As American as BBQ

“Forget baseball, apple pie, and Chevrolet.  For a Southerner, it is barbeque.”

Let’s clarify immediately and with great fervor, barbeque is not an event; it is a dish. I don’t care what our Northern neighbors say.  It is not a backyard gathering.  You don’t go to a backyard “barbeque.”  You go to the backyard to eat barbeque. Barbeque is a dish created by the soft whispers of the angels who trod before us and is as close to heaven as I wish to get until death.  Good barbeque is a gift from heaven…it is not a place. Be reverent my children.

It is the morning of July 5th and as I write this, I’m in a barbeque coma courtesy of Carolus’ ribs and Jamie’s pulled pork…and potato salad courtesy of Carol Ann.  Other significant coma contributors included blueberry cobbler and brown liquor.  There were many other contributors and only contributions I would have added would have been mayonnaise and vinegar slaw and hash over white rice but that is a personal choice and not a coma breaker.  It is a tip of the hat to my roots where barbeque came with mustard sauce and helpings of hash over rice.

It was the first Bennett family Fourth of July backyard cookout in two years.  The Bennetts are our adopted family and I’m not sure who adopted whom.  It was good to see folk we hadn’t seen in two years even though there was a bit of “post-Covid” trepidation.   Sitting outside under shade trees and swapping stories soon reduced my anxieties…or maybe it was the brown liquor.

Backyard cookout.  See how I said that?  A backyard cookout.  You go to a cookout…not to a barbeque.  You don’t even have to serve barbeque at a cookout, you can grill things like pork, chicken, beef, roadkill, or tofu.  But grillin’ ain’t barbequin’.  Barbeque is slowly cooked animal parts, pork in my part of the world, over wood coals.  Slow-cooked until the meat just gives up and shreds easily with two forks or falls off of the bone without any help from anything other than gravity.  Sometimes eating high on the hog involves parts found low on the hog.

There is a certain barbeque etiquette.  None etched in stone, and it varies from place to place but it would behoove you to learn the area’s rules before attending a cookout serving barbeque.  See how I said that? 

Generally, the rules involve sauces, rubs, or sides.  It can involve the meat, Texas is mainly beef, for instance, other areas might be a goat or lamb, yuck, but here in South Carolina, it is pork.  I reckon we all eat chicken and you can slow cook yard bird.

There are sauces and then there are sauces.  Nothing to argue over.  Pick one or experiment. Sauce varies here in South Carolina.  Vinegar base, pepper base, both together.  Mustard base, light tomato base, heavy tomato base, depending on the area.   In the home of my mother, the general rule was a mustard sauce with pork, tomato sauce with chicken.

The mustard base is considered by many to be truly South Carolina’s sauce…may be.  German immigrants brought it from the Fatherland to the midlands.  Our new visitors told the older inhabitants they were from Deutschland, which was mistaken as Dutchland, and the reason the fork between the Broad and Saluda Rivers became known as the Dutch Fork. Dutch Fork…Deutsch Fork…”You say toe-may-toe, I say toe-mah-toe.”

The mustard sauce changes to vinegar and pepper sauces on the coast, light tomato, which is vinegar and pepper with tomato added, in the Pee Dee area, heavy tomato in the West and Northwest portions of the state…with a bit of brown sugar, root beer, or brown liquor added…sometimes.  People are mostly steadfast in their allegiance to one sauce although I admit to experimentation on occasion.  If a person serves you an exotic barbeque sauce like that Alabama White Sauce, thank them even if you don’t like it.  It is the Southern way and good etiquette.

Steadfast allegiance but I’m not willin’ to fight a Civil War over it.  No one should argue over sauces.  It is almost like arguing about politics except with politics no one wins.  With barbeque, everybody wins.  Just don’t drown the meat in the sauce.    It is meant to enhance the flavor, not cover it up…unless it is bad barbeque.  One rule etched in stone: Never pre-sauce a sandwich.  The amount of sauce is a personal choice.

