It’s been about 25 years since I first came to the South. I say I have lived in the South all my life. But the first 30 years or so living in “Southern” California doesn’t seem to sit well with traditional Southerners.
Even though I am from the West, people in the South over the years have referred to me as a Yankee. One creative guy used to say I was a “California Carpetbagger,” who came to the South to tell everyone how to live. Although I found the reference amusing, it is the people of the South who have taught me how to live. And they have done it through some great Southern cooking.
To start, if you grew up with it, you know that barbecue is a noun or an adjective modifying a noun. “We’re going to eat some barbecue.” “That barbecue restaurant is the best in the county.” “No better barbecue than a good ol’ fashioned pig-pickin.’” In California, barbecue primarily is a verb. “Let’s barbecue some chicken for dinner tonight.” “My new smoker can barbecue a full brisket so fast it’s done before you are hungry.”
I prefer the noun to the verb, especially pulled pork with hushpuppies and coleslaw. I did not know good eating until I first put a bit of pork, a fork of slaw and a bite of hushpuppy in my mouth simultaneously — what a delicious thrill. My life has not been the same since.
Of course, no discussion of barbecue is complete without answering the eternal question: What’s better, Eastern or Western North Carolina barbecue? Eastern is usually seasoned with a light vinegar-based sauce with red pepper flakes. Western barbecue, on the other hand, uses a ketchup base similar to traditional barbecue sauce.
I know what I believe is better the better barbecue. But one of the things I’ve learned about living in the South is you don’t talk politics, religion or what’s the best barbecue. It is the right things, sometimes, to keep your opinions to yourself.
But one thing I remain openly opinionated about is sweet tea. I wasn’t sure what I thought about it at first. The woman who would be my wife, Cathy, and I were on a first date at a restaurant in Winston-Salem. The waitress took our drink orders, and Cathy excused herself. While she was gone, the two glasses of iced tea we ordered arrived. Immediately, I did what I had done for years, tore open and added two packets of sugar to my tea. I wasn’t sure how much sugar Cathy would want. It was our first date and all.
Cathy returned to the table, and as a native North Carolinian, she chose not to add sugar to her tea. So I took my first sip from my glass and could feel my face pucker. How could two little packs of sweetener turn my drink to syrup? Seeing how I was slightly struggling, Cathy asked if I were OK, and I told her how I only added two packets of sugar to my tea. She laughed, but in that soft, cute way as to not embarrass me and explained sweet tea to me.
I wanted to know more. In California, only the consumer requests or adds sugar to unsweetened tea. In the South, the thirst-quenching elixir started in the 19th century with green tea, sugar and ice, all expensive commodities. By the 1920s, black tea from Asia, much less expensive than green tea, was used throughout the Carolinas and Virginia. The problem: Black tea is bitterer than green tea and required a lot more sugar. And so sweet tea was born, and it remains the top drink in the South.
It’s also great when eating barbecue.
Sweet tea and pulled pork have changed my life. But so has peach cobbler (I don’t care for peaches all that much, but I do love a good cobbler), biscuits and gravy, Cheerwine, hot dogs all the way, fried baloney, and black-eyed peas and greens. I still haven’t had Brunswick stew, but it is on my bucket list.
This impressive list of Southern cuisine keeps growing, but so does my waistline. Unfortunately, then, most of these delectable foods remain on the list and do not make it to my mouth. But over the past quarter of a century, it is the experience of these foods, and so many other North Carolinian penchants, that have changed my life for the better. And I am thankful.