Tag Archives: barbecue

2011

A bunch of stuff happened in 2011.

Like 2010, 2011 was a year of transitions for me: in my relationship with academia, in the way I earn a living, in the way I present myself as a citizen-builder of the internet. Being a parent is the biggest transition of all, forcing me to put into perspective the ways I spend my energy and the ways in which I define myself and what has value to me. (This transition has been overwhelmingly a Good Thing.) Continuing to strive for the right balance in these areas will, I’m sure, be a hallmark of my 2012. (Thankfully, I have no plans to have a child or get married in 2012. A man needs a year off from major life events!)

Happy new year!

Eating barbecue is a good way to spend a vacation

I enjoy eating barbecue. And, through a cosmic blessing of fate that I daren’t question, my wife enjoys eating barbecue as much as I do. Our favorite barbecue is of the North Carolina variety. So when a family friend was getting married in Chapel Hill a few weeks ago, we decided to make a vacation of it. That vacation would be focused on barbecue. REALLY focused. Over the course of seven days (really eight, but that includes a Sunday, when all pits were closed), we ate at twenty-one barbecue joints.

Bum's, Ayden, NC

Bum's, Ayden, NC

I’m going to give a recap of some of this barbecue in just a moment. First, I should address the inevitable question: Why? (Side note: I never would have thought that anyone would need a justification for eating a bunch of barbecue; but people ask all the same.) I’ve circled in on a few explanations for our seemingly-insane vacation plans.

Here are some reasons I went on a barbecue vacation

  1. Barbecue tastes good · Very, very good. It is difficult to overemphasize the importance of this factor.
  2. Midwestern earnestness and work ethic · Maybe it’s just the way I was raised, but I figure that if I’m going to do something, I ought to do it right. Which means doing it [ahem] whole hog [hold for laughter]. To spend a week in a part of the world with great food, yet wasting some of my meals by not eating that food, is to display a sort of transcendental ingratitude toward my good fortune.
  3. Obsessiveness · When I decide that I like something, I generally get really into it. To spend a vacation indulging this tendency is actually pretty fun. Some people go on tours through the Civil War South because they’re history buffs. I go on tours through the Barbecue South because I’m a barbecue buff. I don’t see much of a difference. (I have a theory, which I’ll blog about one day now that I’m free, about optimizing the number of things one is “good at”, with respect to the number of hours one has in a lifetime to devote to such things. This theory dovetails with the “obsessiveness” point to some extent, as North Carolina barbecue has emerged as one of the things I’ve chosen to be good at.)
  4. Flavor · See #1.
  5. Cultural carpetbagging · I grew up in Wisconsin, which has its fair share of indiginous culture. But there’s pleasure to be found in trying on a culture that is not your own, if only for a while. (What do you think powers academic history and the tourism industry?) Barbecue in North Carolina has a history, a dictionary of codewords, a set of conventional practices all its own. By immersing myself in this for a while, I’m certainly not going to pass myself off as a native – but it does enable a kind of empathy and connection with natives that might not otherwise be possible.

Is that reason enough for us to devote our vacation to barbecue?

Talk about the barbecue already

Fine, sheesh. ‘Barbecue’ generally refers to the slow cooking of meat via low, indirect heat, typically using smoke. In North Carolina, ‘barbecue’ almost always means pork, which is almost always chopped/pulled and served with a thin, vinegar-based sauce. In NC, you typically order either a sandwich (a scoop of meat on a cheap supermarket hamburger bun) or a platter, which is a larger helping of meat. Both usually come with cole slaw. Hushpuppies, or some other fried-corn delicacy, are often available.

Kepley's, High Point, NC

Kepley's, High Point, NC

In the eastern part of North Carolina, whole hogs are smoked overnight. The meat is chopped and dressed with a very simple sauce (cider vinegar, Texas Pete hot sauce or red pepper, a bit of sugar and salt). In the better places, the skin is thrown back onto the smoker and dried out, after which it’s chopped into small pieces called cracklings and mixed into the meat itself. The cole slaw in ENC is generally cabbage and carrots, and dressed with mostly vinegar and just a bit of mayo to bring it together.

