Friday, March 09, 2007

East vs West: Cold War in the Carolinas

Time to switch gears for a minute. I’m sure you realize how the Big Guy feels about Food and about New York and about Food in New York; Best of the Best, right?. But there are times where you have to travel a little bit to get a particular taste. Like Barbeque. Trust me, I’ve looked all over this city, tried a lot of places and nobody anywhere on MY island makes exactly what I am looking for.

I even spent some time looking and asking around in LA. A lot of people pointed me towards Zeke’s. It was good but not quite what I was looking for. So now, after one more incident of disappointment, I think that the only way to satisfy my search for this flavor is by telling the whole story. Maybe someone out there can help me find what I’m after.

To get to the heart of this, we need to head South, down to North Carolina. Particularly, to Charlotte. I’ve spent some time south of the Mason-Dixon line in my life and have developed a healthy appreciation for real Barbeque. And when I want a good plate of barbeque, nothing else will do. Not any old meat is going to do it either- it has to be pork… Pulled pork, slow cooked in a smoker, and by slow I mean about eight hours. (Now that’s slow...)

My emotional attachment to this tender dish began in a place called Roger’s Barbeque. But, before I get into the particulars of my love for this Southern delicacy (specifically the Eastern North Carolina version), I’m going to pass on a little knowledge, just as it was passed on to me by “Roger” himself. His name is actually Dick, known to just a few as “Smoke”. He is a Charlotte native; being a Yankee, with limited knowledge of things such as this, I took him at his word. This has become Gospel etched in my food-loving soul and nearly all of my ideas of what make good barbeque stem from his wisdom. Any arguments you have with the case I make, you can take up with him… but I wouldn’t. (See 'Third' below)

First, Barbecue in North Carolina means different things to different people; mostly it depends on what part of the state you are doing your eating. It starts with the part of the pig used. In the west, pork shoulders are generally the choice piece of meat. In the east, you’ll usually find the whole pig dressed and resting over the fire for a good six to eight hours. The sauce can cause a little controversy, too. The whole state agrees on one part of it: a vinegar-based, heavily seasoned sauce. The distinction here is that in the west, there is one more ingredient than you’ll find in the east: a small amount of tomato base added to the sauce. (I have found that most places offering barbeque outside of North Carolina only make the western version. And to tell you the truth, it is usually a lot wetter than I ever found it to be in North Carolina. Now, add one more idea to the mix… I cut my teeth on Eastern barbeque, so it is naturally what I am after… making my search a little tougher)

Second, Barbecue is never to be eaten alone. And it didn’t take any experience to figure this out. No, all of my instincts told me from the first time I saw it looking so delicious, calling me over, that it was part of a bigger, better picture. Too many things will fit on that plate with it. Everyone I have ever talked to about barbeque confirmed that but we’ll get into more about what the Big Guy likes with his barbeque later.

Third, and very important: never argue one man’s idea of barbeque versus another… I’ve almost seen it come to blows over that. At first I wondered why; they seemed so similar. The major difference I noticed was the slight variation of the sauce; how could there be such a huge issue over that? But the more I thought about it, the more I began to understand… I know how I would feel if someone told me that the meatballs my mother made for me all my life were being made the wrong way; no doubt in my mind there would be some blood shed over that one.

OK- and now, after our minor introduction to this delicacy, I can start to tell you about Roger’s Barbeque a place just outside the Charlotte city limits. Roger's wasn’t only about the food, it was a full Southern experience. The walls at Roger's were covered. There were small signs offering bits of wisdom (Like 'Never try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and annoys the pig' and 'Never trust a man that doesn't drink'), a rack of 'personal' mugs for the rail-birds (daily regulars that sat and 'crowed' at the counter), and just about anything you could think of relating back to a pig. Needless to say, walking through the door, you had a good idea this place was not for vegetarians. The menu at Roger’s, top to bottom, inside and out, was just filled with food to make you feel comfortable. Biscuits and gravy with grits for breakfast, a nice bowl of Brunswick stew for lunch, and for dinner… well, that is where the story really gets me going. (While it is true that I could have eaten the que for lunch, after my taste developed, I always liked saving it for my biggest meal of the day…) As a side note, Roger’s is sadly no more and all I have left is the memory of food that I may never see again.

Barbeque, as a meal, is multifaceted. It is not simply a plate of pulled pork. Just as important is what you surround it with. Personally, I like to have half a dozen hushpuppies, some collared greens, and a nice dish of coleslaw always seemed to sorta cool things down (even though it had a nice spicy mustard base instead of a mayo base) . I still remember the first time I tried barbeque. I had no idea it would cause the obsessive search I am taking part in now. After one meal, I was hooked. The savory vinegar and spice infused meat with the smoky undertones… all the great dishes that accompanied it (and outside North Carolina, it is nowhere to be found)…just one more thing we need to cover: Beverage.

I am a great believer of the “when in Rome...” theory of eating. Certain flavors are meant to be together, something the locals have spent a lifetime pairing off. When you are eating barbeque, what could possibly better compliment this treat than a big glass of sweet tea? Like barbeque, there is something inherently Southern about sweet tea. Actually, finding it is as tough as finding good barbeque up North. But down South, it is a staple. And I’ll tell you- nobody, I mean NOBODY makes sweet tea like a Southern girl does. I think it has something to do with just the right mix being handed down, generations tweaking the recipe till it was just right. If the barbeque is seasoned like it is supposed to be (and because sweet tea made the right way is just so good), one glass just won’t do. When all those spices kick in, you’ll need another one; more is always better with sweet tea and barbeque, but only if both come from the right side of the Mason Dixon line… (Oh I wish I was in Dixie….)

If you just can’t wrap your head around what I am trying to tell you… if the idea that the Big Guy has admitted that there might be a dish made better somewhere than right here in My City… don’t worry too much. And don’t get yourself too used to it happening either: it won’t happen often enough to warrant that. Just this once, though, we’ll try something new. An open mind is ok. Just don’t let it get so open that you forget where the center of the Universe is. For my money, though, if it’s Barbeque you’re after, make the road trip and make sure it’s the real thing. There is no place better for North Carolina Barbeque than North Carolina. ‘Cause Johnny Tomatoes says so!!

No comments: