An NC Barbecue Love Letter

“Can I have that with hush puppies?”

“Honey, all our meals come with hush puppies.”

That conversation right there is what I love best about North Carolina.  I’m so proud to live in a state where our food of choice is accompanied by fried chunks of dough – and you don’t even to ask for them. Also, the fact that I can get fried dough at any moment keeps me calm in times of stress.

I recently drove from Chapel Hill to Wilmington, which is usually about a 3-hour drive.  My fearless barbecue-tasting companion and I took about 8 because we were eating so much barbecue.  Also because our car broke down, but that part of the story is much less fun and much less delicious.

We started at Allen & Sons, which is a takeout-only spot on the side of Highway 86.  The woman who took our order had a scratchy-voiced southern accent, and recommended the French fries as her favorite side.  We had those, alongside onions rings, fried corn and the piedmont style barbecue.    The hushpuppies were included.

I ate hushpuppies to the tunes of The Avett Brothers, windows down on an eighty-degree day in the middle of March.  Another reason to love North Carolina, I would say.

As an American Studies student at UNC-Chapel Hill, I spend a lot of time learning and thinking about what it means to live in North Carolina.  Some days it means gritting my teeth in frustration at our state’s policymakers, but others it means speeding down a highway, loving the idiosyncratic, tangy, fried flavors of my home state.

The second spot we stopped was Holt Lake Barbecue, which was a sit-down restaurant where we were offered an entire pitcher of sweet tea and a piece of strawberry shortcake each upon sitting down at the table.  And by offered, I mean they were slung toward us with a wink and wave of the hand at our protests.

 Holt Lake is not messing around.

Holt Lake is not messing around.

The woman who served us seemed interested in the enormous quantity of barbecue we were attempting to consume, and recommended we speak to the owner.  He actually turned out to know nothing about barbecue restaurants near his or anywhere else in the state, but was awfully friendly in informing us of this.

We continued East, entering hog country.  If you’re not from North Carolina, you might think that was a good thing - that it would guarantee local meats and some kind of improved quality.  The reality is that you probably don’t want to eat barbecue in eastern North Carolina because the farms smell so unbelievably bad.  Even so, we stopped at a roadside stand with only outdoor seating for our third stop.

The actual barbecue we bought there was the best of the three (Allen and Sons won for hushpuppies), but the sour smell made it awfully difficult to forget 1) that we were eating real animals, 2) that those animal produce an unbelievable about of crap, and 3) that we were basically bordered on all side by that crap.

 i regret not ordering the gizzards

i regret not ordering the gizzards

 fried chicken + barbecue = no regrets

fried chicken + barbecue = no regrets

That said, the people inside the stand, also buying lunch, were all locals who were thrilled to advise us about what to order, to hear about what we thought of the Tar Heels this season, where else we had eaten barbecue that day, and what we were doing for spring break.  Certainly, barbecue was the best way to introduce ourselves to our fellow North Carolinians.

We nibbled on our food in the car, windows sealed against the stench.  The sun, however, continued to beat down as The Avett Brothers and Mipso sang us toward the beach.  When my car broke down in the middle of nowhere on highway 421, the smell of hog waste had dispersed and we didn’t much mind sitting on the side of the road drinking iced tea.

When the tow truck arrived, we loaded the car and then offered the tow truck driver a hushpuppy.  He accepted, but with a word of wisdom.

“You know, the best barbecue in North Carolina is just around the corner from where I grew up…”