit, and well kept (so is Grady’s, but the décor is clearly older and, frankly, cheaper – though no less charming for it).  
Skylight Inn Smokehouse
with wood!
At the Skylight Inn, all of the chairs match, and that’s a bit of a surprise.  If I were smart, I would have gotten a side of the chartreuse slaw, and a plank of the cornbread that looks like nothing so much as golden hard tack. 

BBQ Kitsch
  If I have one regret on this trip, it’s that I stuck to the ‘cue and sauce, and didn’t get any slaw or cornbread at the Inn.  Dang it. 
            Eight-tenths of a mile from the Skylight Inn lies Bum’s. 






  This is a modest spot, but in a commercial strip of an old-timey street in what passes for downtown Ayden.  Bum’s is less a BBQ joint (in spite of its emblematic pig), and much more what could be called a Meat-and-Three place.  A cafeteria style diner of sorts, where the hot bar holds a range of meats-  ‘cue, as well as some fish, and some of the most ridiculously perfect looking fried chicken I’ve laid eyes on.  I had heard that the sides were a must at Bum’s, and that Ayden is the collard capitol of the Carolinas, so collards it is! 

            
At this point, I wised up and decided the coolers I was filling and keeping the meat warm, actually would be better off filled with ice to keep everything cold. I was directed to “Twice the Ice!” to load up.  Maybe you’ve seen one of these before, but I never had.   A kiosk that dispenses a huge quantity of ice.  For $1.75 you get 16 pounds of ice that drops down a chute in a plastic bag; or bring your own cooler and get 20 pounds for the same price.  A frozen bonanza! Just what the

 barbecue doctor ordered.
                        Now, another word about Ayden, home of two (at least) World Class bbq joints.  In my drive through town I was struck by its undeniable prosperity.  Turn of the 20th century craftsman style houses line at least one street in town under large and lush arbors (Ayden is a “Tree City”) on substantial plots of land.  What is up Ayden? If anyone knows more about the town history, I’d be interested.
            Next up, Greenville. Again, I have some trepidation, as I’m headed to B’s, which, rumor has it, closes at irregular hours - when they run out of food, they close the door. On a busy day, that may be an hour after they open.  
  





And it’s already 1:30. Yikes! But I persevere.  B’s finds itself at the very end of “B’s Barbecue Road” – imagine the coincidence! I was also struck by how other roads in the vicinity are eponymous.  Thus, just down the street from B’s Barbecue Rd, lies Wellness Rd, that leads to the local Wellness Center.  And how far can Barbecue be from Wellness?  In any event, I make it to B’s just in time! A huge pile of ‘cue is being chopped to bits on the block behind the 

counter as I arrive. 
  They serve up my pound, add some sauce- but then the bbq being worked gets stuffed in a foil tray, wrapped in more foil, and sent off for catering. That’s it! Closed for the day!  


 The Cue gods have smiled on me. 

            That makes 5 Icons down, and one to go. Next stop, Farmville, not too far from Greenville.  I’m looking for Jack Cobb & Sons located on the main street it town, conveniently named, Main St.  Farmville looks less like an agricultural center than much of the rest of the Eastern towns I’ve traversed. It resembles the milltowns of the Piedmont, with wide streets laid out on a regular grid, a single commercial strip bordered by small, tidy homes. There is not much left of Farmville, if you ask me. Cobb & Sons is at the edge of this commercial street, in a wide plot to itself.

 

The red brick building out back is smoking away to provide the fare dished up in the very, very simple concrete restaurant.  On the inside, Cobb & Sons is dominated by a single countertop that runs the entire width of the establishment.  There’s nowhere to sit, to speak of, so, more than any of the places I’ve been, it’s a take-out joint (though I’d be hard-pressed to actually eat in B’s  - but people do).  Mr Cobb is kind and courteous, and shakes my hand. I buy some hushpuppies for home. Extra sauce. I have a quart of collards, a bag of puppies, assorted sized and packaged containers of sauce, and seven pounds of barbecue in the backseat.  My work for the day is done.  It’s 100 miles to home.

