Monday, February 22, 2010

Two Meade-Bellinger short films: "TEXAS BARBECUE TOUR 2009" and "INFRASTRUCTURE at CHURCH of BOSTON"

Both released last night.

One:



Two:

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Tuesday, September 01, 2009

2009 Visit to the Skylight Inn, Ayden, N.C.

This is a a story in reverse chronological order, sort of. No more words here; just click a photo for more info.









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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

ABBQ #71: Austin Western Railroad Switching Fuqua Limestone, Elgin, Tex.


I like this.

Don't forget: we still have about 150 or so Upper Peninsula images that I promised to blog.

P.S. Dan and I keep adding DEEP SOUTH placemarkers to the map in the post below and every time you refresh this page, you'll see the new ones.

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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

ABBQ #42: Snow's Brisket and Sauce


I need to post this shot from Lexington, Tex. because ever since I had this brisket for breakfast, I've been thinking about it every morning.

Click the pic to see more from the country surrounding Austin.

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Friday, December 19, 2008

ABBQ: Great Success!

I'm snowed in here in Somerville and just posted ALL of the good photos from ABBQ. I'll be blogging many here over the next few ...years. Photos look better on black anyway.

I'm also going to try embedding a slideshow here, which you can mess around with:


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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Barbecue in New York

I wrote the following inoffensive paragraph in my notebook on the plane to Austin:

My colleagues choose barbecue restaurants based on the reputation of the chef. They eat hushpuppies with fork and knife. Barbecue was "the big thing in New York last year," they say, but it's still "a safe bet." Several have asked me if I've read the New Yorker article about the Texas Monthly article about Snow's east of Austin.

Then I had one of the greatest cultural experiences of my life, which included Snow's brisket and pork shoulder for breakfast this past Saturday.

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Sunday, December 14, 2008

ABBQ #X: Cooper's, Llano, Tex.


Posting from Austin. This is going well.

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Carolina Bar-B-Q, Statesville, N.C.

When I first passed through Statesville on the interstate, late on Tuesday night, I could tell that it had enough exits to be a decently sized town. That meant there would be good barbecue.

Sure enough, the NC Barbecue Society website had an entry for Carolina Bar-B-Q there. I stopped in on the 3-hour drive back to Charlotte the next night.

Here's what happened:





My waitress was great. She was from Buffalo and had moved to NC to escape a bad relationship. That's the nice thing about America, I said. You can just keep moving on until you use it all up.

After I'd eaten, I overheard one of a group of working men order a buffalo wing dinner. This was the first time I'd been in a NC joint that combined barbecue and buffalo. I'm still curious about that buffalo. I wonder if the waitress brought it with her.

I hadn't made the connection at the time, and so I didn't ask. Before bringing the check, she sold me on taking dessert to go. I brought a styrofoam cup of fresh cobbler--half cherry and half blackberry--to my hotel room in Charlotte.

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Still More NCBBQII! Part 9: Knightdale, a North Carolina Town

Knightdale is one of many rural American towns caught in an identity crisis, and a perfect setting for serious American fiction. Formerly very rural, it's being subsumed into the suburbs of Durham. New money, sprawl, and housing subdivisions are encroaching on working farms. And the farms themselves are no longer staffed by American citizens. Mexican tiendas ("stores" in Spanish) serve as tiny bus terminals for the daily, 2,000-mile bus journeys that migrant workers take back to Mexico. They often pop up in former gas stations or general stores, sometimes right downtown.

So how does BBQ survive in this changing environment? It keeps up with the times. Knightdale Seafood and BBQ, first of all, has more than barbecue on its menu. And, it has moved from its downtown, small-town digs to a brick building out in the sprawlscape on a street called Money Court, next to a gas station and between two strip malls:



It's also open on Sunday, which is how we wound up there after waking up at noon in Chapel Hill and finding it to be damn near 100 degrees outside. We hadn't drank much at the concert the night before, but after eating nothing but smoked pork and vinegar for two days, we felt rather hung over anyway. Nonetheless, we started calling BBQ joints from our hotel to find out who was working on the sabbath. Most restaurants are family-run and closed on Sunday, so one has to be careful.

Knightdale was open, and serious hunger pangs set in on the 20-minute ride over. We found the place easily and were surprised by its Cracker-Barrel-like decor. After observing the huge, church-going family chowing down in their Sunday best, I took a look at the tattered menu...


