Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Barbecue in the South

Life is too short to let it pass without eating barbecue. Of course, if you eat too much barbecue, you won't live as long - but that's another story.

First of all, some definition of terms. Be forewarned that I'm going to do something that I usually avoid: embrace my regional prejudices. This post is concerned with barbecue as it's found in the southeastern United States: that group of states starting in eastern Louisiana (western Louisiana might as well be Texas) and forming a crescent around to Virginia. Down here we believe that:

"Barbecue" is a noun, not a verb. The practice of cooking meat outdoors on a grill is "grilling," not "barbecuing."

With all due respect to my friends in Texas and Kansas City, beef is not barbecue.

Barbecue is pork slow-cooked over hickory wood and served with sauce on it. It's that simple. But something about the interaction of pork, hickory smoke, and sauce results in a dish that's more than the sum of its parts.

The sauce is sometimes applied during the cooking process, but most often added just before eating. It can be tomato-, vinegar-, or mustard-based. I've always been partial to barbecue sauce that uses tomato as its base, but as I get older, I find that I'm enjoying vinegar-based sauces quite a bit.

To me, an indispensable accompaniment to barbecue is brunswick stew - a sometimes mysterious concoction which usually contains pork, chicken, tomatoes, corn, and occasionally other vegetables. Brunswick stew is not universal throughout the South, though; in South Carolina and eastern Georgia they put together something they call barbecue hash instead of brunswick stew. I've been told not to ask what's in it. And one night, in a barbecue joint in Clarksdale, Mississippi, I had to explain brunswick stew to the waitress; she had never heard of it. I told her that we always ate it with our barbecue in Georgia and described the ingredients. She thought it sounded pretty good. At that point I broke off our conversation, grabbed my newspaper, and smashed a cockroach that was crawling across my table. I still enjoyed the barbecue.

There are stylistic differences in barbecue in different parts of the South. Some places favor using the leaner cuts of pork; some use fattier parts of the pig, for more flavor. In North Carolina, the sauce tends to be vinegar-based; in South Carolina they favor mustard-based sauce. Alabama and Mississippi seem pretty firmly in the tomato-based sauce camp. In Memphis there are places where you have to specify that you don't want slaw on your sandwich; it's considered a given. In north Georgia, the brunswick stew tends to be composed mostly of finely-chopped meat. As you travel further south, the stew contains more vegetables. There are differences between eastern and western North Carolina barbecue that seem to be mostly technical in nature; they will concern the cook, but not the person sitting at the table. It's been said that Georgia can't make up its mind what it wants its barbecue to be. That's pretty much true - you'll find all sorts of sauces and stews in the state.

The best barbecue is found in the shabby little restaurants throughout the South, often out in the middle of nowhere or in run-down neighborhoods in the cities and towns. An ugly cinder block building is a good sign, as are uncertain business hours and a very limited menu. I will drive (and I'm not alone in this) miles out of my way to eat at a good barbecue joint, and I always try to make barbecue part of my agenda when I'm traveling through the South.

Yesterday I ate at my favorite Georgia barbecue joint - Old Clinton Barbecue, about fifteen miles northeast of Macon. Naming Old Clinton as my favorite is somewhat arbitrary, given the competition. Fresh Air Barbecue in Jackson is usually considered to serve up the best 'cue in Georgia. Sprayberry's in Newnan is excellent, and Dean's in Jonesboro has a lot to recommend it. Harold's, on the south side of Atlanta, is usually very good - about once every 15 visits you may get an unpleasantly fatty serving of pork. My favorite brunswick stew can be had at the Georgia Pig, which is in Brunswick, fittingly enough. Fincher's in Macon, Sconyer's in Augusta, and Vandy's in Statesboro are are all worth a drive to visit. One of my favorite meals was about 15 years ago, at Richardson's Barbecue in tiny Iron City, in the southwestern corner of the state. They had a jukebox which reflected the rural population of the area perfectly - it was half-filled with country records and half-filled with blues. I kept ordering more food and feeding quarters into the jukebox - blues records for me, thank you. I revisited Richardson's about two years ago; the barbecue was still excellent, but the jukebox was gone.

