In the world of barbecue, there are purists, and there are enthusiasts.
A purist may go to his grave proclaiming “If it’s not pork, it’s not barbecue” – unless he’s from Texas, in which case beef brisket may be the hill on which to die. Some turn noses up at anything other than wood-smoked meat; electric and gas-cooked are anathema. Then there are subcategories. Pork shoulder or whole hog? Is the sauce of choice mustard-based, sweet-tomato, vinegar, Lexington-style, or even white? Pick an opinion and prepare to be simultaneously cheered and booed.
I may have purist tendencies, but in my heart I am a barbecue enthusiast. I have preferences, but I’m not anti-anything when it comes to smoked, slow-cooked meat. I even ate canned barbecue once when living in a pork-free zone across the world. I won it at an auction, probably paying far more than its retail value, but given the circumstances I was pretty doggone happy to have it. A thirsty man in the desert shouldn’t complain if the tea isn’t sweet enough.
At first glance Petty’s Barbecue looks like a purist haven. The wood is stacked outside, the smoker is front and center, and the aroma travels for blocks. I had eaten there before - a barbecue sandwich here, a pound of meat there (I shared) – basics that a purist would approve. Then in June an issue of Garden and Gun magazine arrived, featuring the best barbecue sandwiches in the South. As I studied the article I saw the word “Starkville.” My pulse raced a bit, I’m sure, as I read the description of Petty’s barbecue grilled cheese. What? Yep. I had to try it. My brother came into town a week or so later, so I ordered a couple of sandwiches to share as appetizers before our family lunch. When I picked them up, I commented to Mr. Petty that I had seen the G&G write-up and was intrigued; he made sure that I saw he also had a barbecue BLT, which of course I tried on my next visit. A purist might scoff at these as barbecue anomalies, but as an enthusiast, I was quite happy with both sandwiches, and proud that another Starkville barbecue joint was being celebrated across the South.
As I pondered Mr. Petty’s creations, other unorthodox ways of featuring that smoky wonderfulness began to catch my attention. By the time we returned from summer vacation, I tallied up all the barbecue I had eaten: at least seven different preparations, in six separate restaurants, and in two states – all in about a week. And some of what I ate would make a purist squirm.
Ol’ Blue’s House of BBQ in Forest City, N.C., provided three different tastes by the time I had sampled from other folks’ plates. Maw-in-law got pulled pork – nothing fancy, but decent. My son ordered a Philly, featuring pulled pork in place of the usual thin-sliced steak of the traditional sandwich, and like the grilled cheese it was different, but good. I went a totally different direction and ordered barbecue hash, common to South Carolina with regional recipe variations. It was so thoroughly cooked down and ground up, the meat and veggies it was composed of were unidentifiable, and the waitress could not identify the region. This dish won no style points – it was plumb ugly - but be assured I didn’t leave any on the plate.
At the Barbecue Center in Lexington, N. C., Que Soup was the featured oddity. I questioned the server, who described it as a vegetable soup with a scoop of barbecue thrown in – like Brunswick stew, she said, but better. It had been featured recently in a magazine, resulting in scads of hot soup being sold in the heat of summer. Paw-in-law was with me on this trip, and he’s a big soup guy, so we tried it. (We’ll use that excuse, anyway.) It was pretty much as she described – visually at least – but it was also clear she had never had Brunswick stew from Oktoc.
On the other hand, I’m not sure we add scoops of barbecue to enough of our dishes, though the practice has produced some pretty good eats over the years. I remember when barbecue pizza began showing up on menus, and I have written before about the barbecue omelet at the Starkville Café. In Oxford I found barbecue French fries – thick fries, smothered in pulled pork and some adaptation of Rotel cheese dip – like Canadian “poutine,” only better.
One of my favorite ballgame treats is barbecue nachos. The basic recipe is the usual snack vendor tortilla chips, drizzled with a golden cheese-like substance and barbecue sauce, with the meat spread over and amongst the chips. The Little Dooey serves a Fritos variation, adding baked beans to the mix. At home, I go patriotic: blue corn tortilla chips, leftover pork (yes, it happens sometimes), sweet red tomato-based barbecue sauce, and white cheese dip like the Mexican restaurants serve.
The search is not yet over. Smiley’s Barbecue in Lexington, N.C., offered a pork skin sandwich I was eager to try, but they were out of skin by the time we got there. Bunn’s Barbecue in Windsor, N.C., serves their pulled pork on two thin pieces of crispy cornbread. And you never know what Mr. Petty might come up with next.
Jay Reed is a local foodie and pharmacist. The culinary tastes expressed here are his and do not necessarily reflect the appetites of Starkville Daily News or individual members of its staff. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org .