...and against my better judgment ordered the chicken and pork combo with some type of potatoes and corn. We were back east: vinegar-pepper sauce appeared on the table along with the hushpuppies. The chicken and pork were good, but I could barely eat them. BBQ fatigue had set in after meals at B's (Greenville), Skylight Inn (Ayden), Roland's (Beaufort), Dillard's (Durham), A&M Grill (Mebane) and Lexington Barbecue No. 1 (Lexington).

I just sat there, dipping my hushpuppies in the vinegar sauce, chewing on cornmeal and ignoring my meat.


This would be the final new BBQ joint of the trip. From here, we set out on a sweltering Sunday afternoon land cruise of very rural eastern NC. I will remember some of the images we saw and created for a very long time.

Part X is next!

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Monday, September 01, 2008

NCBBQII Pt 7: Lexington Barbecue No. 1

Our hearts race as we pull into the packed parking lot that we have finally found for the second time. The white woodframe restaurant is still open and bustling--no chance of them closing on us this year! I slam my camera against the car door with nervous excitement as I exit the vehicle and stumble to my feet. I'm here; we're there!


Going Home Happy, 2008

Arriving at Lexington Barbecue No. 1 this past May was like meeting a famous artist whose reputation I'd long admired. The highwayside eatery is perhaps the most famous barbecue establisment in North Carolina, the most preeminent purveyor of what is known as Lexington or "Western" style barbecue. While barbecue aficionados will point out that no simple distinction exists between Eastern and Western styles, western cue often uses ketchup or tomatoes in both barbecue and cole slaw. Western cue also tends to use pork shoulders instead of the whole hog. To me the following characteristic is a requirement for all true barbecue: the meat must be smoked over hickory coals.

As the menu states:


This is the True Lexington Style Barbecue, 2008
We use pork shoulders only. They are cooked about nine hours over hickory and oak coals. We salt the meat before cooking but we do not baste. This is the true Lexington Style Barbecue.
People take this stuff seriously. After walking through the very green, 1950s-era counter and checkout area, we're seated at the first table in the wood-paneled dining room. Just across the aisle, a family says grace as they are served their Saturday dinner. Of the two granddaughters present, one receives an order of chicken tenders and the other, the one closest to her grandmother, receives a barbecue platter (chopped pork, fries, red coleslaw). Both children become immediately engrossed by their meals.

The grandmother leans over to the closer granddaughter, and says softly, "I'm really glad that you like barbecue."

Barbecue Family, 2008

And this is what's all about:

Lexington No. 1's Product, 2008

I hope you can find a thousand words within that picture, because there really is no way to describe the food other than to say that the individual elements represent perfection and the whole a delicate synergy achieved over many years of cookery. Can you imagine the subtle smoke flavor and tenderness of pork smoked for nine hours? Does the red hue in the slaw communicate the tang of vinegar and ketchup found there? Does the golden tincture of the crinkle-cut fries convey their crispiness and how they pair perfectly with the slaw, ketchup, or barbecue sauce? And what about the hushpuppies? They're not in the shot, but it doesn't matter: refills are free.

And those hushpuppies soak up the bitter-tasting house sauce perfectly:

Smokehouse Barbeque Sauce, 2008

Rob and I both agreed that our meal here totally delivered. It was everything we had heard it would be, and a sharp contrast from our first experience here. Back in 2006, we were heading east from Greenville, where B's was closed for July 4th. We got a speeding ticket along the way, and had the usual hard time finding Lexington No. 1, which is located near a junction of two rural highways where everything looks exactly the same. When we finally arrived, the parking lot was deserted and our hearts plunged through the car floor when we realized that it too was closed.

But our planning paid off this time. As we exited, we saw all types of local folk getting take-out orders at the lunch counter...


Lunch Counter at Lexington No. 1, 2008

...and the parking lot was still packed. Above the adjoining smokehouse, the half dozen shiny, rusty exhaust pipes, their brick bases covered with seeping wood tar, belched heat into the dwindling daylight as we loaded ourselves into the Taurus and shipped off with only one destination in mind: the night.



Smoker Stacks, Take Three

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Monday, August 25, 2008

A&M Grill, Mebane, N.C. (From NCBBQII Pt VI: The Westward Quest to Lexington)

Nestled away in a tiny mill-town that's slowly being claimed by migrant Hispanic workers, A&M grill is a strange place. On a Saturday afternoon, its dining room was largely devoid of humans but teeming with flies. The barbecue here has a strong smoky flavor that seems strangely unaccentuated by the thick, peppery red sauce slathered on top.