Sides?  I’m guessing we could argue all day. In the South, potato salad is a must.  Corn on the cob, fried okra, baked beans, and dill pickles are quite acceptable.  I fancy the pickled medley that includes pickled cauliflower and pearl onions.  Just don’t call it giardiniera.  Sounds too fancy for barbeque and you can leave the pickled carrots out of mine.

To slaw or not to slaw, that might be the question?  I think slaw is a genetic thing.  You are born to put slaw on your pulled pork sandwich, or you are not.  Kind of like sugar or vinegar or mayonnaise in your slaw.  Me…vinegar and mayonnaise and yes, I want it on my sandwich.

Hash or Brunswick stew?  It is pretty much Brunswick stew everywhere other than the Carolinas. Once again, everywhere else is wrong.  It’s hash always.  Unrecognizable pig products cooked with potatoes and onions until they meld together with certain spices passed down by the ghostly hands of our past. Served over rice…white rice of course.

What is not up for debate, fellowship.  You shouldn’t eat barbeque with someone you don’t like which brings me back to the Bennett clan.  I like the Bennett clan.  I taught with the patriarch, Carol Ann, and coached and taught her two sons Jamie and Carolus.  Through them, my bride and I have become members of their extended family.  I’m honored to have been invited to their July 4th celebration. Barbeque reminds me of home and the Bennett clan reminds me of family.  It just doesn’t get much better than that.

I need to take a nap.  My barbeque coma is about to win out.

Barbecue or Barbeque.  I spelled it barbeque because it is a bit archaic, like me, and because it was spelled that way where I grew up.

For books by Don Miller https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR3xEUv3gUa4wrDNp0oXEa2Rbv1hcunRf64Zlr3wl2hNbsCYZwGlgIDwNqw

GREEN RIVER…UM, UM, GOOD…

Good food, good times and good friends you didn’t know you knew.

I sat with my beloved at a raised bar done in corrugated metal and salvaged wood.  We sat on tall, padded, metal bar stools and sipped Narragansett.  It had been a while since we had partaken of the ambrosia of the gods… pulled pork BBQ, slaw and fried okra.  We were sipping beer and watching the big screen as we waited.  Narragansett is a Yankee beer.  Despite its Northern birthplace, I like it as much as the beers from more Southern climes.  I like good beer where ever it is brewed…I know, sometimes I wouldn’t know a good beer if it bit me on the ass, but “Gansett” goes well with the BBQ…and it’s cheap enough to have two…or three.

I’m reminded a bit of Cheers, “where everyone knows your name.”  Well, here at Green River, they may have forgotten our names, but they do recognize us…and it’s been a while.  Melanie and Tammie noticed us immediately and despite being covered up with other diners took time to check in and reconnect.  There was a third little girl whose name I’ve forgotten.  I feel terrible.  That’s Cheers-like, isn’t it?  She checked in too.

In addition to my love affair with great BBQ, I have had a love affair with hole-in-the-wall establishments dating to when I first ventured into a bar named The Cellar in the very late Sixties.  Dim, smoky places…

” Meeting… in smoky places,

Hiding… in shadowy corners,

Dancing… where no one knows our faces,

sharing love stolen in the night,

in smoky places.”

 

Thank you, Corsairs, all though I’m not talking about THAT kind of smoky place.  My first real date with the love of my life was in a dim, bluesy, smoke-filled, hole in the wall and no we weren’t hiding from anyone at The Casablanca.  Just listening to the Blues sung by Ronnie Godfrey, a friend of my love who would eventually sing at our wedding.  Later, at different times, we would celebrate a significant anniversary, a New Year’s celebration and Mardi Gras at the Cypress Cellar, a hole-in-the-wall that became less and less hole-in-the-wall like until it finally changed into a bright Mexican restaurant with a different name.  I do miss the Cajun cuisine…and its “hole-in-the-wallness” although the Mexican restaurant is very good…just too bright to be a hole-in-the-wall.

