This was never about food. Eating is a momentary rush, concentrated to the few seconds food contacts tongue and papillae sends signals of pleasure to brain. That pleasure is a chemical, like drugs, and the moment comes and goes.
The greater thrill is the chemical that won’t subside. They’re the people we’d never meet if not for food. Barbecue was just the excuse. Driving across the country, gaining new friends, trading stories, exchanging gifts, visiting new cities, stimulating the local economy, settling our disagreements over a pint of brew and plate of smoked pork — that, more than the momentary high of tasting food, stays with us.
STATES WE VISITED (OR DROVE THROUGH)
FAVORITE THINGS WE ATE (IN ORDER)
1. Chicken-fried pork chops at Willie Mae’s in New Orleans
2. Barbecued pork plate at Allen & Son in Chapel Hill, NC
3. Shrimp, swiss, roast beef gravy at Domilise’s in New Orleans
4. Pimento cheese sandwich at Bridges BBQ Lodge in Shelby, NC
5. Barbecued pork tray at The Bar-B-Que Center in Lexington, NC
6. Chopped pork + coleslaw + corn cake at The Skylight Inn in Ayden, NC
7. Southern hash + pork cracklin’ at Maurice’s Piggie Park in Columbia, SC
FAVORITE SAUCES (IN NO ORDER)
House vinegar sauce at Allen & Son in Chapel Hill, NC
Mustard sauce at Maurice’s Piggie Park in Columbia, SC
House sauce at Abe’s BBQ in Clarksdale, MS
Melon sauce at J.J. McBrewster’s in Lexington, KY
ROAD TRIP ALBUM
Drive-By Truckers, “Brighter Than Creation’s Dark”
NICEST HOTEL (WITHIN OUR MEAGER BUDGET)
Holiday Inn Express, Pembroke, NC
FAVORITE PLACE VISITED THAT WE DIDN’T WRITE ABOUT
Penguin Drive-In in Charlotte, NC
Wall Street in Asheville, NC
BEST FOOD SOUVENIR
Zapp’s Voodoo Gumbo potato chips, New Orleans
TRIP SYNTHESIZED TO ONE SENTENCE
Bad barbecue tastes like good barbecue if you’ve never had great barbecue.
CLARKSDALE, MS. — Our final stop on a cross-country barbecue road trip was located 40 miles off the Interstate, accessible only by a two-lane country highway, which we drove at dusk with the sun at eye level.
Well, Keith did the driving and I was busy looking at YouTube videos, doubling over at cats playing the keyboard (it’s hilarious stuff, check it out here). Every 10 seconds, I hear Keith let out a Whoa! or Holy… as a head-on 18-wheeler just misses brushing our Chevy Malibu. All I wanted was Keith to shut up so I could find out the ending to Charlie Bit My Finger.
This, in fact, actually happened, and by the time we reached Abe’s BBQ in this town on the Mississippi Delta, Keith said, “Never again,” followed by a terse, “This better be worth it.”
It was worth it, if only we took a more direct route. Then you consider Memphis, a barbecue holy land only one hour north, so it’s not as if options are lacking.This shouldn’t take away from the most-excellent barbecue served at Abe’s BBQ, old school as they come, with a history in Clarksdale dating back to 1924.
Ribs and pork butt are cooked in a Southern Pride using hickory and pecan, the latter imparting a subtle sweet smoke, similar to fruit wood. This, they say, is to balance the tangy house sauce, tomato-based with a Worcestershire finish, laid over the baby backs thick and shiny. Ribs straddled the tender-chewy divide with streaks of intra-muscular fat visible. Terrific balance on all counts — textures, flavor, smoke. Messy as hell, too.
The tamale tradition we find in Chicago was born here in the Delta, and Abe’s serves house-made versions with saltines, two slices of Kraft American singles and covered with a thick chili. Wade through the beef-speckled chili and you manage to find even more meat, the tamale seemingly more pork than masa. Fine by us.
Way back at Mile 408, our first BBQ stop at J.J. McBrewster’s in Lexington, KY, we met with a restaurant staff on pins and needles.
It was last Saturday afternoon when we visited, and the restaurant was two days away from being showcased on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.” The exposure would likely change the restaurant forever.
Now that the show has aired, we wanted to check in with owner/chef Susan Mirkhan a week post-DDD.
KEVIN: Tell me where you were Monday night at 10 p.m.
SUSAN: My husband and I watched the show together with our two little puppies. The show was great. And complete honest truth, I cried. My husband laughed, and I cried. It was just a great moment.
