(click on photographs above for full size image)
If you have ever encountered a chamber of commerce brochure for Lexington North Carolina, advertising for the Barbecue Festival, a Southern Living magazine type expose on North Carolina barbecue, or a web site devoted to telling you all about Piedmont pork, you have undoubtedly seen something approaching the first photograph above. The entrance side of the Barbecue Center restaurant on North Main Street as you enter downtown Lexington.
The repetitional use of the photograph hinges not on the building. There is unfortunately no hall of fame architecture evident in barbecue restaurants. Most in Lexington follow this same use of the brick ranch house as commercial building, with later remodels (such as the covering here of every other window with diagonal hung siding) contributing to the delinquency of the neighborhood’s architecture riches.
The use of the photograph rests in the sign, one of the last of the older style restaurant signs at a famous barbecue house in North Carolina. The sign is massive and heavy, made of metal, and painted bright red and yellow; colors that have children arrested in thought, the colors the McDonald’s franchise utilize to get you thinking of their clown carnival of fast food. The pole holding the sign also uses the barber pole motif of diagonal lines. At night the white letters light up in muted neon.
I counter that the photographer moonlighting for the chamber of commerce has it all wrong. The other side of the building is the business end; and contains an important and very easily distinguishable mark (second photograph) that you need to look for if you want to eat the North Carolina barbecue that food writers and historians get us all in such a tizzy about.
There’s a smokestack or two there, awkwardly darting out of the top of the brick building. Big air fan extractors are also bolted on, pulling smoke out of the building so the patrons can breathe easy enough to digest their food. And wood….stacked up pieces of wood, most likely oak and hickory. The Barbecue Center has its pits built so that the pit men can load the pits with wood from the outside (note the black metal door), or from the inside.
Many barbecue restaurants in North Carolina no longer cook with wood. They have moved to charcoal or gas. There is nothing inherently wrong in this, pork barbecue cooked in the newer methods is still good. The barbecue just isn’t the best it could be. Apple cider vinegar and wood smoke combine in a sort of alchemy that makes magic; a smell I can not drive past without getting out of my car to investigate for a next meal.
I visited the Barbecue Center one Friday for lunch a few months back. I came for lunch, but also in response to my surfing the internet a few nights before. I had a bit of time to kill and started looking around at information on barbecue places in North Carolina, seeking out a place I had never been.
I instead encountered a few blog posts, chat room forums, and Yelp! pages containing snarky statements and what I considered baseless complaints about certain barbecue restaurants in my home state. I had eaten in these restaurants, and the people commenting had, at first glance, obviously eaten in a different restaurant than I!
I kept reading, digesting, and devised a few repeating patterns. It seems that there are a few delusional gentleman out there (always men), all from somewhere other than North Carolina, whom have mastered how to grill steaks to perfection on their stainless steel backyard gas grills, and deem themselves “experts” on all things cooked over a fire. They take it upon themselves to drive “down” to the Old North State and partake of the famous “cue” (they utilize stupid terms like these in their explanations) in some sort of pilgrimage. Back home they set up a blog and bless the rest of the world with their take on how they felt about the food at say, Allen & Son in Chapel Hill, or Lexington #1 in Lexington, etc. The blog descriptions say things like, “the meat was stringier at ABC Barbecue than at XYZ Barbecue, and therefore I can only give ABC 4 stars out of 5.”
Another pattern that repeats itself incessantly is the two sentence review at sites like Yelp! or Citysearch or Google reviews. The reviews take many forms, but an example might read something like this, “ABC Barbecue just wasn’t the same as the last time I ate there in 1987 with my great-Grandma. It just tasted different somehow. I’m not going back for quite some time. And, the waitress wasn’t nice to me…”
The night I read these reviews, I wanted to ask the blog guys what they were comparing the barbecue to in their past experience? Applebees? And the guys writing the reviews…well, to paraphrase my grandmother, I’d like to jerk a knot in people like that. They are frustrating in their ineptitude.
Food writing is best when what is different is described, not derided, and when the experience of eating food someone else took the time to create for us is celebrated. This is why John T. Edge is the best at this craft. And barbecue bloggers should not quit their day jobs.
I also remembered what the out of towners will never figure out. The people of Lexington are not going to pontificate on the stringiness of barbecue. They will support the restaurants that turn out great food and great service on a daily basis. If one of the many barbecue restaurants in Lexington fail in these basic value proposistions over an extended period of time, patrons will explain their feelings with their absence. The fact that there are over a dozen venerable barbecue restaurants in and around Lexington, like The Barbecue Center, is proof that reading blog and Citysearch reviews of North Carolina barbecue restaurants is a waste of your precious time. That time could be better spent eating barbecue.
The Barbecue Center
The day I ate at the Barbecue Center I ordered a tray. My food arrived in two over-sized French fry trays, the ones with the red and white checkerboard motif on the outside. One tray was filled to overflowing with pork barbecue, most likely cooked that morning in the pits in the second photograph. In the same tray, taking up roughly one third the space was the Lexington-style red slaw. The Barbecue Center’s version uses a lot of sauce, and at first glance you could not tell where the barbecue ended and the slaw began.
In the second tray lay 7 or 8 hushpuppies. They had come to rest side by side, lined up in a row, and I could not help but think of those old black and white photographs where some poor woman had quintuplets, and the nurses just lined the babies up in a row in the same crib for the newspaper photographer.
The barbecue was great, all of the food was great. It tasted a little different from the last time I ate there. But, I had no complaints. Not one.
Being by myself I ate happily at the bar, while families and co-workers congregated in the red vinyl booths behind me. I feigned interest in the television blaring the mid-day news while trying my best to hear the conversation of the waitresses not two feet from me, behind the bar. As they went about their chores and customer service they were discussing Facebook. From what I understood most had just joined. One waitress expressed frustration that she did not have many “friends” yet. Another, after asking a few questions, ascertained the first waitress had used her married name when signing up.
“You gotta use your maiden name, them high school boys you want to be Facebook friends with don’t know your married name.”