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A triangle of the most perfect kind: barbecue

"You don't know what you've got until it's gone," is not just a song by the big hair, one-hit wonders of the 1980s, Cinderella. It is a nugget of wisdom.

What those boys with long hair, makeup and dangerously tight leather pants screeched over power cords, was of course, regarding love or lust or whatever combination occurs among the young and pop music.

However, the same could be applied to something more tangible: eastern North Carolina barbecue.

During much of my often-misspent youth, I took for granted chopped or pulled pork, good slaw and cornbread. Something that good was easily acquired off the farm, or sometimes at one of many restaurants, and always would be. This, I believed, was universally recognized.

As I got older and my world expanded, I learned not only was this is a fallacy of enormous proportions; there were people that DIDN'T EVEN KNOW WHAT BARBECUE WAS. Or, they did something crazy like poured ketchup or mustard on it, or called things like ribs, brisket, or other various meats barbecue. Some even used barbecue as a VERB.

I took this valuable eastern North Carolina commodity for granted so much I went years in between eating it. It was considered unhealthy by many, there were fewer pig pickins' on the social calendar, and the rest, well I write it off to poor judgment ... and then later, certainly poor parenting that my children were all walking and talking before they had the real stuff.

I've learned many things since a microscopic sliver of a kidney stone triggered a series of events that resulted in a liver transplant about 10 months ago. Lots of things in my life changed, and certainly priorities changed. Epiphanies, some people call them; others, like my mama, might say it looks like that thing might have knocked some sense into you.

Of the many new peculiarities that have been added to my host of old ones is a change in food preference. Out is Chinese food (it left anyway when China Inn did), many chicken dishes, certain kinds of takeout, that is somehow okay in person, like Mexican food, and numerous other oddities. At the top of the list is a relatively new thing for me, Thai food, and a reach back from years ago, barbecue.

I can't seem to get enough, and when properly managed, it gets the okay from my doctors. It seems this previously "unhealthy" food has little in the way of liver-related dangers.

I mentioned this renewal several months ago, and that I'm on a mission to hit all the glorious monuments to the food. Fortunately for all of us in the local reading area, the capital of the barbecue universe, a distinct triangle, puts us at ground zero in the Triangle of Greatness.

This Triangle, however, is small, and a bit whopsided. Essentially it is composed of Nash, Wilson and Pitt counties. If you go west of Zebulon, I'm sorry, but you have clearly left the zone. There are pretenders at the beach as well.

I recently had the pleasure of pilgrimage to the newest monument in Pitt County, Sam Jones Barbecue in Winterville. The proprietor comes from a lineage of barbecue kings, most directly the infamous Pete Jones Barbecue a.k.a. The Skylight Inn in Ayden.

The place is a bit fancy for what we typically expect from the other legends, which are often found in cinder block or painted brick antiquated buildings. But one whiff from the wood burning smokehouse when you exit the car tells you all you need to know.

My plate was filled with a mix of chopped and chunk barbecue, fries and sweet slaw, plus a slab of cornbread like my mama used to make in a frying pan or the oven. Everyone was happy with their food, including my vegetarian son, who was pretty excited about the catfish.

What's special, though, is that there is a "new" barbecue. You don't see barbecue joints opening, you see them closing, much like family farms and country stores, who sometimes run into their last generation. Legends like Bill Ellis, who passed away last week, are becoming rarities.

And that's why we should realize what we have in Parker's in Wilson, as well as Bill's, and B's and Parker's in Greenville, along with Sam Jones, and of course, the legendary Doug Sauls' right here in Nashville (it's about time to investigate the rumors I've heard about falling over plates of shrimp over there). It's fun to argue about which place is best. These places all have a storied past, that I remember reading about every year growing up when one of my favorite writers, Dennis Rogers, used to pick "the best." It's a bold man that will take on that charge.

For me, I need to hit a few more places. I've somehow never been to the Skylight or the oddly-houred Jack Cobb & Son in Farmville, and I need a return cycle through some long-established favorites nearby. As I've gotten older, it seems family owned places such as these are becoming endangered, and our part of the world definitely offers something no one else does -- we are at the geographic epicenter of the most perfect dish in the universe.

A few months ago, my favorite magazine, and one that Southerners should read often, Garden & Gun did a piece on Sam Jones BBQ, and there was a part where Jones talked about the biggest challenges eateries like his face. He said that people expect barbecue to be priced like fast food, no matter the effort put into quality, atmosphere and service.

We need to appreciate these places and help keep them in business. The places need to be celebrated in the here and now, with friends and family around beat up tables with mismatched chairs, plastic or tin plates, and a glass bottle of vinegar and red pepper. We don't want to have to remember them.


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