In western NC, the style of barbecue is called “Lexington”, after the small town containing what must be the highest per-capita number of barbecue joints on God’s green earth. Lexington barbecue is pork shoulder rather than whole hog. This means no cracklins. But the tradeoff is the caramalized “brown” or “bark” that forms as the shoulders smoke. Lexington-style sauce is similar to ENC sauce, though generally with ketchup added and less hot sauce, making for a much sweeter sauce. Most Lexington places serve two different kinds of slaw: one made with mayonnaise, and the other made with the same barbecue sauce that goes on the meat (called “red slaw” or “barbecue slaw”). Hushpuppies are a fixture on this side of the state.

The styles aren’t radically different, though each has its die-hard proponents. Rebecca and I are fairly solidly in the Eastern camp, though there are great places in Lexington too.

I won’t bore you with a blow-by-blow of every place we went. If you’re curious, you can check out my pictures collected throughout the week. But I will give a few recommendations (links go to my pictures):

For better or for worse, the best places in Eastern NC are way off of the beaten track. But they are really, really worth the trip.

If you want learn more about NC barbecue, here are a few resources that we used on this trip, as well as previous NC barbecue trips (yeah, this wasn’t our first, you wanna fight about it?):

As a Social Web Professional, I have some thoughts about starting a more authoritative site for the collection of barbecue knowledge. But I am also a humble Northerner, so I probably won’t do it.

Looking back at 2010

2010 was a wild year for me, one that I’ll look back on as a turning point in my professional and personal life. For that reason I thought I might take stock of the past year. (Here’s 2009′s post.) If you are one of those snobs who think that year-end retrospectives are schlocky, feel free to get the hell out of my blog.

As 2010 opened, I was working full-time as the educational technologist by Queens College. I believed strongly (and continue to believe) in the importance of the work I was doing there, but I already knew a year ago that I wouldn’t be able to stay at the job for much longer. I identified as an ed tech, and part of the (really great) ed tech community, but it was a label that never really felt right. When people asked what I did for a living, I hesitated. I left the job near the end of May.

Since then, I have been supporting myself doing custom web development, almost exclusively using BuddyPress. In the last six months, I’ve transitioned from an uneasy edtech to a confident (though still n00bish in many ways) developer. It’s a classification that feels better in many ways. Moving into development has allowed me to be personally productive in ways that the structures of my old career simply couldn’t support. I produce a lot of software that is used by a lot of people; moreover, I am moving toward a position where I get to select only those projects that are of independent interest to me. Measured like this, 2010 was the most productive year of my life, made possible by the career move (and the new self-identification that came with it).

My move into development is not without misgivings. As an educational technologist, working in the confines of a traditional university, there were always connections (sometimes tenuous, but always discernable) between my day job and my identity as a graduate student. Granted, in the time I was at Queens – first as a graduate fellow and then as a full-timer – I made next to no progress on my dissertation. But the fact that I was in a university, and enabling teaching and learning in a hands-on way, kept me in constant communication with my inner philosopher: drawing on my teaching experience, speaking in academic tones with faculty members, engaging in debates on the goals and methods of educational technology in ways that never strayed far from the kinds of discourse I learned in the seminar room. My work as a developer, in contrast, is much less explicitly academic; while some of my projects (notably, the CUNY Academic Commons) have sustained my contact with the university, mostly I am paid to think about software and websites rather than anything else. In the short term, this will undoubtedly be a good thing – I attribute the progress I’ve made on my thesis in the semester since I left Queens College to the fact that my day job provides me with some much-needed release from the mental anguish of the university life. But the more I make a name for myself as a developer, where ‘developer’ is unqualified by ‘academic’ or any similar modifier, the more I have to make conscious decisions about how (and whether) I want my paying gigs to connect with my academic interests. It’s an issue I’ll continue to wrestle with in 2011.