We first wandered into Green River BBQ thirty years ago.  It was an accident, like a lot of the good discoveries in our lives…one might say discovering each other was an accident that worked out well too.   Late in the day on a cool and foggy, fall evening, it was our first trip to the small town of Saluda in North Carolina.  Deciding we wanted to eat, there were three restaurants to choose from.  We picked the correct one…for us.  We watched a football game on a not so big screen TV and met Melanie, the owner, and her husband.  The husband hasn’t been in the picture for a while and I admit that I really haven’t missed him.  I doubt Melanie has either.  We sat in the small, rustic dining area reading the quaint and rusting metal signs of pigs adorning walls finished from old salvaged boards.  A screened in porch led us to the dining area and the sound of the slamming screen door reminded me a bit of home.

Waiters and waitresses have changed over the years as has Green River.  Melanie has expanded the dining room, now done in corrugated metal along with the unfinished boards.  True big screen TVs are available to watch sporting events if you so desire.  Joining the rusting signs, garden rake heads are attached to the walls and utilized to hold wine glasses.  Yep, a wine list has joined its beer list.  The screened porch is now enclosed to increase year-round seating, but the screen door still has that pleasant bang and a bit of the parking lot has been confiscated for outdoor seating.  Most importantly, while the people and objects have changed, the attitude hasn’t.  It still feels like a welcoming hole-in-the-wall…and a bit like home.

This past Sunday, we met new friends.  Steve from Wilmington, spending a few weeks helping a friend clean up his home’s lot and searching for information on how to get rid of groundhogs without shooting them.  Deshi, from the small town of “Somewhere,” India, teaches at the local community college and is quite the football fan.  We nodded at an old friend, John, the chubby, red-faced, dark headed guy that always comes in alone and sits quietly working the Sunday crossword.  There were other regulars I recognized, they greeted us even if they didn’t know our names.  My kind of place.

One might surmise food is not the primary reason I go to Green River.  That would be untrue.  I opened with good friends, good times and good food.  My only complaint about the food is…I don’t have any complaints about their food.  They have great entrees, some that don’t even involve BBQ, but I do remind you, you probably shouldn’t order fish in a restaurant advertising pulled pork, slow cooked ribs, and barbeque chicken.  When asked to name your side dish, do try the fried okra with a little Ranch dressing on the side.

Yes, good friends, good times and good food.  There are other restaurants in Saluda and they too are good, friendly and have their own “hole-in-the-wall” ambiance…they just don’t serve BBQ.

For more of Don Miller’s “a bubble off plumb” outlook on life please visit his author’s page at http://amazon.com/author/cigarman501

Southern Bias

“The past is never dead, in fact, it’s not even past.” One of the South’s greatest Nobel Prize laureates. William Faulkner

A blog follower of mine paid me a superb compliment…I think…I hope. Her comment was, “I love reading your musings. You confound my biases about Southern attitudes.” No, she ain’t from around here but sometimes I wonder if I should be. I guess I need to ask the clarifying question, “What biases?” I haven’t heard back yet and since our power went off due to a thunderstorm, I guess I shall attempt to saunter on alone.

I don’t believe she meant, “As one Forbes pundit overstated several years ago, ‘the common media view of the South is as a regressive region, full of overweight, prejudiced, exploited, and undereducated numbskulls.’” I wrote a previous post about our own contributions to those biases , “Sot in Our Ways,” but will not re-till this field since I don’t believe it fits her bias. The reason I believe this? She writes from her Michigan farm about chickens, goats and puppy dogs. She even has a story about possums. Sorta sounds like a female, Yankee version of me…except she’s probably a better writer than I am…no, not probably.

I realize the South is full of paradoxes and I know our paradoxes create biases. Sweetening our tea before adding lemon to make it a bit sour. Revering the past while seemingly revering little of the present. My great Grand Daddy preaching on the evils of alcohol while being drunker than “old Cooter Brown.” My guess was he was railing about the evils of “sto’ bought” rather than homemade. Going to family reunions to find our mates…that was a joke although I did date a very distant cousin once upon a time. I lived in a sparsely populated area and female company was at a premium.