KEVIN: And what happened Tuesday when you opened?
SUSAN: We were absolutely slammed. It was maybe triple our usual business. Wednesday was more like double and a half. We’ve seen a lot of online sales, and now we’re bracing for the weekend. And we’re ordering almost five times the ingredients of what we’ve done before. We want to be completely prepared and brace for everything.
KEVIN: I mentioned in my original story that your restaurant has been divided into before and after. You’re part of an exclusive club now, you know? You’ve been officially blessed by the hands of Guy Fieri.
SUSAN: When the producers of the show first contacted me, they said, “Welcome to the Triple-D family.” I had no idea what that meant. But now I do. People come in here, who’ve traveled hours to visit us, come in and have all these great Triple-D stories. And then I’ve started contacting a lot of restaurants that have aired on the show, and we’ve networked and visited with each other since. It feels like one big family.
NEW ORLEANS — ”This is a city who has cried until she could cry no more…”
Actually, no, I’m in no position to make declarative statements about New Orleans. You simply haven’t earned the right after 36 hours.
What little I knew about the Crescent City, the Zatarainized version of French Quarter trombonists discharging eighth notes-on-fire, was replaced by CNN’s. The version with wailing. Then, probably for sympathetic reasons, I became obsessed with everything New Orleans. I began listening to Zydeco, I bought books about Katrina, I spent the six requisite hours making my first pot of gumbo, and like everyone on Super Bowl Sunday, cheered on the Saints.
It wasn’t until I stood on Claiborne Avenue in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward that I understood. There were several others obviously not from the area, snapping pictures. Something about this felt tacky, if not downright unsettling, until I saw the camera clutched in my hands too. Tackiness became guilt. Guilty that we were visitors on a poverty tour. We were addicted to disaster porn, that is, deriving voyeuristic pleasure from the tragedy of others.
After being shown around town by local friends, I can say this with certainty: New Orleans doesn’t want your sympathy. It doesn’t need pretentious out-of-town writers making grand statements about the city’s soul.
What it needs is you dragging your ass down here, eating gumbo, drinking Abita, buying tchotchkes, doing all the touristy stuff and spending your cash. Do this and you can take all the pictures you want.
I feel no need to describe every detail about food in New Orleans. Maybe it’s because the part of my brain that interprets taste has been on sensory overload, rendered into a mush of Southern hash. Besides, read the stuff by the Times-Picayune’s Brett Anderson, who we were lucky enough to dine with Friday night. He does it better.
All that needs to be said is that every meal was fabulous and made me very, very happy. At Domilise’s, an off-the-menu Po’Boy of fried shrimp, Swiss cheese and roast beef gravy was sloppy and sensational. At Willie Mae’s, fried chicken with a Cracker Jack surprise: hot chicken juices exploding like a Shanghai soup dumpling. And a chicken-fried pork chop with batter as thick as a winter’s glove, the best thing I tasted this trip. Beignets and cafe au lait at Cafe du Monde, swarming with tourist but entirely justified. At Pascal’s Manale, “Uptown T” shucked Gulf Coast oysters with equal parts panache and humor. At Patois in Uptown, New American dining via Southern techniques (the headcheese was extraordinary). At Liuzza’s by the Track, a garlic-butter fried shrimp Po’Boy, and a remarkable gumbo.
Pralines, Hubig’s pies, Zapp’s Tabasco tomato-flavored potato chips, Tony Chachere’s Creole seasoning, Cajun Power garlic sauce. I could go on. New Orleans is not a city to be enjoyed in 36 hours. And yet, I enjoyed it more than any other American city. Come down, spend cash, never feel sorry.
ATLANTA — After five days of a specific, foreign, wonderful kind of barbecue, we returned to something familiar.
Georgia is the center from which the South ripples outward, but its barbecue scene is anemic. Between Maurice Bessinger’s in Columbia and Dreamland in Tuscaloosa, I’d struggle to name a barbecue powerhouse along the I-20 corridor.
Instead, we see the rise of a new breed of pitmasters, or more accurately, Southern Pridemasters, cooks who employ the now-ubiquitous gas-powered carousel cookers. It’s a no-muss, no-fuss method of smoking, which relative to the open pits that require moment-to-moment temperature regulation, is child’s play.
Which isn’t to say barbecue in 2010 is like turning on an EZ Bake Oven. Many barbeuce proprietors are culinary school-trained, who decided to abandon their white-tablecloth pedigree for the smoking arts. In Chicago this summer, five barbecue restaurants opened within an eight-week stretch. Lillie’s Q is run by Charlie McKenna, a veteran of four-star restaurants Tru and Avenues. Chef Jason Heiman cooked at Tizi Melloul before opening up The Pork Shoppe.