This place was closed during NCBBQI in 2006, so we had to stop back in this past June. As always, click on the thumbnails for larger images.

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Friday, July 18, 2008

NCBBQII Part The Third: Return to The Barbecue Capital of The World, The Skylight Inn, Ayden, NC


Pit Boss Working the Cleaver, July 2006

North Carolina barbecue is a complex tradition. For that reason, it's a good thing that nothing ever changes at the Skylight Inn. Hidden on a side road in the farm town of Ayden, the Skylight serves up whole hog barbecue in a way that no other commercial establishment I know of does. The place has been there for decades, but in our two visits, nearly two years apart, the only thing that changed was the uniforms on the employees.


Pit Boss Working the Cleaver, May 2008

Anyone can read up on the Skylight: it was crowned the "barbecue capital of the world" by National Geographic in either 1979 or 1988, depending on your source, and since then, it's been featured in GQ and People. But the crowd is totally rural: decent, Christian-shirt-and-cap-wearing people of two varieties, white and black. That said, race and class happen to be irrelevant in barbecue. And while the Skylight Inn's presence in the national consciousness is clearly the result of and evidence of the intelligentsia's visits to Ayden, I've never seen another out-of-towner there.


Waiting for Barbecue, 2008

The Skylight Inn produces four things: whole hog barbecue, truly unique cornbread, a simple and sweet coleslaw, and requisite sweet tea. You can't buy anything else and the recipes never change. So what's so different about their food?


The Product, 2006

Obviously, the barbecue is the centerpiece, and to an outsider, it conveys a sense of strangeness that can't be forotten. The Skylight Inn's pit boss, who has apparently worked there many years, cooks whole hogs over hickory coals for several hours, then hand-chops every usable piece of pig on a giant wooden cutting board adjacent to a similarly sized wooden trough. The cutting board is in the kitchen, and the trough is in the dining room.

He picks meat off the bones--including the skull--then pours both white and cider vinegar, salt, and hot sauce over the steaming meat...

...and blends and chops it all together with the rhythmic pulse of his cleaver. Chop chop chop chop chop. When the mix is consistent and perfect, the blade of the cook's cleaver pushes it from the cutting board to the trough, where front end employees load up paper trays of barbecue.


On our second visit, we observed the cook scoring sheets of brittle pigskin, then chopping it into tiny bits, then blending them into the more succulent meat. This is what it looks like in the end:


The Product, 2008

It is indeed the pigskin that gives the Skylight's barbecue its most oddly appealing attribute: the crunch factor. The first time I ate there (on NCBBQI, July 2006), I feared that I'd break a tooth on a bone fragment or piece of cartilage. But I soon learned that nothing unchewable goes into the Skylight's barbecue. Smoked pigskin pushes back a bit on your teeth with a faint crunch, but it's nothing you can't handle. And the unique blend of meat and skin serves as an ideal sponge for the pickled pepper-laden cider vinegar found on every table in the dining room, not to mention the individual condiments that are mixed into the barbecue by the pit boss's blade.


Cider Vinegar with Peppers, 2008

That leaves us to the sides. The Skylight's cornbread is strange and flat. I dare say it's almost flavorless, but the North Carolina Barbecue Society Website (and the book it quotes) claims that the very flat cornbread actually has "drippings" from smoked hogs mixed into the dough. I'll believe it when I see it: I like to have an everyman experience wherever I go, so I've never asked to tour the pits or the kitchen.

The slaw is simple, green, and sweet. It's very finely chopped, and neither watery nor thick. It's a perfect accompaniment to the meat.

Outside, relics like this sign...

"If It's Not Cooked With Wood...," 2006

...bear silent witness to the traditions that are upheld at the Skylight Inn. Will the traditions continue? It seems that the pit boss, that frequent subject of my photographs, is truly the man whose craft and dedication keep the place going. Who will take over when he is gone? Who will get the coals going at 4am and babysit the smoking pigs for hours, then chop them up for hours more, then dispose of the burnt coals and select the firewood for tomorrow?


Pit Boss Selecting Firewood, 2008

A guest reviewer on a popular barbecue website suggests that they "train some Latinos" to carry on this tradition of extremely difficult work. (I'll be writing about Hispanics in the south in another post.)

I'm glad to report that the Skylight, at least right now, is what it has been, and reminds in our minds the king of Eastern Style barbecue.