I guess another perceived reason for bias is our murder of the “King’s English.” Droppin’ our gees, talkin’ slower than molasses running in the wintertime and usin’ the word y’all all of the time. I was once told the difference between Southern girls and Northern girls was that if you asked for a kiss, Northern girls might answer “You can!”, Southern gals might answer “Y’all can!” Remember, y’all can mean one…maybe. Well, y’all can is singular, y’all ALL can would be plural…kinda like “Youse guys.”

I know many Northerners who have biases about our food. No one I know actually eats Moon Pies while drinking a “dope” and I have never in my life eaten pickled pig’s feet…and won’t ever unless starving. Some folks above the Mason Dixon Line wouldn’t be caught dead sucking a crawfish head after eating a crawfish tail or eating grits even though polenta is nothing more than grits with a Latin name and probably a heftier price tag. Grits should be viewed as a “blank canvas.” Plain until you start adding color…say…mixed with cream cheese and covered with grilled or blackened shrimp “runnin’” in a brown roux featuring Tasso ham or andouille sausage and chives. Now that’s colorful. I will not discuss Cream of Wheat.

I have my own bias or at least an issue with the way certain folks use the verb barbeque interchangeably with the verb grill. Barbequin’ ain’t grillin’. Grillin’ is charring burgers, hot dogs, chicken or fish. Doing so is fine, I love a good chargrilled burger or chicken done right…with a beer can up its butt. BBQ, however, requires low, low temperatures, hard wood coals and large animal parts although we will sneak a chicken or five in for good measure. Most importantly it requires time…hours of time…sometimes a night of time…with lies and brown liquor to help you pass the time or pass out. Rome was not built in a day and good BBQ requires at least that long.

There is a true earned bias. Many Southerners believe if Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father, their favorite college football coach sits to the left…regardless of how much he cusses. For sure, Southern college football is a religious experience of sorts. Even our most hated rivals brag about how they always fill their “House of Worship” no matter how many games they lose. Yes, that was a “hell fire and brimstone” missile aimed right at their little garnet and black hearts.

Okay, maybe I am the exception proving the bias or just the rule and no William Faulkner’s quote had little to do with this essay…except it might exemplify one of our greatest paradoxes and I just like it.

“Musings of a Mad Southerner” Stories from my Southern heart. New nonfiction from Don Miller at Amazon http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss

If you are interested in reading posts from my Yankee, female doppelganger, use the following link to touch base with Nancy and her Bluestem Farm. https://bluestempond.wordpress.com/

MAGIC ON A CHINA PLATE

Triggered, appropriately, by a comment about an oyster po’boy, I was taken back to a time when I discovered I had fallen in love with food. I mean really in love. I’m so in love with food, I usually begin planning my next meal while I’m eating the one I am presently eating…sometimes two or three meals in advance. The seduction occurred sometime after I had my tonsils removed in 1956. I don’t understand how my tonsils were related to my taste buds but considering the sixty-year war I have fought with my weight, there must have been some sort of bond. I am presently winning one of the many battles I have fought in my war on weight but I realize I am just a bowl of mint chocolate chip ice-cream from falling off the wagon…or into a food truck.

I associate food with love. It’s my grandmother’s fault. She was never the most demonstrative person when showing affection unless it was with a plate of peanut butter cookies…or a split cathead biscuit dripping in butter and King Golden Syrup. I guess several cathead biscuits dripping…served on a chipped china plate with a jelly glass filled with milk on the side. I’m sure she had saved S & G Green Stamps for the china…or purchased them individually through the weekly grocery store offers. I never asked if she ever collected a complete set. I remember the different scenes in blue I exposed as I mopped up the extra syrup and butter with another biscuit. There is no greater demonstration of love than a biscuit dripping butter and syrup. Magic, pure magic.

Food was usually placed in front of me along with some form of praise, “Donnie you’ve been a good boy, here have a cookie or five.” “Donnie, you did such a good job sorting my buttons, you want a biscuit?” No, she did not withhold food if I was naughty. If that had been the case I probably wouldn’t have my weight problem unless looking like a bag of bones fleeing famine is a weight problem.