There’s more to this new generation of barbecue restaurants than method; much is presentation. It’s a sort of Yuppie Barbecue, or for the sake of typing, Yuppieque.
The restaurants are found in urban centers, and in gentrified former meat-packing districts. Yuppieques have exposed brick interiors, or intentionally well-worn wood paneling, where walls feature rusty license plates and mantles are dressed with cattle prods and faded sepia pictures of plantation workers, obtained not through inheritance but rather via eBay. There’s a menu with Frontier or Saloon fonts and edges charred by Photoshop.
For the record: there is nothing wrong with this. I find it endearing. Throw in some y’alls from cute, young, tattooed waitresses and my heart’s halfway to banana puddin’.
There’s one more distinction: Where the Keith Allens and Wilber Shirleys of the world will wow you with subtlety and balance, Yuppieques go full-frontal assault on the palate. Many places lean heavily on salt, seasoning the holy hell out of meat before finishing off with a ladle of sauce.
“You may say there’s better around the city, but there’s no other spot with that custom blend of robust business, ambient smoke, diverse crowd and devil-be-damned cooking — that feeling of what life in Atlanta is about.”
To me, Fox Brothers has all the trappings of Yuppieque: the carnival barker graphic design, the old photos, the gift shop selling T-shirts and barbecue sauces.
But it also serves very good barbecue.
As much as I loved the old-school chopped pork stuff prepared by octogenarian pitmasters, there was something comforting about seeing baby back ribs, smoked chicken and Frito pie on a menu again.
Thursday’s special at Fox Brothers features barbecued beef short ribs, a Flintstones one-slabber, its exterior smoked to a cosmic black. A few scrapes with a fork and the beef fibers begin to separate, the yellow-smoked bits of fat and collagen hanging on. Then the coveted red smoke is revealed, having seeped deep into the meat.
On our visit, the best part was the sheet of membrane on the underside of the rib that some chefs remove. This would be a mistake. Seasoned liberally, the membranes emerge from the smoker crisp and appealingly salty, with a whiff of beef. If they can market chicharrones, some enterprising chef should begin selling beef-rib membrane chips. Really.
Baby back ribs were good. Smoked chicken wings were good. Then, something called “The Tomminator” (above) made my knees weak.
This is Brunswick Stew studded with crispy tater tots and shellacked with an obscene amount of baked cheese. A hat of cheese. This is so not right, but I’ve already sinned enough this trip, so…
The BBQ road trip is a story moving at 70 m.p.h. (and sometimes 85, when the cops aren’t looking). When we’re done eating and reporting at a BBQ spot, one person is driving to the next place, and the other writing, editing, uploading photos and videos. We strive to bring you our stories as close to in real time as possible. Some of the technologies we employ:
Mobile Web Access Card
Plugged in a USB port of our computer is the Verizon VZAccess Laptop Manager. By far the most important tool, it keeps us connected to the Broadband Internet even on single-lane country roads in the middle of nowhere. We use this update the blog and plot our next destinations.
We use a 15-inch Macbook Pro. The blog is built in Tumblr, though we also work with Vimeo for videos and Adobe Photoshop CS3 to prep photos for the site. We use Twitter and Facebook to notify readers of blog updates.
We use the GPS capabilities on our Blackberry and iPhone to navigate between stops. Many incredible BBQ locations are on small country roads that would rob us of a lot of time if we got lost. GPS gives us the confidence of know where we are going.
Our primary camera is a Canon T1i digital SLR. When we pull up to a location, we begin by taking some establishing interior and exterior photos. When our BBQ is served, we photograph it untouched prior to taking a bite. We usually try to sit near a window where the natural light will be best. We’re also using a Diana camera to document the trip with lo-fi photos, which we hope to post later.
We’re using a Kodak Zi8 camera to shoot videos in HD on the site. We prefer this over a Flip camera because this has an audio input for microphones. Unfortunately, we didn’t bring any mics.
Audio Digital Recorder
For interviews, we use an RCA 1GB digital voice recorder. It’s recorded as mp3 files, very convenient indeed.
Car Plug Power Adapter
We’re using a CyberPower adapter to keep the computer charged throughout the trip. It powers the computer via the car’s lighter.
BBQ Business Cards
Rather than explain to everyone we meet, we pass out these cards to explain what we’re doing. It also has our website for them to visit.
Old school, still reliable for taking notes.
