A wise man once observed that the existence of a nation requires that many things be forgotten—in particular, those things that divide its people. Maybe that’s why the South never made it. Black and white Southerners have had their little disagreements in the past, of course, and so have flatlanders and hillbillies, rednecks and gentry. Politics and religion have usually been at least as good for an argument here as anywhere else. But if you want a topic with real divisive potential, something really fissionable, let’s talk barbecue.
In this respect (in others, too, of course) barbecue is unlike grits. Grits glue the South together, if you’ll excuse the image. Black and white, uplands and lowlands, everybody likes grits, and the only disagreement is over whether the word is singular or plural. A few years ago, a fellow named Stan Woodward made a marvelous movie called It’s Grits, an hour or so of heartwarming grits lore, with testimonials from illustrious Southerners like Strom Thurmond and Craig Claibourne and from common folk including the entire crowd at a Gamecocks football game (“Give me a G!”). But the last time I saw Stan he was starting to film a movie on barbecue, and he hasn’t been heard from since. I’m afraid he’s a casualty. Reporting Southern barbecue is like reporting Lebanon: risky business.
Smoked meat is a subject folks can get excited about, you know what I mean? Barbecue drives a wedge between Texas (beef) and the Carolinas (pork), and completely isolates those parts of Kentucky around Owensboro (mutton). Even porcivores can’t agree: barbecue divides western North Carolina (tomato) from eastern North Carolina (no tomato), not to mention from South Carolina (mustard). You might say barbecue pits Southerners against one another. (Sorry.)
Now, personally, I don’t regret these hard feelings. If they keep the South’s proud local barbecue tradition alive—well, long may they wave. When a “Texas-style” barbecue joint opened in my Carolina hometown, I was delighted to see it go out of business within a year. Not that I don’t like brisket. I love it, in Texas. But eating that stuff was like drinking Dr. Pepper in Munich—just not right, you understand? Southern barbecue is the closest thing we have in the US to Europe’s wines or cheeses: drive a hundred miles and the barbecue changes. Let’s keep it that way.
Anyone who cares about barbecue needs to see a new book by Greg Johnson and Vince Staten, called Real Barbecue ($8.95 in Harper & Row paperback). This is one important book, a cultural landmark. Remember a movie called The Endless Summer? This book does with barbecue what that did with surfing.
Johnson and Staten are reporters in Louisville, and they are fanatics. They are, in other words, just the men to travel 40,000 miles and eat roughly 200 pounds of barbecue (629,200 calories) in order to compile a sort of Whole Barbecue Catalog: 260 pages, with annotated listings of barbecue joints, sources for flash-frozen airfreight barbecue, recipes for side dishes, and plans for monster cookers guaranteed to capture your neighbors’ attention. Boxed here and there are some tasty barbecue quotations (although not the raunchy testimonial from the North Carolina-born novelist Tom Robbins that the prurient can find on page 57 of Another Roadside Attraction). The book also includes nice little essays on such topics as the names of barbecue joints (“Bubba’s” is indeed a favorite) and why Cincinnati doesn’t have good barbecue.
Inevitably, the book has a Southern slant, since nearly all of the great pit-folk come from the South, and most are still in it. But Greg and Vince have worked real hard to include the rest of the country. Maybe too hard: their affirmative action has turned up what they claim is semi-decent barbecue in Vermont and a mail-order sauce from Castro Street, San Francisco, that I think I’ll pass up. When I know what these guys are talking about, though, they do have pretty close to perfect pitch (I’d thought the fact that O’Brien’s in Bethesda was actually good was my very own secret discovery), so I want to try some of the places I don’t know. As a matter of fact, I was reading the book while visiting Chicago last August, and tried to promote an expedition to Lem’s or Leon’s for some Southside ribs, but my Hyde Park quiche-eating hosts thought I was out of my mind. Next time.
I do confess to mixed feelings about the book’s list of great joints, because it’s almost a law that fame isn’t good for such places. As Greg and Vince point out, for example, after Calvin Trillin wrote about Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City, it started selling its sauce in bottles with price codes on them. But since the cat is out of the bag, or the pig out of the poke, let’s quibble (that’s part of the fun).
I could show off by complaining that the book doesn’t mention the Wild Horse BBQ, in Salisaw, Oklahoma. (Drinks from a machine, no health certificate in evidence, a side order of jalapeños, and hot sauce on the beef ribs that did in my effete Eastern taste buds before I could tell much about the meat, but my Fort Smith friends swear by it.) You’ll probably get to Atlanta before Salisaw, though, so I’ll plug the Auburn Rib Shack, also unaccountably omitted. I don’t know if Greg and Vince missed the Shack, or just hit it on a bad day, but it’s on Auburn Avenue near the Ebenezer Baptist Church and SCLC headquarters, which ought to count for something. Harold’s, near the prison, gets the book’s highest rating (“As good as we’ve ever had”); I ate there once back-to-back with the Auburn Rib Shack, and I’d rate the outcome a draw.
If you get over our way, we could check out Allen and Sons, which the boys rate “Real good.” But lately their hushpuppies have gone to hell. (I don’t think the lard is hot enough. It happened about the same time they put the hanging plants in.) Now, when my wife and I have the time, we drive 30 miles to O.T.’s, outside Apex, which isn’t in the book. O.T.’s barbecue is standard-issue Piedmont pig—that is, merely transcendentally wonderful. What keeps us going back are the accessories: great baking-powder hushpuppies and Brunswick stew that rivals the best burgoo I’ve ever had. (As a Tennesseean, frankly, I find that Tar Heel Brunswick stew is too often just a peppery mush.) O.T. is a Baptist preacher, and serves no beer, alas, but for a buck he’ll give you an enormous plate of “skin”—pork rind. You can feel your arteries clog as you crunch your way through it. Both Research Triangle yuppies and construction workers find O.T.’s worth the drive for lunch. Once I watched the News 5 helicopter plop down in the lot, and fly off with several plates to go.
I could go on, putting Scruggs’s unrated Knoxville ribs up against Brother Jack’s (“Real good”), for example. But you get the idea. If all of this means nothing to you, I’m sorry for you. If you enjoy it, two bucks to P.O. Box 30, Prospect, Kentucky 40059, will bring you a copy of Real Barbecue News with, among other things, the itinerary of a three-day, two-night, eleven-barbecue-and-one-fried-pie-joint tour of Kentucky. (Between that and Joe Bob Briggs’s News of the Weird, my mailman has started to look at me funny.) Better yet, get the book. Give it to your aerobics instructor for Christmas.
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