This might not seem like a big deal if you're not from down South, but, if you are like I am, then you'll understand that what I'm about to say actually is a big deal. Growing up, I didn't like barbecue. Not ribs, not chicken, not pulled pork--nothing.
Sometimes my mom would break down and make me a Chef Boyardee pizza. Man, was that good: a crust like warm cardboard, a sauce that was little more than thinned out tomato paste sweetened with corn syrup, and that grated parmesan cheese that I now imagine consists wholly of floor sweepings from a cheese processing plant. There was fast food too, which I devoured any chance I got. Later, after I moved away from Georgia, I would eat a barbecue sandwich every now and then, but in the Atlanta suburbs this usually consisted of drenching dry, overcooked pork or chicken in a syrupy sauce straight from the jug and then serving it on a roll or between two slices of white bread, either of which became instantly soggy.
My barbecue epiphany happened in Brooklyn one late spring afternoon. Shortly after moving there, me and my girlfriend at the time found ourselves feeling seriously homesick. We quickly agreed that Southern comfort food was the only remedy. She was from Tennessee, and had spent her summers as a kid in the mountains of North Carolina. She had to have pulled pork with all the fixin's. I had my reservations, but having worked as a cook and chef for a number of years, I agreed that I'd give it a go. I mean, come on, she may be a bitch now, but she was my girlfriend at the time. We got back to the apartment later that afternoon with a couple bike baskets loaded with pork shoulder, hickory chips, cider vinegar, brown sugar, collards, cornmeal, and whatever else we needed.
I rigged up a smoker from the little Weber grill on our terrace. Smoking a pork shoulder involves constantly burning wood chips over charcoal for about six hours. It gives off a considerable amount of smoke. The building I lived in was the old chicken plant on Roebling and North 4th that was converted into a luxury building. All the tenants were button-up, uptight professionals, myself excluded. The landlords were an older, passive-aggressive hippie couple that did the conversion themselves and were constantly on my case about something: tracking mud into the hall, not doing the recycling properly, being too loud, leaving the terrace too messy. On this particular night, they were afraid that I was gonna burn the place down. My upstairs neighboors started to complain about half-way through, saying that they couldn't leave their windows open because their apartment would smell like smoke.
We ignored their whining, and around midnight ended up with a mound of North Carolina-style barbecue, a pot of collards, and enough corn pones to feed our whole building. I normally would have shared, but everyone had pissed me off so I didn’t. After six months of arguments and harrassment, I decided to break my lease. But as far as barbecue was concerned, I was hooked.
I learned to cook barbecue in all of its glorious regional variations: Memphis, Kansas City, Texas, both the Carolinas. Whenever I traveled in the barbecue belt, I often ate nothing else.
In New York, the pickings are slim. Plus, New York barbecue is served in the wrong atmosphere. Taking something so basic and primal--cooking whole animals or at least big pieces of them over an open flame--and serving it on a white tablecloth or some urban roadhouse brimming over with country kitsch rubs me the wrong way, especially considering that some of best barbecue I've ever had has been served in gas stations, parking lots, and roadside shacks.
So whenever I go back down South, barbecue is at the top of the list of foods I gotta eat first (right up there with favorites at Waffle House and Chic-Fil-A). I get my first fix in Virgina and then try to make stops in any state I can. I'll stop and eat whether I'm hungry or not just because I like the smell of the smoke, which is, by the way, one of the telltale signs of great barbecue.
I was actually hungry when we stopped at the Bar-B-Q King in Charlotte. But with its giant neon sign, curb service, and a menu that not only included barbecue but also such drive-thru staples as burgers, dogs, onion rings, and milkshakes, it looked more like something out of The Hollywood Knights or Porky's than the barbecue stands I'm normally on the lookout for. Ehhh... I dunno. This might not be my first fix, I thought. I’d gone there on the recommendation of a friend, and judging by the spiky bleach-blond haired head of that dude from that food show staring back at me from a poster across the parking lot, it's no mystery where she'd heard about it. Not a good sign.
Traveling with five other people is tough. Traveling with five other musicians is even worse. Someone, if not everyone, is always broke. Someone's always got their shorts on too tight (usually me). Then, there's the general apathy of the road that leads to eating at a fucking Subway or something attached to the gas station that you just stopped at. I knew if I showed any sign of weakness, that's exactly where I was gonna eat that night.
So despite my misgivings, I rolled down the window, pushed the call button, and ordered. I was rewarded with a Pork Bar-B-Q Tray with beans, slaw, hush puppies, and a sesame seed bun. Not the best, but better than I'd had since the last time I was down south. Fletcher, who happens to be a Palace Fried Chicken regular back in Brooklyn, got the chicken. It was weird. It was really good. Imagine tossing fried chicken in equal parts Mrs. Butterworth's and Tabasco, then trying to eat it. I wanted more, but I had a hard enough time getting that first bite from him. Joseph got the onion rings with whatever he ordered. Luckily for me, there were a lot of them, and they were awesome. It boggles the mind as to how they get 'em so damn crispy.
Read the first of Jameson's food tour dispatches here, and watch his band, The Weight, in their VBS Practice Space session here.