But Old Clinton Barbecue.... It's odd - the sauce is not very good when sampled by itself; it's salty, thin, vinegary. But by some alchemy, it enhances the excellent smoked pork perfectly. The ladies behind the counter also know just how much sauce to ladle onto the sandwiches; I tried putting a little extra sauce on the last quarter of mine, and it destroyed the perfection. I only visit Old Clinton once a year. Between visits, I sometimes wonder if the barbecue is really as good as I remember. And it always is.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Wonder and Madness at 78 Revolutions per Minute

My record collecting has been out of hand for years. My wife just shakes her head when I come home with more recorded music. But until fairly recently, I could tell her, "Well, at least I don't collect 78s." Those who have read this blog regularly know that I can no longer make that claim.

Record collectors are a little nuts anyway, but collecting 78 RPM records is just over the top. In an age when an iPod can hold 1000 hours of music, filling your home with highly breakable pieces of shellac which hold six minutes of music is just ridiculous. And they will fill your home - 78s take up a lot of room. I'm up to seven boxes.

So why bother? Well, the reason I got into 78s is that there is still some music which can't be heard any other way. Not much, these days, with some exhaustive CD reissue programs around the world, but there are still 78s that have not been reissued in any other form. The Boyce Brown record on the Collector's Item label (discussed in an earlier post) is a prime example. I've got more than a few very cool records which are unavailable in any other form.

And even though most of the stuff is available in other formats, there is still something kind of magical about hearing the music as the musicians expected it to be heard at the time. I'm not saying that they wouldn't have preferred more advanced technology if it had been available, but most of the music issued on 78s was conceived to be issued in that form.

And a well-made 78 in good condition can sound wonderful. There is always some surface noise present, but the ears quickly adjust to that. Many LP and CD reissues of material from 78s filter out the surface noise, which also takes out frequencies of the music, removing some of the "life" from the sound. I never had any complaint about the sound quality of my CD reissue of the 1923 recordings by A. J. Piron's New Orleans Orchestra - until I found one of the original records in excellent condition. The 78 sounds much better than the CD. There are certain records in my collection that I cherish for their sound - I can hear Louis Armstrong's breath through his horn and hear Eddie South's bow on the strings of his violin.

There's more to my love of these old records - something less tangible. They are artifacts from the past - windows to a forgotten world. As I hold or play a 78, I often speculate on who originally owned the record - why did they buy this particular record - did they enjoy it? I recently bought a box of records from an antique dealer in Chattanooga. There were a few records in the box which "didn't belong" - they obviously came from another source. But most of the box seemed to be from a single collection. Whose records were they?

Well, the original owner was probably from the country, presumably somewhere in East Tennessee or North Georgia. The vast majority of the records are what we would now call country music, but the style was usually called "hillbilly" at the time. Most of the records come from a ten-year period starting in 1924; the earliest record is a real gem from that year - an Okeh record by Henry Whitter, the first "hillbilly" artist to record. The record buyer's tastes leaned, for the most part, toward the more commercial side of country music - Carson Robison is the most-represented artist, and his music was slicker and more "citified" than the more down-home hillbilly musicians. But there were plenty of amazing "real-deal" records in the box, too, by groups like the West Virginia Night Owls, the North Carolina Ramblers, and the Carter Family.

The person (or family) who accumulated this collection was probably fairly religious - there are quite a few "white gospel" discs in the stack. He (or they) was probably Irish, and not too many generations removed from the Emerald Isle. There are Irish songs performed in country style (like a Conqueror record by Mac and Bob), but there is one straight-up record of Irish dance tunes by the Four Provinces Orchestra, an Irish band out of Philadelphia.

My precursor's record buying tailed off around 1934, but there were a few later records in the stack, like the bizarre gospel song "Television in the Sky," recorded in 1939 by the West Virginia trio of Cap, Andy and Flip. The most recent record is a 1942 Roy Acuff.

I owe this mysterious person a debt for bringing together this fascinating collection of early country music. And I'll keep buying those ten- and twelve-inch shellac discs until I totally run out of room.