Holy Church of N.C. Barbecue Divided
Several years ago, not long after I arrived home in North Carolina, Pilot Publisher David Woronoff and I were asked to serve as judges of an amateur barbecue cooking contest at the Carthage Buggy Festival.
I was pleased to do so for two reasons.
First, I so enjoy Carthage. Every time I pass through the sleepy courthouse square, I'm reminded of Andy Griffith's mythical Mayberry, which in turn makes me think about my long-gone rural relatives who always brought moonshine to church suppers and about my happy boyhood here in the Old North State.
Second, I truly love North Carolina-style barbecue. What God-fearing native son or daughter of the Old North State doesn't?
Small libraries have been written about the virtues of Southern barbecue, but all you really need to know if you're a recently arrived Yankee or someone who grew up eating cheese in Wisconsin or maybe a Russian who fell off a freighter and swam to shore is that no other state below the Mason-Dixon Line comes close to the perfection of North Carolina-style barbecue.
Yes, true, Texas makes a noisy claim of barbecue supremacy, but Texans think real barbecue is a beef brisket slathered with sticky sweet sauce, and, well, they'd eat an oak outhouse seat if you covered it in enough sauce and tossed it on the flames. Later, they'd write a honky-tonk song about the experience and maybe declare war on somebody just for the heck of it.
Sadly, Texans think "barbecue" is a verb, but as any fool except maybe Rick Perry knows, it's a nearly proper noun.
Without question, folks in Mississippi and up the Delta to Memphis make spectacularly good ribs. I'll give you that. But they make no pretense about calling their grilled specialty barbecue on Beale Street and along the Delta, where ribs and cornbread and collards and blues are all a body needs to enjoy a decent quality of life.
Others Make Claim
Next door in Louisiana, on the other hand, you'll likely never know for sure if what they give you to eat is "barbecued" crayfish or the hind leg of somebodys pet alligator. Alabama is great in football but has no clue what to do with the best part of a pig. They put mayonnaise in their barbecue sauce, for heaven's sake.
Georgia likes to make a bold barbecue claim of some note. But nice as Georgia is to visit, unless your name happens to be Sherman, everything there is a bit too citified these days, probably because Atlanta was the first seriously urban-renewed city of the South, thanks to another Sherman.
Besides, Paula Deen has abused the word "y'all" so badly on national TV, it's officially been removed from every Southern state's constitution.
For the record, South Carolina claims to be a world unto itself, and it probably should be. After all, they once started a shooting war without asking any of their neighbors' opinions on the matter.
On the plus side, modern South Carolina has gorgeous beaches, a nice state flag, the best fried oysters and a beautiful historic city in Charleston, where the inbred aristos wear bow ties to bed and clean the bricks of their houses with toothbrushes listed on the National Registry of Historic Appliances.
Just so you know, the rest of South Carolina didn't have posted speed limits until about 1988, and all children there under the age of 9 could officially go naked in public, except on Confederate Memorial Day - but that's another story. They also put mustard in their barbecue, which tells you all you need to really know about South Carolina.
As for our beloved northern neighbor Virginia, well, tellingly, permit me to point out that the word "barbecue" doesn't appear once in the Declaration of Independence, which as any school kid knows, was authored by a certain famous bon vivant Virginian who liked his ladies, French wine and victuals.
If the Old Dominion had barbecue worth a lick, don't you think its most celebrated son would have at least mentioned it in his writings? Something along the lines of "life, liberty and pursuit of a decently wood-smoked pork shoulder..." But he did not, my fellow citizens. Check me out on this.
East Vs. West
No, it was left to the noble if impoverished pig-farming classes of the Old North State (from whence I hail) to devise the finest barbecue known to mankind, probably because we didn't have alligators or B.B. King or wear nice bow ties to bed. There's even a great song memorializing our native dominance of the barbecue arts.
