We're meeting our son and DIL for an early dinner today---they said yesterday that they've found a barbecue place that's "Just like being in Memphis." They had good things to say about the meat, the sauce, the beans---that immutable trinity which have to pass muster.
We've been looking for a long time---ever since we moved here, our South-spoiled palates expecting that everywhere must know about barbecue, must have been raised on that tender, smoke-kissed wonder that is Pit cooking. We enter shiny, formica-gleaming places with pig faces peeking from the walls; we seek out the plume of smoke from streets, parking lots, four blocks over, following our noses and our hopes like treasure maps.
Screeky doors beckon, as we slide gingerly into grubby booths, our shoes scritching on the sticky floor; we order and we crave and we settle. Several times, we've been rewarded by singular beans or properly-tender meat or the amalgam of near-magic in the sauce, but the expectations outwear the results. I count myself too persnickety, too choosy, longing too much for the tastes of Home which are too much enhanced, elevated to an unattainable plane by time and absence.
The very first Summer we were here, our apartment complex invited all the residents to a gathering with bright promises of a PIG ROAST on a Saturday in May. The group assembled out on the little sports area for the celebration, which consisted of a volleyball game (four participants), a frisbee toss (one frisbee, two tossers), horseshoes, and the pig roast. Signs and letters-under-the-door were put out a couple of weeks in advance for Saturday noon, and quite a few of us accepted.
We were greeted by our "hostess"---the manager of the complex, an overbright, always smiling young woman whose never-failing demeanor was that of a speed-enhanced cruise director. She chirped and enthused and smiled with every tooth and sent us off toward the enticing scents of Smoke.
They had hired a professional for the pig cooking part, a nice young man who wheeled up with his big barrel-shaped grill/roaster and set up shop just where the enticing smells would greet us at 5 a.m. and send trails of hypnotic aromas through the open window for HOURS before party-time. We coulda floated from home to the spot with our feet off the ground, noses trapped in that smoke-trail like Pepe le Pew.
Being from the South, and transported to Indiana, we hadn't had really good pit BBQ in quite some time. At noon, we walked down the block, following our noses to the wonderful aromas and beer-inspired laughter and chatter. For the thirty or so of us gathered, the half pig lying atop the grillbars looked quite adequate. As the party progressed, that pig could have joined the loaves and fishes and fed thousands.
The chefs wrestled the stiff form of the half-pig up onto a big board and started slicing; a line formed. We stood expectantly, inhaling the fumes of rich, smoky porkiness like pilgrims breathing the air of sanctity. We held our plates, watching as the first crusty slices met plate and were carried away to the buffet for the requisite sides of potato salad, coleslaw, and baked beans.
Then, after the first dozen or so people had received their servings, there was a whispered conversation between the chefs, as the several guests remaining in line in front of us started to mutter amongst themselves. We craned forward to see, and our eyes met a disappointing, break-the-heart-of-the-hungry sight: the pig was bleeding. Not just pink-rare juice-running, but bleed, seeping out between the knifemarks and flowing out onto the huge cutting board. I don't know if the chef was on his first run, or the fire was not regulated correctly, or the timing not calculated correctly. It was AWFUL---the bleeding armadillo cake in Steel Magnolias leapt to mind.
The chefs managed to carve around and snip off pieces which were tender and edible; they did serve everyone who was in line, but after having our lunch manicured off a practically-raw carcass, we were just out of the mood. We took a couple of bites of the crackly skin---tasty, but the UGH was already implanted.
We said our thank-yous and headed home to make a sandwich. But the finale was the buffet---as we stopped to thank the hostess, I watched as she refilled the three "serving dishes" with potato salad, slaw, and baked beans straight from cold grocery-store deli quarts.
I had to look twice for the actual images to register. The three square yellow containers on the buffet next to the open cellophane packs of buns all had the word "CRISPER" in script on the little silver margin at the top. Familiar, yes. There was one just like them in the bottom of the fridge in every apartment.