Thursday, March 01, 2007

Oink if you love pig.

Who knew? Today is (was; it's about over) National Pig Day. I tend to trust the recommendations on this Serious Eats page because they get the main thing right: Allen and Son is the gold standard for North Carolina barbeque.

In my native Texas I'm an apostate, but the fact is that my weakness for pig goes way back to undergraduate days, before I ever left the state. I became a pretty consistent vegetarian; but though I lost my taste for beef I regularly broke for bacon. I'm not terribly scrupulous any more. When it comes to North Carolina barbeque I have no scruples whatsoever.

My fall from grace was gradual and unremarkable--nothing like the ordeal former ibiblian Miles Efron put himself through when he decided to come off of a long stretch of carnal deprivation, a two-step experience he describes in an essay that, to my mind, puts him in league with Calvin Trillin as contender for the pig poet laureate.

When North Carolinians discuss barbeque, they are prone to swoon. Even the most urbane among them waxed ecstatic when given a forum for extolling smoked meat. People who have lived in New York--and one who lived in Istanbul--drawled like Daughters of the Confederacy about sweet tea 'n slaw.

But after much hand-wringing consensus emerged. The consensus seemed to be that Allen and Son, just north of Chapel Hill, should be my destination. In choosing Allen and Son, my thinking focused on several factors. First, I elected to eat barbeque that was (more or less) Eastern style. After all, with no tomato in the equation, there would be nothing between me and the meat--no filter or safety net. Second, after several interviews around Chapel Hill, and after reading many reviews it was clear the Keith Allen is a barbeque purist. By eating his fare, there really could be no regrets, as nobody disputed his skill and attention to tradition. Third, Allen and Son is a strong contender on the major variables that distinguish a barbeque restaurant: the meat, hush puppies, dessert, and ambience.

Finally, I chose Allen and Son because it is located near my house. North Carolina barbeque is special because it is a regional cuisine. Not unlike many vegetarians, barbeque purists are concerned with the authenticity of their product. This authenticity derives in large part from issues of place. Keith Allen is held in especially high regard because he splits his hickory on site and by hand, behind his restaurant, just up the road from my house.

Reasoning that "it's a long way from whole grains to whole hog," Miles on his first trip to Allen and Son stuck to sides, especially the hush puppies. "They provided the perfect medium on which to practice eating meat again. Put bluntly, that medium is oil: fried in lard, hush puppies leave a sheen on the napkin, lubricating this vegan's slippery slope toward omnivorousness." A few days later he returned for the pulled-pork piece de resistance, and his transformation was complete.

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