Paralleling my move into a development career has been an increased participation in the WordPress world. In July I was made a moderator on the buddypress.org support forums. In October, I was brought on as a committing developer for the BuddyPress project. I spoke dozens of times through 2010 on WordPress and BuddyPress, at WordCamps, meetups, conferences, THATCamps, and various other fancy places. At the beginning of 2010 I felt like I’d staked out a position on the outskirts of the WordPress community; at the end of 2010, I feel like I’m much closer to its center. And while I could live without the occasional drama, tunnel-vision, and personality cultishness of some WordPressophiles, for the most part it has been a real treat getting to know, and getting to work with, so many of the best WP developers. It’s broken me out of that other echo chamber I come from (academia), made me a much better coder, and introduced me to some really fabulous folks.

In 2010, I also got more and more tangled up with the digital humanities community. In July, I spent a week at the Center for History and New Media for the One Week | One Tool project, where I was on a team that built Anthologize. I attended a number of THATCamps and was witness to a number of Twitter arugments of truly epic proportions. And while I could live without the occasional drama, tunnel-vision, and personality cultishness of some DigitalHumanitiesophiles, for the most part it has been a real treat getting to know, and getting to work with, so many of the best digital humanists. (Is there an echo in here?) My intellectual connection with DH is such that it is hard for me not to put scare quotes around ‘digital humanities’ every time I write it: I am an academic, and I do extensive work with digital technology, but the connection between the two is not manifest in my own work. Still, DH in 2010 has been an exciting place to locate oneself, with cool projects, smart people, and the occasional Big Idea rising to the top over the course of the year.

I continued being a dork in 2010. I came in 66th at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (breaking 50 in 2011! You read it here first!). I switched from QWERTY to Dvorak. I visited the Googleplex. I wrote a lot about pizza and barbecue. I made the decision to stop buying Apple products. I completed Angry Birds. I wrote 45 blog posts on Teleogistic, with a smattering of posts elsewhere. Teleogistic got 960 comments. I wrote many tens of thousands of lines of code, much of which was terrible, and much of which is sadly hidden forever on client servers, but some of which is free and helpful to many.

On June 5, 2010, I got married. I mention this last not because it is the least important event of the year but because it is the most. The process of preparing for a wedding, with the help and support of so many friends and loved ones, was something I will never forget. The wedding day was the most perfect day I can remember. And the girl I married – well, duh, she is the best part of 2010, or of any year.

The changes of 2010 were more significant for me than any year since I was in college. Nearly all of those changes have been for the better. I have some exciting plans for 2011, but for now I am happy to reflect on the year that was. For me, it was a good one.

Honeymoon barbecue, part 2: the East

This post is the second of a two-part series about the barbecue my new wife and I ate on our honeymoon. For more explanation and more porky pix, see part 1: “The West”.

JUNE 14: Hudson’s Smokehouse, Columbia, SC

We’d just finished a stint in Eastern Tennessee, where we’d enjoyed some bodacious relaxation but no phenomenal barbecue. We knew we’d have to make up for it on this comparatively short stay in the Carolinas. Our first stop en route to Charleston was chosen largely for convenience’s sake: it was not too far off our course, and we’d be passing by around lunchtime (unlike some of the more well known SC barbecue joints), and they’d be open on a Monday afternoon (again, unlike some of the more traditional joints, which are often open Thurs-Sat only).

With these conditions in mind, a bit of internetting led us to Hudson’s Smokehouse, which had gotten favorable reviews on the sites I’d checked. They had a lunch buffet that looked pretty good, but the idea all-you-can-eat fullness in the 100-degree heat followed by a few hours in the car didn’t strike us as the wisest dining decision. So we ordered off the menu: we each got the pork platter, and I got green beans and baked beans while Rebecca got sweet potato fries and collards.

