09 May My BBQ Hangover

I’ve got a problem: I can’t stop eating barbecued pork as I book tour the South with Cleo in my custom camper van — to promote the paperback of From Animal House to Our House. Whenever anybody wants to take me out to dinner, I ask, “Do you know a good barbecue joint?” And they always do — because those joints are everywhere in the South. And, if I drive by one myself, I’ve got to stop. Just tonight I had my menu set: I was going to make a big salad. Heart healthy. I was feeling righteous. I was on the mend from my BBQ binging. But then, just as I was about to reach my destination for the night (a Walmart parking lot) I passed Harry’s, a quirky roadside diner that promised jaw-droppin’ pork BBQ. It had vintage neon signs and was so down-home and local, I’d’ve been kicking myself for days if I hadn’t stopped for a look-see.

Was it worth it? Damn straight, it was worth it! The pulled-pork sandwich was appropriately dry and smoky and came with slaw on the sandwich. Part of the fun of going to these little restaurants is that it’s a very particular sub-culture that I can fit into like a local. First, you’ve got to know the lingo. When you walk up to the counter for your drink, all you say is, “Unsweetened.” Or, “Sweetened.” Meaning iced tea. That’s all anybody drinks in the South: iced tea. Not fancy tea. Regular tea, like Lipton’s. Drinking iced tea is a holdover from plantation days. My sister-in-law, from Birmingham, AL, drinks unsweetened iced tea all day long. I’ve taken to drinking it too while I’m on the road.

The other thing you need to know is how to order your pork BBQ sandwich: chopped or sliced. With or without slaw. If it’s with, then you might be asked “red or white”? The red slaw is more vinegar-tomato based, which is what I prefer. Then you’ve got your sides: hush puppies are a must. They’re sweetened, deep-fried corn bread. Lordy mercy, nothing’s better. Lots of catsup on that. Then maybe get you some fried okra. And for dessert, a whopping piece of cocounut cake. Or, if you want to be traditional, banna pudding.

I’ve been on the road for 10 days and have eaten at 7 barbecue restaurants already. Just last night, outside Columbia, SC, a good friend’s sister took me to a buffet-style BBQ restaurant: Shealy’s in Leesville, SC. I’d never been to one of those. You buy a ticket at the door, then go to the buffet counter, where you can get all you want for as long as they’re open: creamed corn (made with fresh corn), green beans boiled in fatback, grits, lima beans, rice, pork rind, catfish stew, fried catfish, fried popcorn shrimp, French fries, fried okra, fried chicken, and barbecue pork (mustard based or vinegar based). Lord oh mighty. The catfish stew was superb! It had big chunks of bacon in it.

Here’s my terrible confession: I’m a vegetarian. That is, I’m a vegetarian at home. But, when I’m on the road, all bets are off — because life is short (especially when I eat the way I’m eating). And I can’t ever tell if I’m coming back this way again. And so, when I see a quaint BBQ joint in a small town, I stop. I’m now rationing myself to one sandwich at every stop. But that just means I’ve got room left for a side of fried okra and a slice of cake.

As of tomorrow, I’m on the wagon (it’s a sagging wagon from my BBQ poundage). But I may need your prayers to see me through the temptation. Problem is, people are telling me about their favorite places — and I”m taking notes and thinking, well, maybe if I pass this way going home, I could just stop in a take a look . . . . Oh my.