When it comes to food, my dad and I don’t have whole lot in common.
I love strong flavors, heat and, as he might describe them, “adventurous” proteins. He doesn’t even want to be in the same room as a garlic clove.
I’ll try anything at least twice. He proudly operates by his personal motto “dare to be dull” — shunning different choices in favor of something he knows he’ll enjoy.
It’s led to a fair amount of dinner and restaurant quibbles. We’ll likely never split an appetizer or agree on the proper ingredients involved in a tomato sauce. I’ll never convince him that octopus is actually super tasty just like he’ll never persuade me that anything is better without chilies.
But our culinary journeys do have one major intersection: barbecue.
That’s traditional Eastern North Carolina barbecue to be specific, not to be confused with any other sort of slow-cooked meat from anywhere else. Here, the pig is slow-roasted, often in a pit in the ground, then pulled or chopped and served with a vinegar-and-red pepper-based sauce. (if you make the mistake of asking for ketchup, we’ll kick you out.) The sides, which we like to call fixins, include things like cole slaw, collards and of course, hush puppies — those unsurpassed golden turds of cornmeal.
It’s the stuff that I grew up with as a kid outside of Raleigh with family extending into “the country,” and that my New York native dad happily adopted after moving to NC when he met my mom. It’s one of the few edible things that we can both talk about with nuance and gusto, that we can both analyze and critique. It’s the kind of restaurant we can agree on, passionately, every time.
So a little over a year ago, we started a new tradition:
Every time I visit NC, my dad and I — just the two of us — hit up a new purveyor of pork (at least to our distinct mission) to indulge in commonality and whole hog.
There are several rules of course; doing research and setting guidelines is something these two writers can agree on much quicker than what to put in the green beans.
The places have to be “old-school.” If there are multiples, we must visit the original. And ‘cue, real North Carolina ‘cue, must be chopped.
We make notes — on the consistency and juiciness of the ‘cue, on the crispiness and evidence of marination on the chicken, on the decision of tablecloths or not, on how many elderly people are present (we agree that an older crowd is a good sign).
Some of the meat meccas are near; others require a substantial drive. This time, buoyed by time and my mother’s absence (thanks to caring for my grandmother several nights a week), we double dipped, venturing to Hursey’s in Burlington my first week in town and Raleigh’s own Ole Time Barbecue the next week. The farthest we’ve ventured, so far, is about 45 minutes from my parents’ Cary home. Being willing to travel is essential for finding good ‘cue, which is often best executed in tiny townships and amidst pastures of livestock. But the time in the car, sometimes hours, has the added benefit of giving two workaholics the uninterrupted chance to talk — and that particular conversational ease that comes with our eyes, ahead, on the open road.
These days, it’s become a new routine; something we approach with the ethic of our own work. We choose our destinations with care. We pore over menus. When I talk to my dad while traveling, it’s more than likely about barbecue — commentary on places that close or change, and options for where we’ll head next.
Neither of us are likely to wax emotionally about the time it gives us, the renewed bond at a time of our lives when parents and children, living countries apart, are less likely to find new ways to connect. When we’ve packed up any leftovers and drained our sweet tea, it’s probable that we’ll each retreat, again, to the lure of our laptop lights.
Unlike the state of the Brunswick stew, further dissection isn’t required. Regardless of our wildly different ideas about food, we both understand the power of a communal table, a shared meal.
The forces that bind the slow-smoked ‘cue help bind our relationship, too.
And that’s pretty as a pig …at least until you realize it’s pork fat we’re talking about.