Sunday, May 17, 2009
BBQ and Out!
As I lie here in my current Hampton Inn home away from home, I feel distinctly like one of those snakes on an old Wild Kingdom episode…you know, the one that ate something as big or bigger than it (the snake) was around. Just shy of miserable…but in a good way.
This past week culminates a 2-week barbecue odyssey that has me thinking that, yeah, I might actually be barbecued out for awhile. I know—call CNN. It’s a long post, and I apologize, because I should have written it in two posts, but I was in a barbecue coma for part of that time. Hickory smoke can make you a wee bit lazy and hungry...not unlike some other kinds of smoke. : )
Week before last, I rolled into Owensboro, KY—the barbecue capital of Kentucky to spend 3 days in hickory-smoked heaven. I hit the Moonlite again, then on to Old Hickory, which is supposed to be the locals’ favorite. The smell outside of Old Hickory was almost enough to bring me to my knees, faint with hunger and desire…whew! Gotta get a grip, because this is not a bodice ripper that I’m writing…unless my bodice happens to rip open because I ate too much barbecue. It’s hard to describe the smell, but if you’ve ever been to a really good, honest-to-swine wood-burning barbecue joint, you know exactly what I’m talking about. And, I swear that I could have just eaten a 40-course meal, be as full as the proverbial tick, and get a whiff of barbecue smoke, and my mouth will start to water. Sometimes, I think barbecue might smell better than it tastes, because the aroma is soooo heavenly, and maybe I should gnaw on a piece of hickory wood and save some calories.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, Owensboro and that general area of western Kentucky is famous for mutton barbecue. I wasn’t too sure about actually ordering mutton as an entree, and from what I remembered from my last trip to the Moonlite, it wasn’t something I was likely to order. Best laid plans and all that…when I went to the 3rd local joint, George’s, I decided to go out on a limb and order the sampler platter, which has sliced pork, sliced beef, and sliced mutton. (Sliced is usually how they roll in KY, although I did see pulled available. The most interesting thing is that you can order your meat “off the pit,” which seems to mean that it won’t be soaked in “dip,” and you can get that on the side. More on dip in a moment…)
My waitress comes back with a large oval platter piled high with meat. She informs me that they are out of beef, so the kitchen gave me more mutton. In the back of my mind, I’m thinking, why not more pork?, but I decide to go native and give the mutton a whirl. Along with the beans and fries, there is a little pitcher of “dip.” Dip is sauce, but it’s not thick like KC Masterpiece, and it’s not as thin as the vinegary pepper stuff usually served with Alabama ‘cue. It’s got a little more body, and evidently everyone has their own recipe. The mutton is not bad…I think the smoking helps it, because I manage to eat most of it. Another thing that distinguishes KY barbecue, or at least at George’s and Old Hickory, is they throw a little sassafras wood on the fire. The sassafras adds a little “something’-somethin’” to the flavor, maybe a little sweetness? Definitely in a good way. And, the coolest thing about George's is that there was impromptu bluegrass jam session going on in the back dining room. Guys would occasionally step outside to their trucks and come back through carrying instrument cases.
This past week, I was staying in Memphis, yes during the barbecue cooking contest part of Memphis in May, which sounds like heaven on earth, but alas, it was raining most of the time and I didn’t make it to the park…oh, and I had to work, too. Imagine that—gotta fund these barbecue expeditions somehow.
Never fear, I continue to partaking of a pantheon of pork. Lucky for me, a couple of fine joints were near my hotel. First up was Leonard’s, a Memphis staple since 1922. Leonard’s has some interesting items on its menu—some kind of hybrid Italian dishes, including barbecue and spaghetti, ribs and spaghetti, and my favorite description: ravioli and ribs served with slaw.
Wisely, I think, passing on the spaghetti options, I go for the pork and ribs plate. I’m not usually a rib eater, but someone walked by with a plate and they looked too good to pass up. The pork was good, and the ribs were mighty fine. Crisp on the outside and meaty on the inside, with not too much sauce, because I don’t want to look like a refugee from the emergency ward after I finish dinner.
Next day, for lunch, we went to a West Memphis joint, which was just okay. West Memphis is not actually in Memphis, but across the river in Arkansas. (We decided to opt for a local meat-and-three for the next day’s lunch, where I had some amazing fried okra. Not that pre-breaded crap from the freezer section, although that will do if you actually fry it up in a skillet and not a deep fryer.)
Dinner that night was at Neely’s, whose name you might find familiar from The Food Network’s “Down Home with the Neelys.” Pat Neely and his 3 brothers all got together and opened a barbecue place on Mt. Moriah Road, and they now have 3-4 locations in Memphis and 1 in Nashville. By far, dining at Neely’s was my best Memphis experience. I know there are dozens of must-eat places there, but I had 2 days people, 2 days! And, there was no way in hell to get remotely near Beale Street during the barbecue cook-off. I like to watch Down Home, because the Neelys look like they are having a ball while they cook, and most of the time, they make food that I want to eat.
Walking in the door of Neely’s, I get that knee-weakening feeling from the aroma of burning wood and charring meat. I stick with the pork, ordering the pork plate with beans and slaw. Memphis slaw is a whole ‘nother animal in itself. It’s chopped, it may have a little vinegar, mayo, and or mustard, or all 3 or some other combination. It’s definitely different. My waitress assures me that it’s good, with a little kick, and she’s right. I also order the sauce on the side, because—well, you know why. The pork is tender, with little bits of the outside meat (with succulent crispy bits of fat), and the sauce is very good. It’s reminds me a little of the Kentucky “dip” in consistency, but a just a little thicker; still not as thick as a KC Masterpiece-type of sauce.