Not to put too fine a point on the matter, but during the two decades we lived on the coast of Maine, not surprisingly, I made a pile of new friends and true believers in the "lobster capital of America" by cooking shredded pork shoulder over hickory wood flames, with a distinctive seasoning concoction of vinegar and pepper spices I learned directly from one of the grand masters of the Western Church of Authentic North State Barbecue, whose holy scepter was a reasonably clean string mop from Lowe's.
You see, within the Holy Church of North Carolina Barbecue, as anyone who knows the difference between an ax handle and a serving spoon can tell you, there is Eastern-style North Carolina barbecue and there is Western-style North Carolina barbecue and rarely the twain shall meet.
In fact, if they do, there's likely to be a serious argument about football superiority that quickly degenerates into body-specific insults and not-so-veiled references to another's mother's wayward girlhood. But that's another story, too.
Suffice it to say that in the "East," barbecue buffs like coleslaw made with mayonnaise, while in the West they prefer a crisp red slaw with a tart aftertaste that will make you slap a pretty waitress - especially if the attending hush puppies are dry or insufficiently crispy.
In a nutshell, this explains why I - a returning native son of the "West" who attended school in the "East," thus developing a fine appreciation of both subtle forms - was so eager to lend my expertise to the good folks up in Carthage.
Unfortunately, my maiden voyage as an official barbecue judge had a rather sad ending - with lasting consequences.
You see, after Woronoff and I each sampled 23 different homemade barbecues, some of which were smoked in contraptions that could formerly have belonged to a relative's junkyard Firebird but were truly splendid, others of which made me yearn for hungry for a shot of tequila and medium well-done outhouse seat, I felt the Earth moving beneath my feet and had to make haste for a remote corner of the festivities where, as they say, I got to taste all that barbecue a second time as it reversed course on the little red lane.
I drove home feeling like Montezuma's Revenge minus the nice trip to Mexico. My fellow judge, "Chicken Legs" Woronoff, who hails from the Eastern wing of the barbecue church, claims only the mass consumption of several liter bottles of water saved him from a similar fate in a weedy ditch.
Whatever the case, I didn't touch my beloved North State barbecue for almost two years.
Last Wednesday, however, I agreed "come back to the 'cue" in the company of three fellow veteran barbecue lovers, including the aforementioned Woronoff, acclaimed North Carolina photographer Mark Waggoner and the brilliant if somewhat Quixotic food writer for O.Henry magazine, David Claude Bailey, who proposed that we hit half a dozen or so famous barbecue joints around Greensboro to try and to ascertain whether this portion of the state possesses a distinctive barbecue taste all its own.
Our quest took us from longtime favorite (and my home church) Stamey's in Greensboro to the beloved Blue Mist in Asheboro, then across to venerable Kepley's in High Point and on up to Fuzzy's in Madison, followed by Short Sugar's in Reidsville - the joint where President Obama stopped in for his taste of heaven during a recent visit to the state. The itinerary also called for stops at acclaimed Hursey's in Burlington, popular A&M Grill in Mebane and venerable Clark's in Kernersville.
It was the first step in Woronoff's secret strategy to lure genuine N.C.-style barbecue to the Sandhills - which he likes to call the "Switzerland of Barbecue, because we're neither East nor West. We need to declare our allegiance, once and for all!'"
I won't trouble you with a fork-by-fork account of our adventures at these temples of the pig-grilling art, all of which you can read about in the next issue of O.Henry magazine. Suffice it to say, they were all uncommonly good, remarkably consistent and yet distinctively unique, though after my sixth plate of chopped barbecue and coleslaw - and a couple of gallons of cola meant to wash and keep it down - I was beginning to feel the Earth move again, Carthage deja vu.
All of which leads me to wonder if, in fact, one can simply get too much of a good thing. The truth is, if I'd eaten another bite of even the best barbecue in the world, I'd have been looking for a ditch in a hurry.
"When my days are though," Woronoff said, quoting his favorite Internet paeon to Tar Heel barbecue as we ambled home to the Sandhills, "bury me in barbecue."
With that, he proposed we do a similar "Eastern" odyssey very soon.
"Yeah," I said. "Sounds great. Just give me a year or two to work up a good appetite again."
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist with The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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