Hudson's Smokehouse

Hudson's Smokehouse

Here’s the thing: OMG. One small bite of the pork and I was rushed back to our previous barbecue vacation, when we ate our way across North Carolina, hickory smoke coursing through our veins, on a kind of high that can only be sustained with two or three different barbecue joints every day for a week. It’s not so much that Hudson’s was the best pork ever, but it had all the trappings of the great barbecue: the smoky aftertaste, the balance of cider vinegar and Texas Pete’s, the salty outside brown. It was awesome. And the sides were very, very good as well, though the sweet potato fries didn’t stand up to the rest. Evidence:

Hudson's, terminé

Hudson's, terminé

Nom nom nom.

June 15: Bessinger’s Barbecue, Charleston, SC

Charleston was blazing hot. Heat indices into the 110s. This is ideal weather for barbecue. Indeed, any weather is ideal weather for barbecue. We were in South Carolina, and we wanted some of the local stuff.

At Hudson’s the day before, the barbecue was Lexingtonesque, by which I mean that it was pork shoulder, served with a vinegar sauce that had just a bit of ketchup in it for color and sweetness. That’s how they do it in the western part of NC, centered around Lexington. When you talk about South Carolina barbecue, though, the mind usually goes to mustard sauce instead of ketchup. Charleston, from what I understand, is known for having a variety of native barbecue styles, but since we were in SC we wanted mustard, and my research told me to get it at Bessinger’s.

I got the pork plate, with baked beans and cole slaw. Bessinger’s is notable for throwing in an enormous onion ring with every meal as well. Let me tell you something about that onion ring: It was something else. Enormous and battered beyond recognition, it was hard to tell, even when looking closely, where the batter ended and the onion itself began. You know that problem you sometimes have where the onion and batter don’t stick to each other, and you end up pulling the whole (scorching hot) onion out on your first bite? At Bessinger’s, the onion and batter had truly become One. Was it the best onion ring I ever had? No. But I have to give them some real points for technique.

Bessinger's

Bessinger's

The barbecue was a bit disappointing. By itself, it had just a trace of smoky flavor, and not much of the salty fatness that would have to be present to make up for the relative lack of smoke. The mustard sauce on the table was too sweet for my liking, with none of the vinegary kick that, frankly, I expect even out of a bottle of Plochman’s. The cole slaw was a generic, mayonaissey, Midwestern affair. The beans were on the sweet side for my taste, but otherwise pretty well executed. Maybe I was coming off of a high from the day before and expecting too much, but with the exception of that exceptional onion ring, I walked away a bit disappointed.

For reasons related to heat and pork fatigue and the otherwise awesome food in Charleston, this was the last barbecue meal we had in South Carolina.

June 17: Skylight Inn, Ayden, NC

Unless you are on the way to the bustling burgs of Hookerton or Vanceboro, Ayden is not on the way to anything. After getting off of I-40 North 45 minutes north of Wilmington, we spent about an hour meandering the highways of the beautiful North Carolina countryside before we started seeing signs for the small town. And when I did see those signs, I felt the kind of excitement that an adult man, having outgrown birthdays and Easter baskets, doesn’t get to feel very often. For the second time in as many years, I was headed to the Skylight Inn.

Skylight Inn, capital of my heart

Skylight Inn, capital of my heart

My first time at the Skylight was a very special day. We were near the beginning of our barbecue trip, and already I think we were doubting the wisdom of eating So Much Pork. We drove a long way for what we had described as the best barbecue there is, and we were a bit perplexed to find a shack with a faux rotunda and a huge billboard bragging about how Ayden was the barbecue capital of the world. The menu is three lines long: 1) Sandwich. 2) Platter (small, medium, large). 3) By the pound. The platter was a paper tray heaped with chopped pork and a bit of uninspiring slaw, and laid over the top was a slab of what I would describe as corn brick.

But: That pork.