            Other than my waxing rhapsodic about that sandwich from Grady’s, I haven’t said much about the FOOD, have I?  When I got home, I set the oven to 350º, and loaded up a baking sheet with nice portions of each of the 6 Icons’ offerings – along with the hushpuppies. And then Julie and I had a tasting of barbecue. But first: we tried the sauces.  Now the sauce is meant to go with the cue, so tasting sauce on its own, well, it’s kind of like having a tasting of turkey gravies.  And what’s wrong with that!?  I had sauce from all but Bum’s (how’d I forget??), and we supped from each.  There was a pretty wide range in these sauces for something so simple.  Cobb’s was almost straight cider vinegar, with a hint of red pepper. It tasted simple and direct, but tasty.  Wilber’s, well, sorry Wilber, but no. It was too much.  Hot! And peppery – and those aren’t the same thing.  You could taste each separate ingredient, but the whole thing tasted like a bunch of different things- vinegar, check, black pepper, check, red pepper, check – but didn’t really pull together. This was the only one I really did NOT like.  B’s is good. Also hot, but nicely balanced. Flavorful. The Skylight Inn’s was really good. It sort of sneaks up on you. First, a nicely tempered vinegar, and then - whoosh! – here comes the heat! But not so hot that it simply burns. You can taste the sauce itself.  Next, and last: Grady’s. Whoa. This stuff is good.  It has a nice burgundy color that looks like it comes from soaking the pepper flakes in the vinegar.  But the sauce is actually not THAT hot (but it is hot), as it has some sugar mixed in that pulls the whole thing together.  It actually tastes like an infused balsamic vinegar, but I am quite confident in saying that no balsamic vinegar has ever set foot in Dudley, NC.  This sauce is something else, and shows you how a master chef can create something uncanny from simple, basic ingredients.  But that Skylight Inn sauce is not to be missed either.
   
  NOW we get to the Eastern Carolina Barbecue itself, that for which many miles have been sped, and many a tree put to sanctified purpose.  And I hate to let anyone down here, but it is all good!!  No, really, really good.  Now, if you twist my arm, I’ll say that Wilber’s cue, like it’s sauce, is a bit out of whack.  It’s really flavorful, but the flavor is all up front and in your face – POW! I am barbecue!! I am smoked and spicy!! But, you WOULDN’T have to twist my arm to get me to eat if you brought me a Wilber’s sandwich.  On the other hand, if we were in Goldsboro – and it wasn’t a Sunday, Monday or Tuesday – I’d say, hey, let’s skip Wilber’s and go to this place I know. Grady’s!! Because, as I said above, whoa, THAT is some barbecue.   And it’s a whole lot cuter than Wilber’s too.

            As for the others, they each have their charms, and there isn’t a bad thing to say about any of them.  Cobb & Sons has less “stuff” in their ‘cue.  No fat, no real bits of skin to speak of – it’s whole hog without the whole.  But what it lacks in varied texture it makes up for in succulence – it’s the most like pulled pork of all the joints – and the aroma is sooooooo very piggy.  Cobb & Sons is all about simple, simple, simple.  And if what you’ve got is good on its own, simple is a good way to go.  Bum’s and B’s, probably the most alike.  Really smoky, but not harsh or tannic (as smoke can be).  Peppery, but the taste of the meat comes through. I’m sure many a customer would happily say it’s the best barbecue ever, and I wouldn’t say otherwise (though that wouldn’t be my opinion).  Now Skylight Inn.  THAT is another animal.  Straight up I’d have to say, it may not be for everybody. It is some piggy q.  You half expect the thing to sit up and squeal it is so chock loaded with crunchy, chewy, squeaky (yeah, squeaky) bits of rind, and snout, and all that good stuff.  And they carry sooooo much flavor, and they are so nicely hacked that they meld in with the meat.  Skylight Inn is one of the few culinary establishments I’ve been to that actually match the hype they enjoy.
          

            For me, it’s Grady’s. Or Skylight Inn. Or Grady’s. Do I have to choose? I’ll eat any of these – and I WILL be eating more of each of these, because when you haul in this much barbecue, you’re going to be eating it for a while (note: bbq freezes wonderfully)  I won’t be embarking on this bit of self-indulgence any time soon again (I have other self-indulgences to get to – like blogging).  But this little jaunt was about as successful as I could have hoped it would be.  If you’re anywhere near Carrboro in the next few months, feel free to stop in for a bite.  And if you’re anywhere near Dudley (what the hell are you doing there?), could you bring me a sandwich??