And, she talked me into peach cobbler, which was good, and the reason why I started this post feeling like I’d swallowed a mongoose.
The last bit of Tennessee barbecue was at a special place…it’s not exactly the most famous and may not be the best, but it was a place I stopped in with my friend Johns and some other co-workers while on our way back from a business trip to Memphis about 13 years ago. Our company had a contract with the naval base in Memphis, and we all drove over for a meeting. Why there is a naval base in Memphis, I have no idea…probably the same reason there’s one in Cobb Co. in Georgia.
Anyway, the guys that we met with sent us down a back road to avoid some nasty construction on the perpetual Memphis-to-Atlanta highway pipe dream, which grows a little more each year, to Somerville, TN, to a place called The Hut. The thing I remember most about that trip was Johns teaching me the words to the Mr. Ed theme song on our way home, while the whole vanload of us sang old TV theme songs to keep awake. (Yeah, we’re nerds.) I did a little detour on my way home and had a sandwich there and then sang the theme to Mr. Ed as I drove away.
From the Wildlife Karma Department: As I’m barreling down Highway 64, on the part known as Buford Pusser Highway, I pass a large turtle crawling out from the median and into the left lane. Well, I wasn’t exactly speeding, because I’d hit a trap and got tagged on the way to Memphis, so I was being a little more cautious on the backroads. And, when I say “large turtle,” I mean LARGE turtle. Like a “if you hit it and you are driving a small car like mine, you might cause some significant damage, especially if you are moving at a high rate of speed” large turtle. Plus, it looked like it might be an old turtle, since it was so large, and for some reason, I thought maybe it might possibly be an important type of turtle. It really looked more like a tortoise, which may have been what started me thinking that it needed saving. Yes, I know that tortoises live in the desert, but this was all at 65 mph!
This is all going through my mind in a split second as I pass the turtle, and there was a cut-across right past the turtle, so before I can really think about it, I’m whipping around heading back towards the cut-across that I just passed before I passed the turtle. As I turn back to the turtle, I am gratified to see that it is still alive and trying to cross the road.
I pull over and hop out of the car…not a lot of traffic coming, so I cross the road and pick up the turtle from the back of its shell in a confident “I’m doing my part in saving the planet” sort of way. The turtle immediately responds by whipping its head back and hissing at me with its rather large mouth open wide and looking like it might just eat me. I scream and drop the turtle…which, by now, you have all figured was an adult snapping turtle…which I had never seen before, ever. Yes, even though I have lived in the South for ALL my fool life, I have never seen a full-grown snapping turtle until that very moment, in the middle of the highway in the middle of nowhere Tennessee.
When I drop the turtle, it lands on its back in the middle of the right lane. I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to do next, and it dawns on me that I am in the middle of a highway and maybe I should look to see if there is oncoming traffic…which there is…an 18-wheeler bearing down on us and getting closer by the second. So, and I’m not particularly proud of this, I scoot the turtle across the highway on its back with my foot, and then sort of drop kick it upright into the gravel at the side of the road.
I lean against the side of the car, because I’m feeling a little weak in the knees from the adrenaline of the turtle and my near brush with death on the highway. Then, I notice that the turtle seems to be flailing around, and I’m afraid it will get discombulated and try to re-cross the highway. Now, when I got out of the car, I notice that there was a creek of some sorts on the side of the highway I was parked on, so I knew that the turtle was headed towards the water. This is why I felt confident that I would be assisting the turtle with its goal, and that the turtle really did have a purpose in crossing the road.
I am not about to pick the turtle up again, nor am I putting my foot in danger, because I’m definitely not wearing steel-toed boots, and since I now know for sure that this is a damn snapping turtle, I know that it can take my finger off, no matter how noble my intentions are towards it and the environment. I had stopped at a discount outlet kind of store on the way over to Memphis and picked up a new telescoping aluminum pole for my pool cleaning stuff.
I get the pole out and feel that it’s a little ironic to be on Buford Pusser’s highway with a big stick. I start nudging the turtle, who, at this point, is mightly pissed off at me and hissing and snapping for all he’s worth, towards the water. As I’m standing there with my pole, a woman in an SUV slows down and yells out the window to me, “are you out saving turtles?” I reply that I am trying, whether he wants me to or not, and she gives me a merry “bless you” and speeds off. I get the feeling that either I’m not the only tree-hugging idiot she’s seen, or she’s been doing the same craziness herself…maybe to make up for the SUV.
I get the turtle off the gravel and into the grass and decide that my work here is done…I’ve been as ecologically and environmentally helpful as I can be today, and I should just get in the car before I get myself pancaked by an 18-wheeler myself. (Note that the picture of the snapping turtle is not one that I took myself...I swiped it off the internets, because I was too freaked out to think about grabbing my own damn camera.)
The rest of my trip passes uneventfully and I arrive home safe and sound, and I really hope that turtle made it to his creek as well. And, this afternoon, when I was unpacking my suitcase, I pulled the shirt I was wearing during my trip to Neelys out of the space bag, and the undeniable aroma of hickory smoke faintly wafted up from it, and you know, my mouth started watering and…what the hell, I could eat barbecue again this week. Wonder if you can barbecue a turtle, and if adding a little sassafras would...nevermind.