Lloyd Bessinger, left, of Maurice’s Piggie Park, and Lake Hill, president of the South Carolina Barbecue Association.
COLUMBIA, SC — South Carolina gets short shrift — by North Carolinians, the greater barbecue community and, regrettably on this trip, by us. It is by all accounts a “100-Mile Barbecue” kind of state, the distance you’d travel for what many claim is toe-curling good food.
The food is so tasty, they say, because it’s labor intensive to make, explaining why many on our South Carolina itinerary are open only on weekends. Sweatman’s in Holly Hill, McCabe’s in Manning, Jackie Hite’s in Leesville — all employing the old-school method that relies on Mother Time. The cooking process begins the night prior, when the hog is placed in a wood-burning open pit.
The bandwidth we’ve devoted to North Carolina won’t be matched in the case of its southern neighbor. So apologies to the Palmetto State; we had a fun first date, how about we do this again soon?
The day started early and ended late. It was a mile-a-minute swing through Columbia and Lexington (our third Lexington in four days), a visit that revealed the possibilities of pork plus Southern hospitality.
There was one pitmaster on our list regarded as Mr. South Carolina, receiving more accolades, newspaper clippings and attention — good and bad — than any restaurateur in the state.
To not stop at Maurice Bessinger’s Piggie Park would be akin to visiting Vatican City and skipping the Pope’s Sunday Mass. The Maurice Experience begins 15 miles outside Columbia along Interstate 20. A billboard-sized Bessinger in a white suit jacket and with outstretched arms invites motorists to come by one of his 14 restaurants in the state.
This is home to what fairweather barbecue fans would consider South Carolina style: mustard sauce. Again, this would be giving short shrift to the state’s contribution to the smoking arts. For this, I deferred to Lake Erie High Jr.
High, a retired stockbroker, is the president of the South Carolina Barbecue Association, a man who spreads his state’s Good Word wherever pigs are smoked and sweet tea poured.
“South Carolina is the unrecognized barbecue capital of the world,” he said, “and it’s my job to make it the recognized barbecue capital of the world.”
His argument is compelling. Briefly: The first colonists came from Spain in the 1500s and settled in what is now Port Royal in Beaufort County. High said barbecue, as we define it now, began when the Spanish brought pigs over to the New World, and Indians showed them how to cook the meat by smoking it.
His second argument is that South Carolina is the only state in the union with four regional styles of sauce. Heavy tomato is what we picture when barbecue is mentioned — the thick, molassesy “KC Masterpiece” variety. Vinegar and pepper sauce, like in North Carolina, is found in the eastern third of both states; in South Carolina that region is known as Low Country. Light tomato sauce is essentially what’s found in the Piedmont region of North Carolina — vinegar and pepper with a touch of ketchup. This is popular in the upper middle and upper coastal regions of South Carolina.
Then there’s the aforementioned mustard sauce, linked to Germans who settled in the central East Coast and moved up the system of rivers and into present day Columbia.
High is fine with people visiting his state just to sample mustard-sauced barbecue. But he’s quick to point out that you’d be missing a lot.
We agree to meet at Maurice Bessinger’s flagship restaurant in West Columbia. From a distance, the restaurant’s marquee sign grows until you’re up close and your neck hurts staring up at “Little Joe,” the cartoon swine perched 120 feet up. Bessinger was inspired by a trip to Las Vegas, where he found marquees outside casino ostentatious — and eye-catching.
Here, much like the rest of the South, “barbecue” is a noun, not a transitive verb. Order and you’ll get a plate of chopped or pulled pork. Unadorned, both versions share qualities with Sunday morning Mexican carnitas — fork tender while retaining texture, a pure and singular pork flavor. Mustard is the house sauce at Maurice’s, school bus-yellow, tangy and sweet, with a Conway Twitty velvety twang.
Bessinger cooks hams. Why? Because hams cost more than shoulders. At one point, the restaurant used only left hams. The argument: In the way most humans are right-handed, a hog’s left side tends to be more tender. Or so they say.
Southern hash is a breathtaking, foreign experience. This Chinese guy tasted comfort in sausage (in slurry form) ladled over rice. And there are all-encompassing crispy hush puppies.
The high-highs are countered by low-lows: forgettable brisket, dried pork loin and an unwieldy spare rib with too much tug for my liking. What ultimately wins me over are the cracklin’s — audibly crunchy salted pork skin that could make grown men cry.
