Flashlight & A Biscuit, No. 7: Barbecue and salvation

Get off the highway and get into a good BBQ joint.

Welcome to Flashlight & A Biscuit, my Southern sports/culture/food offshoot of my work at Yahoo Sports. Thanks for reading, and why not subscribe below? It’s free and all.

I would trade one of my kids for some good barbecue. All right, maybe not trade, but rent out for a few days, at least.  

Any time I set out on the road — which hasn’t happened much lately, as you’d expect — I cross-reference my route with a list of barbecue joints I’ve compiled throughout the years. Everybody’s got their own you-gotta-try-this BBQ place, and I am happy to take up their challenge. My bucket list is filled with dry ribs and pulled pork. 

(By the way, if you have one of those places in mind — hole-in-the-wall, family-owned, secret-sauce-that-might-contain-black-market-spices, you know what I mean — let me know. I’ll publish a list one of these days so we can all have options.) 

A couple years back, we took a short detour off Interstate 85 in North Carolina to go to Barbecue Center in Lexington. Carolina barbecue, at least as served in this part of the state, comes minced with a vinegary dipping sauce that includes a blend of ketchup, sugar, salt and pepper. It’s not an overpowering tomato-ey sauce; it’s more like a sneaky date that might show you the best night of your life … and then duck out a window with your wallet. 

At Barbecue Center, they keep the dip heated in glass coffee pots, and pour it out like they’re throwing black coffee at a drunk. You slather your pork in the sauce, and you dunk the mandatory hush puppies in it. The dip’s also the defining ingredient of the joint’s red cole slaw. You can’t escape it, and you don’t want to. According to local legend, one regular had his jaw wired shut following an operation, and his father brought him a pint of dip and a straw to speed his journey back to health.  

(You’re getting hungry, aren’t you?) 

What I love about Barbecue Center is what I love about every single small-town barbecue joint — the yellowed reviews clipped from newspapers in the 1990s, the cartoon pig curiously happy to serve you up a plate of his own slow-cooked family, the cast of characters that are clearly regulars at the joint, the desserts in a front case that generations of kids have begged for and drooled over. The best barbecue tastes like home, even if it’s the first time you’ve ever eaten it.

The ingenuity of the best pit masters is an artistry born of chemistry and necessity. Channeling the Maillard Reaction — the chemical process that turns cooking food brown and delicious — is like playing an instrument, easy to dork around with but tough to master. And achieving the perfect smoke ring — that pink layer just below the bark — is one mark of slow-and-low, that-is-the-tempo barbecue brilliance. Barbecue’s like music; the best of it arises naturally from the area where it’s created … and if it’s designed to appeal to a broad, nationwide audience, it sucks.

I don’t know how these indie BBQ places are faring at the moment, but I have a little bit of hope that the connections they’ve built with their longtime customers are keeping them going. Barbecue eaten out of styrofoam to-go containers isn’t anywhere near as good as ‘cue served hot at a table with family or friends around, but it’ll do till the world rights itself. 

Hit me with your barbecue suggestions, preferences and debates, and pass this along to your ‘cue-aficionado friends. We’ll all be dipping some hushpuppies soon.


Check This Stuff Out:

Here’s what I’ve been reading and listening to this week. (I’ve been doing rewatches of The Sopranos and The Wire; I’m guessing you’ve already heard of those.)

Book
“To America,” Stephen Ambrose: Yeah, I’ve reached that age where I’m starting to read World War II books. Shut up. I’m fascinated with how each new era regards its own history … and how history’s going to regard this particular era. (My guess: historians who won’t have spent years on a diet of cable news will take a lot more sober, and lot less generous, look at today than many of us do.) This book, by the guy who wrote “Band of Brothers,” is part memoir, part historical reassessment, a series of short looks at some of America’s pivotal moments: the Revolution, the Civil War, Teddy Roosevelt, D-Day, the barely-held-it-together ‘60s, and so on. The conclusions he reaches are at times too pat, but the basic thesis—there’s an American character that’s carried us through trials before and will again—is worth revisiting today.

Podcast
The Yahoo Sports College Football Podcast: Look, put aside the name, which everyone concedes is … not the most creative one out there. My friends Dan Wetzel, Pat Forde and Pete Thamel gather a couple times a week to discuss college football with the eye of well-connected insiders—all three have broken some of the biggest stories of the last 20 years—but also with an awareness of just how absurd this strange, silly sport is (and how much we need it back). Plus, the deviations into UFOs, Animals vs. Humanity and The Great Chicken Sandwich Wars are worth the listen alone. Get it.

Music
American Aquarium, “Lamentations”: This is raw, badass, honest rock, which means it looks at the world as it is now and howls with the noise of a thousand guitars run through a thousand stacks. American Aquarium is a Raleigh, N.C. band labeled as “country,” but it’s worlds removed from beer-n-chicks-n-trucks puffery. You can draw a line as straight as a highway from Woody Guthrie to Springsteen to the Drive-By Truckers to these cats. This is end-of-the-night, look-out-in-the-darkness music. Highly recommended for an evening hangout.

Oh, and for your listening pleasure, all my music recommendations are now on Spotify, updated weekly:

Also, listen to Little Richard. Any Little Richard. The man was a madman and a genius and he changed the course of American history. RIP.


Menu of the Week

Talladega Superspeedway

I know I should do a barbecue menu after that paean above, but nah. The Talladega spring race is usually right around this weekend, and while most of the fare at Talladega Superspeedway is pretty standard, I’d like to draw your attention to the “Talla-Mento Dogwich” there in the left column. It’s an absolute nightmare Frankenstein of a sandwich, a nod to Augusta National’s genteel pimento sandwich … in the way that keg-standing Milwaukee’s Best is a nod to sipping Woodford Reserve neat.

I wrote about this particular sandwich a few years back, and this was my description: “Start with heavily buttered Texas Toast, grilled but butter-soaked to the chewy consistency of French toast. Top that with a couple slices of cheese (Cheddar and American, if I remember my lunchroom fare correctly). Add a grilled hot dog, split lengthwise and laid out in an X formation. Then top the entire creation with enough pimento cheese to spackle an entire bathroom.” Sounds delicious, right?


Finally … As Georgia As It Gets

I can’t even begin to tell you how much I love this clip from a larger tweet shared by Rex Chapman earlier this week. It’s allegedly from the last few days, which is dubious, and also allegedly from Georgia, which is indisputable. Let’s count the many ways this is As Georgia As It Gets:

  • Lake Life in the muddy goo that is (probably) Lanier

  • Your boy here grabbed a damn water snake and didn’t let go of his beer

  • No shirt, ballcap, wraparound shades: the official uniform of the Georgia Lake Bro

  • Seriously, this guy thought grabbing a snake out of the water was a good idea

  • There’s a dog, of course, and he’s probably named something like Bo, short for Beauregard

  • Someone in Georgia actually threw a pass, and naturally it was exactly when just keeping things on the ground would’ve been the right idea

  • The Bro Country music that accompanies this sounds like it was created in a lab

  • Once more: this guy did the dumbest thing possible by grabbing the snake, and then somehow managed to top that by an order of magnitude. Peak Georgia.

Yeah, maybe it’s not quite time for us to get back into the world yet.


That’ll do it for this week, friends. Get outside and raise a glass from a socially responsible distance. Be good and I’ll catch you soon.

-Jay

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