That Pork, 2008

That Pork, 2008

That first bite might have been the most delicious thing I ever tasted, either before or since. Fatty, smoky, and strewn with crispy little bits of skin – the cracklins. It was so good, I washed it down with a sandwich.

My return to the Skylight thus had a lot to live up to. And, as such things often turn out, it didn’t live up. Don’t get me wrong, the pork was good, but I think that our 3pm arrival meant that we got stuff that’d been sitting under the heat lamp a bit too long. Also, they’d gone a bit light on the salt. By the end of my sandwich this time around, I had figured out the amount of vinegar and salt that needed to be added to each bite to make it great. And then: I tasted a piece of the pound I’d gotten to go, to bring back to my brother in Brooklyn. It was better, like it’d been picked from a non-dried-out part of the pork pile.

Skylight Inn, 2010

Skylight Inn, 2010

Looking back now, I really want to go back to Skylight. Like, right this instant.

June 17: Bum’s Restaurant, Ayden, NC

Bum’s, like Skylight Inn, has no website. That’s the first good sign.

After leaving the Skylight, we headed downtown (about eight blocks) to Bum’s, a joint we’d missed on our previous pass through Ayden. It was awesome. Unlike the Skylight, there were multiple steam tables of various down-home sides. We got a couple of barbecue sandwiches, along with some butter beans, collards, and beef stew to share. Everything was excellent. The pork was arguably, on that day, better than Skylight’s, and was even better when topped with the stagnant-water-colored sauce kept in a repurposed glass ketchup bottle on our table. I remember that the collards in particular were outstanding, with a great balance of vinegar tang, smoked porkiness, and bitter greeniness.

Bum's

Bum's

Bum’s was a great way to wrap up the barbecue-fueled portion of our honeymoon adventure. Now I’m just looking for another excuse to get myself to the Carolinas. Or, at least, to find some decent pork here in NYC.

Honeymoon barbecue, part 1: the West

I got married a few weeks ago:

Afterwards I went on a honeymoon with my lovely bride through the southeastern US. Unlike a North Carolina vacation we took a few years ago, the focus of this trip was not barbecue. That said, we still had quite a few good barbecue meals. (I mean, it’d be a downright sin to go through North Carolina without stopping at some of the shacks.) Without any further ado, then, here is a retrospective of my wedding and honeymoon through the lens of smoked meats. Part 1, appearing here, deals with what I’ll call “the West” – or more specifically, barbecue in the style of the west-of-the-Appalachians, which dominated the first part of our trip. Part 2, “the East”, will come later in the week.

June 5, the wedding day: Dinosaur Bar B Que, Syracuse, NY

When Rebecca and I decided to tie the knot (and to celebrate with a real party instead of eloping), the first thing we decided was that we wanted to have extremely awesome food at the wedding reception. Since the in-laws live near Syracuse, the home of Dinosaur Bar B Que – a joint that we’ve enjoyed very much both in Syracuse and here in NYC – it seemed a perfect fit. Dinosaur brought out a smoker rig:

Smoker

Smoker

The menu was ribs, pulled pork and chicken for the meats. For sides, we had baked beans, cole slaw, and macaroni salad. Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of great pictures of the food – everyone seemed to be too anxious to eat it to be able to take good pictures, and I haven’t gotten the files from the photographer yet – but here are a few pictures I could scrounge up. My own take on Dinosaur, and this meal in particular, is that their ribs (the meaty St Louis cut) are really top-notch, the best I’ve had here in NYS. The sauce is a traditional KC-style tomato sauce. Dinosaur also provided a spicier sauce with a bit of mustardiness that went well with their unsauced pulled pork.

Dinosaur

Dinosaur

I’ll leave it to some of my gentle readers who were in attendance to give more feedback on the quality of the food. IMO it was pretty effin good for wedding grub.