Barbecue Capital of the World, 2006


BAR-B-Q KING, 2008

Additional photos are available on Flickr, from visits in July 2006 and May 2008.

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Monday, July 14, 2008

NCBBQII Part The Second: The Race to B's Barbecue, Greenville, NC



It has no phone line, but it has a state road named after it. It only opens for lunch, and it closes as soon as the last scraps of smoked meat are sold. The anomalies and challenges surrounding B's Barbecue make it the grail of any barbecue quest, so we made it the first stop on our second North Carolina trip.

Now, about those challenges. First, you have to work around B's summer vacation schedule. Impossible! They have no phone or website. In 2006, we showed up late on a Saturday morning to find the place closed for a week. (Okay, it was close to July 4th.) Second, you have to get there before they run out of food. Greenville looks reachable on a map, but it's actually four and a half boring hours from D.C., where our NCBBQ tours begin.

This time, we did the requisite planning. We had to wake up hung over on a vacation Friday at 6:30 a.m., grab bagels, and book it southward from the District. I-95 is heavily policed in all of Virginia, so one must drive the speed limit. As the stereo in Rob L's Taurus blared blared Dale Watson and John Hiatt, the NC border grew closer and closer. Traffic jams in DC and road work in VA slowed us down, and a nervous silence pervaded the cabin of the auto even as country and blues emanated from its speakers. Would we make it to Greenville in time?

The gas needle moved leftward as our route took us over a very rural road. With eighteen miles to go, we were down to less than an eighth of a tank. Noon approached. Would we ever find a gas station between highways? If we ran out of fuel, could we hitchhike to the barbecue? I neurotically rolled up my window to reduce drag. Rob left his down. We drove on.

A rural outpost of three independent gas stations appeared; this was Belvoir, NC. One of the gas stations sold beauty supplies, and another was out of business. We gassed up at the third, where lunching farmers inside stared uncomfortably at our bright shirts. Quite the opposite of Texas, everyone wore baseball caps instead of Stetsons. Onward.

Around Belvoir, NC:



Like many small southern cities, Greenville is ringed by rural suburbs and thick summer verdure. We knew we were close to B's, right around noontime, when the restaurant almost literally exploded into sight. At a T-shaped intersection stood the white brick structure and its smokehouse, the latter bellowing even whiter smoke into the clearing. Cars and trucks and every type of human covered every available inch of ground. There were many nurses and paramedics from the nearby hospital, schoolteachers, delivery drivers, a road crew, and us. We ditched the car and got on (in) one of the two lines.

Eat-In:


Take Out:


Friendly natives, visiting their former home from Dallas, welcomed us into the line. They told us that they'd come at 1:30 the day before and found the place deserted--the barbecue had run out. As we moved slowly into the building, we discovered that there was a quite large and dimly lit dining room inside.

As the line made its way to the counter, we debated--again, neurotically--whether to get pork sandwiches or the chicken and pork combo. We were glad we chose the latter, for B's is the only place I've been to that gives its chicken and pork equal treatment. This means that instead of using a thick, tangy, tomato-based sauce on the chicken (like Stamey's in Greensboro does, for instance), B's douses its chicken with the same vinegar-based sauce or "dip" that the pork gets. Every joint in NC makes its own sauce, so it's hard to describe the faint variations, but B's is accentuated by bright flecks of a red pepper.

But enough about the chicken. The pork, of course, was perfect. B's barbecue was tender and almost smooth, with nary a bit of skin or bone to interrupt its texture.
Meals also come with two sides and corn sticks, a strange, fried cornmeal concoction. Like the more common hushpuppy, they seem designed to soak up vinegar-based sauces. For my sides, I got a boiled potato salad and coleslaw.

The pork and chicken combo:

B's sauce, served in old Crown Royal bottles:

Outdoor close-up:


We ate and ate and only got halfway through our meals. By one p.m., the crowd showed no signs of dissipating. Smoke still bellowed from the smoker. Cars and delivery trucks hunted for parking spots, and some ended up parking in front of neighboring houses.

The Smoker and Its Keeper (This is a Dignity Hunt photograph):


Yes, B's really has a state road named after it, though the road uses a different spelling of barbecue.


Though sated, Rob and I had more work to do: we had to eat lunch again. So we hopped in the car and drove down Route 43 to the Barbecue Capital of the World, the tiny town of Ayden, NC.

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