Star Child Awarded 2013 Nautilus Medal
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Every family has it favorite or traditional foods. They are imbedded in our DNA, our tastebuds and hearts. They are the foods that remind us of family, traditions, good times and old friends. In our family, one very special favorite is barbecue. It helps that my hometown is Lexington, NC, one of the true barbecue capitols of the world, its praises sung by food writers and barbecue aficionados from NYC to London and San Francisco. The town sports more than 20 barbecue restaurants supported by a population of less than 20,000.
Since none of us live there anymore, it is always a special treat to get to eat some of the real thing, either in Lexington, or through the gracious efforts of a friend who knew to stop in and pick some up for us. While I could and probably will write another whole blog about what Lexington barbecue is and isn’t, I will say that it is hickory smoked pork shoulder with a vinegar based “dip” and a spicy red coleslaw served on top or alongside. The combination of sweet, hot, sour and smoky with a crunchy slaw is awesome. Click here for a great version of the slaw from Saveur Magazine.
Of course I am always seeking barbecue elsewhere too, comparing the textures and flavors to our remembered gold standard. A few have come close in the way the meat is smoked and chopped. Very rarely, the coleslaw or “dip” quite fits the bill. But it is the journey, not the destination that has created memorable hours of sampling literally around the world.
Recently I found Fletcher’s in Brooklyn (where the owner, hearing I was fro Lexington, offered me some whisky at 11AM) and there is Blue Smoke in Manhattan. There are numerous stands scattered about North Carolina, some tracing a direct lineage to legendary Lexington Barbecue men and traditions: JB Tarleton, Stamey's or to Wayne “Honey” Monk from Lexington Number 1. I hear there is a great new place in Durham I will try soon.They are all worth a try. But being the Lexington barbecue snob I am, especially when someone offers me beef ribs, sometimes the verdict is, "It tastes good. But it's not barbecue."
Back when Proof of the Pudding was just getting started, I used to host the holiday party for the staff in early January. Running a catering company didn't leave much time to celebrate at Christmas or New Year’s. And what did the trendy gourmet company serve its staff for a special treat? You guessed it. My mom would load a whole smoked shoulder with the trimmings into a cooler and onto a Trailways bus. I always rejoiced when it arrived in downtown Atlanta. I worried that anyone who got of whiff of the treasure would have grabbed it before it ever arrived.
Though my mother, Dee Gurley, is a Yankee, she was the one who introduced us to Lexington barbecue. I will never forget the first time I tasted it. My two brothers and I were teenagers from Buffalo, NY making our first visit to NC since my parents had divorced when we were toddlers. Oddly, mom never mentioned barbecue to any of us as we were growing up. We talked about our best neighborhood pizzas, or the Danish at the corner bakery or Beef on ‘Weck. But as we drove into Lexington, Mom made a beeline to Stamey’s, a barbecue joint downtown. She found the low slung brick building behind the courthouse and parked the car. You could smell it before you saw it. And it smelled amazing.
There she ordered us up our first hickory-smoked chopped pork sandwich with a side of hushpuppies. She said she was making sure we would never get confused about what “barbecue” was supposed to taste like. But, as a silence descended on the table while we savored that first astonishing bite, we realized that there was something more than the joy of eating that was imparted to us there. It was the knowing and the longing, visceral and complete, for that sweet, vinegary, smoky taste. I knew Mom must have carried that craving for barbecue and that place in her life, all those long years away, close to her heart, yet unnamed and unspoken.
Reflecting on that moment, it is not surprising that sometimes food and our memories of it of can sometimes take on near-sacramental levels of complexity, reverence and emotion. The sharing of food and the serving of certain dishes is how we tell our stories, a familiar oral history, if you will, that we repeat around the table again and again. Each time, we savor not only the flavors but also the ingredients that connect us to one another.
Earlier this summer, I arranged for an outing to Lexington with Mom who is 95 now. We met old friends at "The Monk" (Lexington Barbecue No.1) and ordered our barbecue trays and took a side trip home to see the lake house where my mother lived for about 20 years. Of course I brought some back. It was a good day, punctuated by memories all carried along on a tendril of hickory smoke.