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This House Believes in Skyscrapers
19 June 2006 @ 10:37 am
I write this hoping that at least one of you -- and hopefully, not just the one -- will appreciate this link. I can't recall exactly how, but I found my way over to the website of the Southern Foodways Alliance the other day, and wound up spending much of the weekend reading transcripts of the oral histories they take from people involved in southern cooking, from New Orleans bartenders to oyster shuckers on Florida's Apalachicola Bay (which I'd never heard of before) to, the reason for this post in the first place, rural Tennessee barbecue, which, unbeknownst to me, is whole hog, as opposed to pork shoulder like it is in Memphis. Previously, I'd thought whole hog barbecue was strictly a North Carolina thing, but apparently not.

OK, maybe it is just me, but I'm just fascinated by this kind of stuff. I have no idea why there's this 30-or-so-mile radius from Chester County, Tennessee (population 16,000) where they seem to barbecue much the same way they do in Wilson, NC. I love reading about a half dozen or so barbecue places in the same tiny county, some serving red slaw (made with ketchup), some white (mayonnaise), and some a vinegar-based one. I love trying to figure out why some of the folks in Chester County use a vinegar-based barbecue sauce like they do in eastern North Carolina and why some others use ketchup. Half a dozen places, all in a county of sixteen thousand people or so, and they're mostly all getting their hogs from the same source and their hickory wood from the same drumstick factory (except, of course, for the place or two that's using rejected axe handles from a different factory) -- but they're all making something different, and (mostly) all claiming they've got the claim to the "way it's always been done here."

You know, I was going to say something here about how it's a big country, and we have a lot of things in common and a lot of other things not so much in common, but we all need to eat, and the different foods we eat -- and what we call them -- gives us a window of insight into how others live, or something like that -- something about how strange it is to me that up in the Buffalo area, "pizza" means a tray of half-tray of rectangular, thick pizza -- which we, down here in New Jersey, call Sicilian pizza. Up there, apparently, it's just pizza -- not Sicilian -- and the round version we're used to is rarely seen. The round, extra-thin version we know as Jersey pizza here in New Jersey is, of course, completely unknown. Anyway, I was going to try to say something profound about it all, but looking back at the link about North Carolina barbecue, which of course features an interview with Ed Mitchell, I found this quote from him:
It's a funny thing, but in the South you worked side by side with your white counterparts in tobacco barns. You felt the pain that the other man felt. It didn't make any difference what color he was during those moments. You had a common bond. I never could understand, though, how we, as a people, once those times were over, how we could go back to our separate ways of life. But for whatever reason, that, too, was just a way of life.

Everything but the barbecue. That's where the color line sort of blended. If you were having a barbecue and you wanted to invite me as your black friend, or a person who worked for you, it didn't matter. That was not going to raise any outcry. Or vice versa. Barbecue was the thread, to me, that kept everybody together. It was just associated with good times. There's absolutely no way you can sit here and reminisce about that backyard-style barbecue and not think about good times. It'll bring a smile to your face every time! It's more than food. It's hard to explain, but it was a way of life. And it didn't make any difference who you were if you wanted some barbecue.
Maybe that's why I can't stop reading these things; maybe that's why it matters to me how you like your barbecue or whether you call it "pro-SHOOT" or "pro-SHOOT-toe," or, for that matter, whether you drink soda or pop or tonic (you wacky New Englanders). Because, really, it doesn't matter, except, it's where we all come together -- and in a country where we spend so much time being apart, that's really something.
 
 
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This House Believes in Skyscrapers
12 February 2000 @ 04:24 pm
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