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Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Dogma Personified and I Will Not Cotton To Your So-Called "BBQ"

Being Southern-born and bred does not automatically make one an authority on barbecue, bluegrass, the Civil War, or Hee Haw.

I do, however, loves me some Hee Haw.

I thought I knew more than enough about all that when, in fact, I didn't know squat – especially when it came to barbecue. I guess I'm like (or was like) the majority of Americans who believe barbecue is something you do, not something that just is. What barbecue means to almost everyone I know is to whip out the Weber charcoal or propane gas grill and "barbecue" hamburgers and hot dogs. Or perhaps it means to take pieces of marinated or dry-rubbed meat and grill them directly over a hot fire (or a hot broiler) until it's smoky and charred.

Then drench it with a thick and spicy tomato-based sauce which is super-sweetened with brown sugar and that's "barbecue" or "Bar-B-Q" or "barbeque" or "BBQ". With such fast and loose criteria every fair-weather, backyard, dottering fool is a barbecue pit master.

Tomorrow, on the 4th of July, there will be lots of folks "barbecuing" but most will not actually be serving barbecue. That's because, despite the misappropriation of the term, true barbecue is meat (notably pork) slow-cooked for hours over indirect heat and over hardwood coals, preferably hickory. Especially in North and South Carolina, barbecue means pork and pork only, and it's never marinated or coated with spices beforehand. In fact, North Carolina has a law which states anything packaged and sold as barbecue must be pork slow-cooked over hardwood, otherwise it must be sold as "cooked pork".

If it sounds as though I'm being inflexible and dogmatic with a touch of butt-ache well, that's because I am. As all new converts to any religion would be - because, friends, I have been to the mountain top (literally). I have made my pilgrimage to the barbecue holy land and I've come back to share the good news with you.

That news is: barbecue is Slow Food. It is a tradition and skill, not to be messed around with. It is a way of life upon which reputation and family honor is at stake; a heritage and art form passed down from generation to generation. To equate the work and cuisine of people like the late Wayne Monk, Wilber Shirley, or Pete Jones with your average backyard griller or, worse, some obscenity calling itself "Korean BBQ" is nothing less than defamation – and it shouldn't be tolerated by anyone who remotely thinks of him or herself as a "foodie".

I'm sorry, but I won't budge on this.

Grilling is not barbecue. Barbecue is not a verb.


Only in Georgia is barbecue a radio station – WBBQ to be exact – which is what we listened to traveling down that long, green, tree-lined corridor on our way to Charleston, stopping in Augusta for lunch. Originally our plan was to stop at Hot Foods by Calvin, which looked promising as we approached the restaurant and discovered it was in a run-down part of town; many fine restaurants often are. However, upon pulling up to the front door, we discovered to our disappointment that it was closed for renovations.

The convenience store beside Hot Foods By Calvin did have a bathroom we could use and more pickled eggs and boiled peanuts than you could shake a health department violation at, but we decided to keep looking. We were, after all, guided a magical plastic pig.

After passing through Augusta, with its quaint downtown and downhome adjoining neighborhoods, we were back on the road and just crossing the South Carolina border. It was Sunday afternoon, so not much was open in the way of restaurants. It was then that we noticed a large and welcoming restaurant on the side of the road called Bobby's Bar-B-Q Buffet, and it was open.

Should we stop? Please – you had me at "buffet".

I have to admit, I was a little nervous at first. Here we were, two wayfaring strangers, about to enter this huge log cabin looking restaurant in which the only diners seemed to be very old, very white, and very conservative looking senior citizens. They could've wheeled the corpse of Strom Thurmond out of that place and I wouldn't have batted an eye.

Of course, it all made sense once I found out Bobby's has a special discount for churchgoers – just show them that day's program schedule from the church of your choosing (Seventh Day Adventists welcome on Saturdays.)

Bobby's Bar-B-Q is a large and clean establishment. The pig theme is in full effect here, as is the Southern habit of ancestor worship as manifested in the Confederate War Hero shrine which greets you upon arrival.

Because it's a buffet, you pay what is essentially an entrance fee ($8 or so) which buys you a sturdy styrofoam plate, a plastic fork and spoon, and all of the food and sweet tea one can possibly consume without exploding – although some leakage may occur.

I was way in over my head here. Bobby's had more pig on a buffet spread than I've ever seen before and/or since. We're talking ribs, cracklins, fried pork chops, chopped barbecue, pulled barbecue, and things I never even knew existed and, hell, I'm a regular diner in Chinatown!

Hushpuppies, fried pork chops, pork ribs, chopped barbecue, cole slaw (hidden underneath pork chops), collard greens

They also had the best hushpuppies, which had more of a true corn flavor than most of the hushpuppies we would have later. In fact, Bruce says they were the best hushpuppies of the entire trip.

The fried pork chops and ribs were good, but nothing memorable. Same applies to the collard greens, mac and cheese, and baked beans. The fried chicken was excellent – to my amusement. I never fail to get a chuckle out of restaurants who promote some star attraction while the real attraction, often something as simple as a side order, goes completely ignored by everyone but the customers.

In contrast to the fried chicken, which was crisp and savory, the slaw was soft and sweet – and I do mean sweet. It was to be the first of many sugary-sweet, bright bright green sides that go for slaw in these here parts. To some, this type of hypersweet cole slaw may seem odd but trust me, it works well as a counter-balance to the more heavier foods like the fried chicken or barbecue.

Barbecue-wise, the contender was the fine chopped 'cue against the South Carolina-style, mustard heavy, pulled pork. Clearly, the mustard-sauce pulled pork immediately won me over, despite being a little dry.

Baked beans, fried chicken, a pork rib, hushpuppies, pulled pork (South Carolina style)

Lucky then that a bottle of extra mustard sauce was sitting at the table, alongside a bottle of Texas Pete hot vinegar sauce that no self-respecting barbecue restaurant goes without. Other table accoutrement included the customary roll of paper towels for napkins, which made us feel right at home.

We are not complicated peoples.

Banana pudding, pulled pork, chopped pork, hash

The other winner here was what I thought at first was Brunswick stew but turned out was hash. Hash is a specialty in the upstate part of Georgia and South Carolina and is a thick stew made with finely chopped barbecue and/or beef. Some of that mustard sauce goes into the hash along with the meat and what you essentially have is "barbecue" stew. Hash is cooked in huge pots for hours, developing a deep, rich flavor – slow food for the hungry mass of churchgoers and those rank strangers among them.

By mid-afternoon this place was clearing out; bellies full, waistlines extended, Holy Spirit called for - often in vain. Me, on the other hand, I've yet to finish my second cup of banana pudding: the Southern man's Creme Brulè.

I've decided my diet is over.

And I need another plate.



Blogger Amy Sherman said...

Oh Kevin, you had me at "Hee Haw". Awesome post.

9:04 PM  
Blogger Chubbypanda said...

Oh man. Panda want!

4:28 PM  

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