June 9: Ridgewood Barbecue, Bluff City, TN

We spent a few days in Washington, DC near the beginning of the honeymoon, and from there we traveled to eastern Tennessee and the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. Knowing we’d be traversing the whole diagonal of Virginia, I pinged my SW VA pal Jeremy for a recommendation. Before he had the time to respond, my research had led to the same recommendation that he ended up delivering: Ridgewood Barbecue, just inside of Tennessee. We knew we had entered the South when a fellow in the parking lot gave us the unsolicited advice to try the beef, even if we normally preferred pork barbecue.

Ridgewood

Ridgewood

This is an appropriate place for me to step back and make some commentary on barbecue snobbishness. I grew up in northeastern Wisconsin, an area that might excel in venison summer sausage and fried cheese curds but has little in the way of local barbecue. As a result, I haven’t been raised with any deep prejudices about the nature of barbecue: that it must be pork, that it must be smoked over hickory, that it must not have tomato in the sauce, what have you. While I can’t out-and-out claim that I’m glad I grew up not eating barbecue, I can say that a pleasant side effect of my barbecueless youth is that I’m willing to take it on its own terms. (As an aside, I think I enjoy a similar position with respect to pizza, though living in Brooklyn for the better part of a decade has probably warped me a bit.) This is in stark contrast to other barbecue fanatics whose rantings I have so often come across on the web, whose hearts and hatches are closed to a large portion of the wonders that the world of smoked meats has to offer. I feel sad for them.

And I feel glad that I was able to take the gentleman’s advice seriously, and order both beef and pork barbecue sandwiches at the Ridgewood. That’s because, while the pork (unusual in that it’s sliced ham, rather than chopped or pulled shoulder) was really delicious, it was a bit overwhelmed by the amount and the character of the sauce on the sandwich. The sauce is a weird mix of a couple of different styles: far more tomatoey body and sweetness than a Carolina sauce, far more vinegary tang than a Western sauce. Really good, but too much for the relatively delicate pork. (Order it on the side, if you can.) The beef, however, was really something to behold. A huge beefiness and a punch of smoke flavor punched through the sauce. It was awesome. And the sides were pretty great too, especially the baked beans: with more onion and peppers than you expect in barbecue beans, these were possibly the best baked beans I ever had. Perfect balance of sweetness and spice. Worth the trip in themselves, really.

Ridgewood beef

Ridgewood beef

The second clue that we were really in the South was when the waitress, without asking, brought enormous styrofoam cups of soda to the table as we were finishing our food – “refills to go”, she said. Wowza.

June 10: Bennett’s BBQ, Pigeon Forge, TN

As I said above, the honeymoon was not intended to focus on barbecue. If it had been, we wouldn’t have travelled to eastern TN, which is not to the best of my knowledge particularly well known for its barbecue. That said, we did drive past a number of places bragging about their ribs (pandering to northern tourists, maybe?), so we decided to succumb. A bit of research showed that Bennett’s was perhaps the most reliable in the area.

Rebecca got the baby-back rib meal, and I got a platter with brisket, pulled pork, and ribs. I was not expecting much from the mini-chain and its Applebeeesque decor, but I was pleasantly surprised. The St Louis ribs, which were sauced with a mercifully light hand, had enough meat on them to see (and taste!) the smoke ring. The pulled pork (again, unsauced – thank you!) was even better: after the initial sweetness of the pork fat, a very nice smokiness took over. And they weren’t stingy with the burnt ends (or outside brown, or whatever you want to call the brown stuff on the outside of the shoulder). You can see a strip of it in the picture below:

Bennett's

Bennett's

The brisket was disappointing, especially coming from the incredible beef experience we’d had the previous day at the Ridgewood. The fat was gristly, the meat was underseasoned, and there wasn’t much in the way of smoke flavor. As for sides: as at the Ridgewood, the standout was the dish of baked beans. The beans were very straightforward and traditional, but really nicely executed, with a bit of smoke, a bit of sweet, and beans that didn’t have the texture cooked out of them.

It’d be a few more days before we traversed the Great Smokies and managed another barbecue meal. But that’s a subject for another post.