Archive for February 18th, 2008

The Worst Barbeque Ever

Over on Maclin’s Light on Dark Water weblog a conversation that began about one of crunchy con man Rod Dreher’s snooty food posts ("crusted goat cheese…Halibut in an herbaceous cream sauce") has evolved into a discussion about barbeque and its regional variations.

Which brings to mind this tale, which is too long for a comment on LODW. Besides, it will be a welcome respite from the political talk which has come to
dominate this site lately.

I didn’t marry untilthe day before my 42nd birthday, when by grace and good fortune I wedthe very beautiful and much younger Michelle.

These days, with a van full of children, when we travel the strategy is to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. Being cooped up in a vehicle brings out the worst in children: squabbling and sniping,
grumbling and complaining. If this post was titled "The Worst Road Trip
Ever" I could tell the story of the time Michael Seraphim, who we called "the horrible adorable baby" literally screamed the whole way from northeast Ohio to southeast Michigan. At night. In the rain.

As his nickname indicated, besides being a fussy baby he was also incredibly cute. Lucky for him. He is at present a thoroughly delightful two year old.

So for now we stick to the freeways.

But during my long bachelorhood the journey itself was to be savored. I nearly always travelled the side roads, beginning when I hitchiked around the country in my teens and twenties. This means, whether travelling by thumb or car, actually experiencing places, instead of just zooming by on the interstate.

One of the
delights of this slower, more leisurely way of travel is culinary; you are not limited to the chain restaurants that line the freeway exits. In the South and Mid-Atlantic this means barbeque, often no more than a smoky roadside stand.

There is the wonderful chicken stand along route 404 in Delaware’s flat countryside, a Kiwanis fundraiser, if I recall. I stopped once on my way to visit friends on Maryland’s coast and after tasting once the vinegary/peppery taste of the blackened chicken it became a regular stop.

Or the ribs at another makeshift stand in St Mary’s County in Maryland,
nicely charred- as good barbeque should be- with a sweet and tangy sauce. The only drawback is that the place is only about a mile from the Pope Creek crabhouse, on the shore of the mile-wide Potomac, which is another find. Decisions, decisions.

And so once, years ago, one of my trips to visit Maclin and Karen in Alabama. I was living in Virginia at the time, and drove down Skyline Drive to the Blue Ridge Parkway, which took me as far as northern Georgia. It’s a stunning drive, following the ridge line of the Appalachians.

That was the main route, anyway. I also took a lot of forays on back roads
that ran in the same general northeast to southwest direction, sort of
like a jazz musician playing variations on a melody.

On one of these riffs I drove along a stream at the bottom of a narrow holler in North Carolina when I saw it, the barbeque epicure’s dream, a small rundown joint with a hand-painted sign: "BARBEQUE". Oh boy, I thought, this looks like the real thing. There was no smoke rising, the usual telltale sign, but it was late in the afternoon. No doubt the barbequer’s work was done for the day.

So I
walked into the place, expectantly. I was the lone customer. The interior did not disappoint: funky and worn-looking, just what one would hope it would be.

So I ordered some ribs, french fries and hush puppies and settled in with the newspaper I had picked up earlier, imagining the delights that soon were to be mine. As this was the Carolina uplands, the sauce would probably be sweet and spicy, not the tangy mustardy kind you got in the piedmont.

When the proprietor proudly arrived with my platter of ribs I stared dumbly
at it. These were unlike any ribs I had ever seen. Not a trace of char on them, and smothered in a wet red sauce. The fries were limp and soggy, the hush puppies sorry-looking and greasy.

I ventured a taste. And nearly gagged. They were very fatty, and apparently boiled. The sauce, I believe, was Open Pit, straight from the bottle.

They were inedible, and I left a bill to cover the cost and hurried out when no one was looking.

I suppose I could draw some profound moral lesson from this experience, a Forrest Gumpish "Life is like a barbeque joint: you never know what you are going to get". But the best I can come up with is the obvious: sometimes what looks like a dumpy greasy spoon is just a dumpy greasy spoon.

Daniel Nichols

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