Hot on the trail

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     Little Richards, Winston Salem, barbecue
    Von Franz Marc Frei

    When white smoke rises from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, it means that a new popePapstpope has been chosen. Habemus papam! But what does it mean when white smoke rises from the chimney of the Bar-B-Q Center in Lexington, North Carolina? I am considering this question as I drive along the city’s Main Street, passing gas station (N. Am.)Tankstellegas stations, car dealers, supermarkets, and fast-food restaurants, but always with my sights firmly set on the to set one's sights on sth.etw. anvisierenwhite smoke ahead. “Habemus porcus (lat.)Schweinporcus?” I ask myself quietly, hungrily.

    Here I am. I to flick on (ifml.)anknipsen; hier: setzenflick on the turn signal, turn off the street, park the car, and get out. The heat almost knocks me off my feet. Thankfully, there is a covered walkway leading to the entrance of the Bar-B-Q Center. The place is open. Hallelujah! Inside, it’s cool and dark. The interior is simple, an ambience more functional than fashionable. And yet everything is as it should be.

    The smell is of home and of history. The waitress’s outfit to evokeheraufbeschwörenevokes the era when Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley dominated the charts. I order a pulled porkZupfbraten-pulled pork sandwich, fries, potato salad, and, because alcohol isn’t generally served in barbecue joint (ifml.)hier: Budejoints, a Coke. The sandwich bunBrötchenbun is soft and light, the meat is juicy, and the sauce is seriously spicy. In fact, next time, I’ll order the milder version.

    This is a stop on the North Carolina Barbecue Trail, which stretches from east to west across the state. To be precise, I’m almost exactly at the point where the humid coastal regions and plainEbene, Flachlandplains of Georgia and South Carolina rise up to the Great Smoky Mountains, and miles of arrow-straightpfeilgeradearrow-straight highway give way to hilly climbSteigungclimbs. This is a region where wealthy city folk from Atlanta, Charlotte, and Columbia come to relax — to go fishing in a pondTeichpond or creekBachcreek, to go hiking or just chill. Most of all, though, it is the place where, in the early evening, you head for a barbecue joint.

    Back home in Germany, the term “BBQ” is a generic flavor — smoky, peppery, meaty — that you’ll find on pizza, potato chips, and nachos, in popcorn and in sauces. There is no guarantee that it will involve meat roasting over an open fire and a tangyscharftangy sauce on the stove. So what are the true ingredients and taste of a barbecue? I ask Randy Lohr. We meet at his restaurant, Speedy Lohr’s, in Lexington, one of 22 restaurants that — like the Bar-B-Q Center — come recommended by the North Carolina Barbecue Society.

    North Carolina is the cradle of the cue — the barbecue capital of the world

    Lohr offers me a seat by the window, pours us both a glass of iced tea, and then sits down opposite me. In a full-on Southern drawl(gedehnte) Südstaaten SprechweiseSouthern drawl, he explains that North Carolina is “the cradleWiege, Geburtsortcradle of the cue (barbecue) (N. Am., ifml.)Grillen, Grill-cue — the barbecue capital of the world.”

    “What’s important is, of course, the pork,” he says. He pauses for a moment, to tugzupfen, ziehentugs at his baseball cap, and runs his hand over his forehead as if the topic makes him sweat, “It has to be young. It’s cooked in a pitGrube; hier: Smoker, Kugelgrillpit.” He takes a pen and draws a straight line down the center of a piece of paper. In the middle of the line, he draws a circle and writes “Lex.” This is, I am being told, the epicenter of barbecue culture. Then Lohr puts the side of his hand directly on the “e.” “This is where the great divide occurs,” he explains. “To the west, only the shoulder of pork is barbecued, and while this is happening, it is bastedübergossenbasted with the sauce. If the pit master knows his job, you can order the meat ‘brown,’ which means you’ll get meat with a caramelized skin. In the east, the whole pig is roasted. Anyone born here and who grew up here would never switch from one style to the other — at least not without feeling real bad about it.” He laughs, but I’m not quite sure if he isn’t actually being serious. He explains that on the eastern part of the trail, the meat is roasted, unseasonedungewürztunseasoned, for five to eight hours, depending on the weight, using smoke from the hickory tree — a member of the walnut family.

    Randy Lohr, Speedy Lohr's Barbecue
    Randy Lohr, the owner of Speedy Lohr’s BBQ joint


    Once the meat is cooked, it more or less falls off the bone and is then either choppedgehacktchoppedcoarselygrobcoarsely chopped — or pulledgezupftpulled. Lohr explains that the only thing common to all barbecues in North Carolina is the chopping or pulling of the meat. After another sip(kleiner) Schlucksip of iced tea, he takes the sheet of paper and tears it into small scrapFetzen, Stückscraps. “Then the differences begin.” Each scrap of paper represents a different method of preparation, depending on the barbecue joint. Lohr points to one scrap of paper. Here, the sauce is added as soon as the meat is cut. He points to another. Here, the sauce is added only when the meat is served. In some cases, the meat is cut only once the orderBestellungorder goes in.

    “The sauce...,” he says and grins. “In the west, ketchup is used to bring the flavors together. In the east, it’s a sauce made with red pepperPaprikapeppers.”

    Most sauces are seasoned additionally with herbsKräuterherbs, spices, and vinegarEssigvinegar. No matter what you use to make the sauce, if you want to be on the list of recommended restaurants of the North Carolina Barbecue Society, you have to prepare the sauce on the premisesan Ort und Stelleon the premises.

    In the west, ketchup is used to bring the flavors together. In the east, it’s a sauce made with red peppers

    Across the US, there are many different varieties of barbecue: from the chimichurri sauce favored in Florida to the mapleAhorn-maple syrup-glazedglaciertglazed meat in Vermont or the Cuban mojo pork, which is grilled over sugarcaneZuckerrohrsugarcane. Barbecue meat can be served in sandwiches or on a plate. You can end your barbecue by licking your fingers or putting your knife and fork together. Texas is known for its barbecued beef, Memphis for its pork ribs. So the word “barbecue” is simply an overall term when the US is viewed from a great distance.

    Until very recently, almost every US state except North Carolina had its own barbecue society. That’s what led Jim Early, Jr., a Winston-Salem-based attorney, to found the North Carolina Barbecue Society in 2006. As well as documenting the history and culture of barbecuing in North Carolina, the society was intended to promote the state’s pork industry. North Carolina is the second-biggest producer of pork in the US after Iowa. As author of the barbecue bible, Jim Early’s Reflections: The Memories and Recipes of a Southern Cook, he then to go the whole hog (ifml.)aufs Ganze gehen (Wortspiel: „hog“ bedeutet Schwein)went the whole hog and tested more than 200 barbecue joints, finally choosing the 22 that make up the North Carolina Barbecue Trail.

    So much for the theory. It’s time to continue my pursuitVerfolgung(sjagd)pursuit of the holy grailHeilige Gralholy grail of grilled meat. I get into my car and drive west. It’s sunset as I leave Lexington, and the sky is a deep reddish brown. To me, it’s the color of a perfect barbecue sauce.

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