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Barbecued ... What?


I'm not from the South, but I got here as fast as I could.

I recently passed a milestone of having lived below the Mason-Dixon Line for 30 years - longer than I lived north of it. My roots will always be in New York, of course, and I sometimes experience spasms of missing it terribly ... but during my freshman year at Hofstra, when I didn't have a car at my disposal and stood at the bus stop, quaking in the cold wind, I decided I wanted to live somewhere warmer. But life (in the form of boyfriends, mainly) got in the way, and so it was another nine years before my plan came to fruition. By that time, I was married, and one camping trip in Virginia and North Carolina planted the idea in both our heads that the world didn't begin and end at opposite ends of the subway line. We could live in a place with clearer nights, more green grass, a slower pace, cleaner air, and best of all, more realistic real estate prices. The milder (albeit dreary) winters were a given. They spoiled me: After 15 years or so, any trip to New York around Christmastime meant enduring those Arctic winds that feel like a storm of needles assaulting your face. My ex was immune to this, however; he is currently preparing a permanent move to Prince Edward Island in Canada, where things are frosty, the way he likes it.

Living in the South brought me innumerable experiences with an "exotic" culture that I had never dreamed of in my youth. I'm on a Facebook group made up of people from the same neck of the woods, and those who ultimately moved away love to amuse the ones who stayed with the quirky differences in terminology ("Buggy" vs. "shopping cart" and "license tag" vs. "license plate" are two examples). But the one that I encountered within weeks of moving to Atlanta is the one that really stands out for me. I can always tell where someone is from, based on how they use the word.


In New York, people would say "C'mon over -- we're gonna barbecue. Hamburgers, hot dogs, maybe some chicken..." They'd have a standard Weber or other charcoal grill, and the aroma was, of course, heavenly. Sometimes, in addition to the standard Heinz ketchup and French's mustard, they'd offer a bottle of Open Pit Barbecue sauce. But only if chicken was on the menu. I think the purpose of the sauce was to cover up those really over-charred parts of the chicken. But that was how we defined "barbecue." It was synonymous with "grilling" or "cooking out." My mother sometimes bought a slab of ribs and cooked them in the oven, again with Open Pit sauce. She invariably called them "barbecued spare ribs."

Okay, so fast-forward to the mid-1980s, and I was living in the Atlanta suburbs, temping at various offices. I learned about "Southern Hospitality" early on, because there during high summer, the company that owned the office complex hosted a "picnic break." We were all invited to go down to the courtyard, where tents were set up with salad, veggies, rolls, and meat.

Side note: They also had "Swee'tea." You could get a Coke, but most people drank iced tea. It was pre-sweetened, either from a jug you purchased at the grocery store (Milo's is the best-known brand down here), or made the old-fashioned way in a big jar that sat in the sun for awhile. But either way, you didn't have to add any sweetener unless you wanted to watch your teeth fall out. If you didn't like "swee'tea," you could have water or something else. In New York, if you wanted "iced tea," you could sometimes get it in the summer but never any other time of the year, and you were responsible for your own sweetening. You could also buy a jar of instant Nestea, but that was your own private business.

There I was with my plate & plasticware, moving slowly along the serving line with my co-workers, and when I got to the meat station, the smiling person there scooped up this round portion of orangey-brown stuff and ladled it onto my plate.

I looked at it, but had no idea what it was. So, logically, I asked.

"What's this?"

"Barbecue," responded my server.

A beat. It didn't look like chicken, or spare ribs. It had no discernible form. It was just a scoop of something that looked to be about 75% Open Pit Barbecue Sauce.

"Barbecued what?" I mean, really, you'd think she could at least tell me that.

But no.

"Barbecue," she repeated, this time not so patiently. I took the hint, filled the rest of my plate with stuff I could identify and sat down to eat what I later (much later) learned was also known as "pulled pork." Which, if you're from New York or New Jersey and you're reading this, has elicited a snicker and a muttered response such as "Yeah, baby, you can pull my pork anytime." I know...

But that's what it's called down here. It's made in a smoker or a pit, and it cooks very, very slowly, for days, until it falls off the bone, hence the non-specific shape. It's good. Not my favorite, but that's just me. I guess I still need to "see" whatever the meat came from in order to really enjoy it. Whatever. If you're in the south, and you want to impress someone, you put barbecue on the menu.

Recently, my husband Carl (a Southern boy by birth) turned 60 and I decided to show my love by dragging him kicking and screaming from in front of the TV, out to a restaurant, where a few family members met us for dinner. I know this restaurant from their catering, which is part of my office job.

The restaurant is called Famous Dave's, and they are a nationwide chain. They might not have gotten a toehold in New England as of yet, but I hope they will. It's too cold up that way not to have decent barbecue to warm the soul.

Carl had a two-meat combo, of pork and chicken. I had "four bones" of St. Louis-style ribs. One of my sisters-in-law had rib tips, and the other gave me cause to reminisce, because she ordered a pulled-pork sandwich plate. At my recommendation, everyone got a side order of Famous Dave's "Wilbur Beans." If you have the least tolerance for baked beans, you should try them. They are indescribably good. They also have wonderful banana pudding, which can be reduced from five syllables to a time-saving three, if you pronounce it "nana pud'n," the way they do down here. There was swee'tea on the menu, though I ordered a couple of Alabama Slammers for myself. Why not? It was a special occasion.

The hospitality and service were great. The event was well-attended and a good time was had by all.

So, if you want to cook southern-style at home, please learn the difference between barbecue and "barbecue," or better yet, save yourself the work altogether and go out to Famous Dave's. You'll notice I published this post right around lunchtime on a Tuesday. Feel free to follow those subliminal urges.


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