I don’t look like a bag of bones because shortly after my tonsils went to tonsil heaven I fell in love with a hog…whose spirit had gone to hog heaven. The hog’s earthly body had been buried but not in a grave. The porker had been slow cooked in the ground all night long before being pulled, shredded or chopped…I really don’t remember which, I just remember the taste…the taste of magic…the taste of love. Served with a mustard sauce, slaw, bread and butter pickles and barbeque hash over white rice. It was magic on a paper plate instead of china.

A decade or so later I would find myself being seduced as an immature Newberry College freshman. Tempted by heaven in a brown paper bag. The “Dopey Burger.” Dopey ran a hole in the wall hamburger joint named The Tomahawk Café across the road from Cromer Hall. He had a real name but everyone just called him Dopey and the café, Dopey’s. Names didn’t matter because it was about the burger. A burger featuring a huge handmade patty on a soft and sensual sesame seed bun, mayonnaise spread copiously on both sides edge to edge. With a sweet onion slice I really didn’t need the lettuce and tomato on the burger but felt it looked naked without it. Despite its covering, I fondled it anyway. I understand why porn addicts have issues breaking their porn habit. I remember taking the burger out of its wax paper wrapper, exposing it to the world, it’s very scent playing to my basest instinct, gluttony. Mayonnaise and grease leaking out, covering my fingers…dripping down my chin…staining the paper napkins on my desk…I was addicted to the “Dopey Burger” and to make things worse, Dopey offered to run a tab. “I can’t graduate until I pay how much?

I so love food; even my more traditional romantic remembrances tend to have a food component accompanying the memory. A honeymoon dinner at the Columns Hotel on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans. Magical the way it rolls off the tongue. The Columns Hotel on St. Charles Avenue. Due to an empty dining room, we had our own personal waiter who resembled Santa Claus in a tuxedo. Does Santa wait tables in the off season? He did have on a red cummerbund. It went well with his white beard and gloves. I remember Linda Gail’s floral dress and her beautiful face smiling at me from across her…plate, the polished paneled walls, the soft music playing in the background, a Bloody Mary with a pickled okra pod for garnish and THE BLACKENED RED FISH TO DIE AND GO TO HELL FOR. I also remember the Oysters Rockefeller. Who knew spinach could taste so scrumptious surrounding an oyster and dripping in an herb, breadcrumb, and butter sauce. The evening was memorable due in part to the food. Love Linda Gail, love food! Loved the drunken chase after a street car later, but we should wait for the street car story. Oh my!

To quote author Rick Bragg, “I know magic when I taste it.” He and I must be related, I do too and it doesn’t have to be far from home. My latest magical moment was a fried catfish taco at a new restaurant in nearby Travelers Rest.
Whether it’s fried chicken and catfish at a hole in the wall soul food spot in Georgetown, crab bisque at a Cajun establishment in Hendersonville, Dutch Fork barbeque in Batesburg or shrimp and grits almost anywhere, it really requires only one thing to make it magic, love. Love for good food and the good woman I’m sharing it with…it doesn’t even have to be served on china.

Uniquely Southern, uniquely insightful, books by Don Miller can be bought or downloaded at http://goo.gl/lomuQf

INDEPENDENCE DAY AND BARBEQUE

My introduction to BBQ came in the early Fifties during Independence Day celebrations held at my school. As a family, we would load up the car and go to the school for an afternoon of celebrating our independence from Great Britain; fun, games and, most importantly, BBQ. I cannot remember if there were decorations, I am sure there were, but I remember going to the field behind the school and seeing the pole that had been set up for the greased pole climb and a small cage with a greased pig. Hum, greased pig, greased pole and BBQ sounds like we have a trend going. No, that statement is not true – there was nothing greasy about our BBQ. I have no idea who had cooked the pigs but I do know my Uncle James had donated them and had overseen the night-long festivities and I was too young to know what that might have entailed. All I know is that you could smell those hogs cooking and see the smoke rising out of the soil that covered the pit. The smell was almost too, too, too… I am at a loss for words but I think it was as close to heaven as I want to get without actually dying.