Part of High’s duties as South Carolina barbecue’s ambassador is to train aspiring competition barbecue judges. His philosophy on food criticism is fascinating and can take hours to articulate, which he in fact did. Here’s a man who has taken the discriminating standards of a sommelier and applied it to barbecue. To become a sanctioned “master barbecue judge,” one must complete an intensive two-day seminar, adjudicate 30 competitions and have cooked with at least three teams. In South Carolina, your prerequisites can’t just be, “I enjoy tasting good barbecue.”
One point he makes resonates with me, and I’ll try to summarize a 45-minute talking point into a few paragraphs: Lake argues the notions of “food you like” and “food done well” are mutually exclusive, even though they often overlap. This is one of the harder points for beginning judges to grasp, the idea of separating the critical analyzer in me from the “me.”
Example: I might dislike the taste of lamb. But I can sample a lamb chop, think about its flavor components, textures, accompanying sauce, aroma and method of cooking and conclude that a dish was prepared exceptionally.
This is not to say subjectivity is irrelevant. Know the difference between your grandmother making your favorite lasagna and a chef from Emelia-Romagna using hand-rolled dough and Bechamel sauce, one who executes the dish better with greater precision.
High’s arguments are sound. As I sit listening to him, I look around the restaurant and try separating the food from my surroundings.
Maurice Bessinger’s restaurant is a paean to Southern Baptist conservatism. Walk in and you see a portrait of the man standing proudly with a Confederate flag. Next to the mustard sauces and dry rubs are books on sale — Mitt Romney, Pat Buchanan, The Bible. There’s Bessinger’s autobiography, “Defending My Heritage.”
In the 1960s, Bessinger associated himself with a group called the National Association for Preservation of White People. He dabbled in politics, running for governor in 1974 and lost. In 2000, on the day the Confederate flag was lowered from the South Carolina Capitol for the final time, Bessinger raised Ol’ Dixie at his restaurants — drawing praise from those defending his First Amendment rights — and the ire of those offended by the flag’s symbolism. Major retailers including Wal-Mart soon pulled his line of barbecue sauces from shelves.
(Note: Maurice Bessinger was at the restaurant when we visited. He left before we had a chance to speak with him.)
Many friends in the food-writing business, voices I respect, discouraged me from visiting the restaurant. One food critic at a major daily newspaper wrote to me: “Are you eating racist barbecue at Maurice’s? Please say no…”
I struggled with the idea. In the end, I set my beliefs aside for what many say is superlative food.
When I bring this up to High, he says: “Is it possible to separate Barbra Streisand’s music from her politics? I don’t care that she has strange politics. I don’t care Maurice has strange politics. I just eat his damn barbecue.”
And so when we are greeted by Maurice’s son, Lloyd Bessinger, a first-class gentleman, I observe Rule #1 for guests at a dinner party: Do not discuss religion or politics. Instead, I pick the younger Bessinger’s brain about barbecuing. (For what it’s worth: He was aware I was a reporter from the Chicago Tribune.)
I might not agree with the politics on display, and he might not agree with mine. But if I want to sample his pulled pork, he’ll be glad to serve it to me. My not contributing $20 to his business will make little difference to the company’s bottom line. I was the one who decided to be a guest at his restaurant. And I respect his right to his views, no matter how abhorrent I find some of them. Good food is the ultimate equalizer.
Lake High next brought us to Hudson’s Smokehouse in Lexington. Purists may scoff at the lack of wood-burning open pit — they cook with a Southern Pride — but High still considered this “100-Mile Barbecue.”
“Because they cook it right,” he says.
The house sauce includes a variation of the area’s classic mustard, one indigenous to the town of Orangeburg. Its distinction is the addition of ketchup, lending a sweetness to offset the mustard’s snap.
We, of course, left the ordering to High.
One plate looked awfully familiar. Here was pork that was chopped to the point of minced, a mixture of dark and lighter meats with strands of brown from the smoked exterior. This was the Eastern-style of North Carolina barbecue, with a vinegar-pepper dip — they call it “Ultimate” sauce here — that made the greaseless, moist pork taste even porkier. Later we would find out Hudson’s owner grew up in eastern North Carolina.
When it comes to barbecue, there are more similarities than differences between the two Carolinas. And this was the other lesson I took away from Lake High: People associate regional styles of barbecue to sauces; instead, judge barbecue by how meat is cooked. Sauces are crucial, but they serve in a finishing capacity.
Still, High has his biases. Vinegar-pepper pairs best with chopped pork. It highlights and accentuates the meat. Tomato-based barbecue sauce would overpower it, and the 12 hours of smoking would be for naught.
“When a dog gets sprayed with a skunk, you know what you use to wash away the odor?” High asks. “Exactly.”