Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Barbecue Capitol of the World: Part I

I recently found myself with two free hours in Greenville, North Carolina, and hungry.

In Tummy Trilogy, Calvin Trillin often describes his frustration at recommendations for what he calls “La Maison de la Casa House,” a.k.a. generic, fancy, bad continental dining. At the time of his writing, locals were afraid to suggest any restaurant that wasn’t along those lines. If only that were still true.

It’s much worse now. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked hotel employees, gas station attendants, help desks, information kiosks, luggage handlers, cab drivers, college students and random pedestrians for a good place to eat, only to have them recommend Pizza Hut. People used to be embarrassed by any restaurant that wasn’t French. Now, they won’t even acknowledge the existence of a restaurant that isn’t corporate. I am not exaggerating. I travel a lot, and this happens 100% of the time.

Enter the internet. I’m in Greenville every couple years, and until now I hadn’t heard squat about any restaurant that wasn’t a chain. This time, I spent about five minutes on Chowhound and had more leads for authentic, East Carolina barbecue than I knew what to do with. Fortunately, one post shone brighter than the rest:

“Forget those other places. All now cook with gas or electicity [sic]. Some of it is outstanding, but real NC barbecue it ain't. Go south on NC Hwy 11 to Ayden, NC to the Skylight Inn. There you will find the last practitioner of purely traditional eastern NC que as it has been prepared for almost 300 years. They cook only whole hogs over live wood coals, using blackjack oak. The wood pile out back is enormous and appears to be on the verge of collapse. The barbecue is chopped fresh all day.”

Minutes later, I was eating there.

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