Besides eating the BBQ there were patriotic stories to be told, games to be played and winners to be awarded. There might have been a softball game before the older boys attempted to climb the greased pole. And then there was the contest to catch a greased pig – a contest in which I once excelled and won. Actually that year it wasn’t much of a chase. As I started toward him to make my grab, the little porker ran right at me and lay down. What a bummer, I didn’t even get my cloths dirty. It was kind of like a “tag you’re it” scenario. We also ran sack races and three-legged races. For the less mobile athletes, pie-eating or watermelon-seed-spitting contests were enjoyed and I’m sure someone also broke out horseshoes. After all of that excitement it was finally time to eat.

We sat down to succulent pulled-pork BBQ served with Dutch Fork mustard sauce, hash (not to be confused with Brunswick Stew) served over long grain WHITE rice (not the healthy brown stuff), cole slaw, white bread and, what I guess, was a pickled “bread and butter style” cauliflower medley on the side. Yes sir! It was truly heaven-on-a-plate and an argument for why immigration is a good thing. Also, it was a time that you could thank God for having a belt buckle that would allow you to ease the pressure on a BBQ-stuffed stomach. Thinking it couldn’t get any better, I finally reached the age where I was old enough to participate in the festivities associated with the production of hardwood coal – drinking and storytelling.

During my college days, a group of us “summer schoolers“ decided that a pulled-pork BBQ party might be in order for those of us not going home for the Independence Day break. Several of us who actually had experience in this Southern tradition were tabbed to prepare the feast. (This should not be confused with a pig party.) One of my jobs that night was to stir a big iron kettle full of hash. For the uninformed, and you may want to remain that way, hash is all of the “lesser” or unrecognizable parts of the pig, coarsely shredded and cooked with potatoes, onions, spices and cider vinegar until it all falls apart into an unrecognizable hash. I’ll never forget as I stirred the hash that night with a boat oar I saw something white roll to the top. What the…? As I kept stirring, it turned over and I saw …an eyeball staring back at me! Gulp. As I said earlier, stay misinformed.

After such a hard night of stirring, drinking and lying, I mean storytelling, it did not take long after dawn for someone to point out the need for breakfast. Several of my fraternity brothers went to Winn Dixie and came back with enough chicken halves to feed us all. Winn Dixie actually donated them. Those roasted chickens may have been the best breakfast that I have ever eaten. All the great chefs say that good food is first about taste and then about presentation. I think they should have added that it is all about the company you are sharing it with. Good friends will make bad food better.

Hours later the BBQ was finished and it was time for the moment of truth. I got my plate with the hash and rice, and for the first time ever concerning BBQ I hesitated a bit before my first bite. Remembering that white thing floating in the hash, I had a little moment of contemplation along with a big hunger for that BBQ. It was then that I made the decision that if I had liked hash before I knew there might be an eyeball in it then I could probably still like it after… and I did! Eyeball and all!

Independence Day is about much more than BBQ, bottle rockets and patriotic music despite being a great way to celebrate it…as long as you remember sacrifices Americans have made to maintain it. From George Washington and his troops at Valley Forge, to the 54th Massachusetts attack on Battery Wagner, Marines at Iwo Jima, the Chosin Reservoir or Que Son, along with Freedom Riders and Civil Rights Marchers. All of these and many more have made sacrifices, some ultimate, to insure their and our independence. We don’t need to forget that fact and allow it to get lost in mounds of BBQ. Especially, this year. I do not believe we can continue our divisiveness and maintain our independence. We are STILL the greatest country in the world despite the many issues facing us that must be worked out. Maybe if our leaders sat down with a mound of BBQ. It is hard to yell at each other with a mouthful of pig.

A portion of this came from Don Miller’s book PATHWAYS, stories from his
youth, which can be purchased at http://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM