Barbecue, cast iron and pecans

Those who know me slightly more than not at all know I do not fit in the South.

Most of my days in the seven years since moving to North Carolina from New York for college have been spent planning an escape route that’s both effective and appropriate for my 7-year-old daughter, who was born beneath the Mason-Dixon Line and, consequently, relatively comfortable here.

I’m not sure where I would go. My exposure to cultures far different from western New York has shaped me into a person who no longer fits there, although I’ve spent a lot of time denying this. I do not enjoy tourist towns or affluent neighborhoods, as societies in which folks are too comfortable make me uncomfortable. I have no knowledge of farming, cattle driving or wife-pleasing and believe I’ll be too old to acquire these skills once I’m positioned to make a move, so let’s get rid of the Midwest. Same goes for trying a region of the world I’ve never visited.

But I have a lot of time. I’m where I am for my daughter. Unless she tells me, uncoerced, she wants to move someday, this is where we’ll stay. So I’ve tried to make the best of a culture I find repellent.

ONE METHOD OF doing that has been latching onto customs and interests of a particular region. In the South, food is a big. Really big. It’s oftentimes a point of contention, reason to brag, excuse to gather and glue that keeps one’s family and friends together. Loved ones who have died are sometimes recalled initially not by his or her demeanor, but by a particular dish he or she could prepare like no one else.

It’s infatuating to me. I love it.

After an affair with hush puppies, the majority of my attention in North Carolina went to barbecue. For this purpose, “barbecue” is a noun – a synonym for pulled pork that men and women (but mostly men) cut themselves from entire pigs (or “hogs”) they’ve cooked at a low temperature over the span of around six hours. This often happens at festivals in the spring and summer – each small town in eastern N.C. seems to have at least one per year – complete with carnival rides, cotton candy, vendors and rabid competition. Whoever cooks the best pork and concocts the best sauce (some festivals grade only the pork) wins not only a bunch of money and trophy, but – most importantly – bragging rights.

It is a sport. Make no mistake about it. There is a circuit; there are rivalries; there are fistfights.

In addition to the festivals, hole-in-the-wall restaurants that have been family-owned for several generations attract residents from counties away. Every town has at least one place that prepares and serves barbecue, but not every town has that one restaurant that serves it exactly the way someone wants it … and he or she will drive for miles and miles on a Friday night just to get it.

While to me there wasn’t much difference in the barbecue throughout eastern North Carolina, there was a difference between it and barbecue in central N.C. And western N.C.? That was just as different as the barbecue in South Carolina, where sauce bases ranged from ketchup to mustard. Almost all of the sauce in eastern N.C. was vinegar-based … and my personal favorite.

WHEN I MIGRATED TO SOUTH CAROLINA in 2010, the cuisine was closer to the stereotype believed by the North. Barbecue is prevalent, but usually served in hash, which is nothing like the breakfast food that comes in a can. South Carolina hash, while varying from town to town similar to barbecue in North Carolina, is more like a pulled pork-based stew with corn, potatoes and spices that’s often served over rice or even bread. Similar to N.C. barbecue festivals, towns invite hash cookers to bring their giant vats and kettles to compete amid a spring or summer carnival-like atmosphere.

While I never bothered making barbecue or hash, I did develop a mild obsession with cast iron and have about a dozen pans I use often and display – coated with a a layer of oil, of course – almost proudly on hooks in my kitchen. I was at first attracted to cast iron because of its durability. Having grown up in a house full of my mother’s precious non-stick cookware that’d apparently trigger a nuclear holocaust if touched with metal utensils, I enjoyed the way I could scrape, dig and gouge food out of a cast iron pan with something as impractical as a kitchen fork. I also liked taking a pan camping and putting it over some coals without melting a stupid rubber handle or damaging rivets.

It’s also always been neat to find old cast iron in antique stores and yard sales. These heirlooms may be covered with rust, but with some elbow grease, wire brush and steel wool, these babies are as good as anything after they’ve been seasoned a couple of times. That’s how I got my cornbread pan.

I’VE ALSO COME TO ADOPT TASTES I never knew I had. For instance, I always believed cornbread was sweet, bright yellow and came from a small blue box that eventually lost its contents in a glass cake pan. Not anymore. These days, unless I get a request for otherwise, my cornbread’s made with plain cornmeal from a cloth sack that gets poured into a cast iron pan heated to about 400 degrees beforehand. No sugar is added, but corn, onions and bacon grease often find their way inside the thin yellow-brown slices that are as hard as rocks on the outside, but slightly moist and mostly crumbly on the inside.

I also haven’t made fruit cobbler in anything except a cast iron pain in about two years. Same with my grits casserole, but that’s a realm of Southern cuisine Yankees could never handle.

SO MY LATEST IS PECANS. Not pecan halves that come in a plastic bag from the grocery store and definitely not pecans already chopped. Real pecans … the shell and all.

It all started a few weeks ago when I was retrieving my daughter from day care. About a mile short of the place, I spotted a handwritten sign in someone’s yard that said “pecans – $2 per pound.”

Anyone who bakes regularly knows that’s a heck of a deal. One eight-ounce bag of chopped pecans costs at least that, right? Imagine an entire pound of those for the less, I thought.

After picking up my daughter, we stopped at the house. Having never done something like this before, I was nervous … I was actually purchasing food from a private person, whose operation was not regulated or safeguarded by a government agency. On top of that, what if the person’s a sicko who poisoned the nuts? What if the person thinks I’m nuts and comes to the door with a shotgun? What if the person knows about my history of destroying nonstick pans?

Next to the door were two index cards. In neat “old lady” cursive, there was a price list on one: two pounds, $4; three pounds, $6; four pounds, $8; and so on. Below the list was a sentence with an asterisk: “minimum purchase two pounds.” On the index card below the price list in the same handwriting were “store” hours. Below that, in the same handwriting but all capital letters, were the words “STORE CLOSED ON SUNDAY.”

An old lady wearing a nightgown opened the door before I could knock, ring the doorbell or make a smart remark to myself about the “store” being closed on Sundays.

“Pecans?” she asked sweetly.

“Yes.”

“How many would you like?” she asked.

“43,” I said, smiling.

“We only sell by the pound,” she said, not smiling. “And you have to buy at least two.”

“I will take two then, please.”

She turned and went back inside the house and emerged 32 seconds later with a sweet potato sack stapled shut.

“There’s a little bit more in there in case you get some bad ones. Some of them will be bad.”

I handed her my money, confused. What the Hell were these things? They looked like walnuts.

That’s when I realized pecans didn’t grow on trees looking in neat little wrinkly halves like they sell in the grocery store. Pecans had shells – and I had to crack them to pick them out.

As soon as I got in my car, I began to wonder what the Hell I was going to do. I actually thought about throwing the bag away. I didn’t know how to crack pecans. No, I thought. I can do this.

I Googled how to shell pecans. Yes, I’m that far from being Southern. It turned out to be pretty straightforward: crack the shell with a nutcracker or some pliers, pick out the nut and clean it off. Repeat. Repeat, repeat, repeat. After an hour, you’ll have one cup.

That’s why pecans are so expensive, I thought more than once while doing this with Kalista on the front porch that night.

But that’s also why families are so close in the South. Well, pecans aren’t the only reason – but spending that much time on the front porch with mom, dad, son and daughter has got to bring a family together … and I see families doing stuff like this together all of the time in the South.

They take the time to shell pecans.

SINCE BUYING MY FIRST bag of pecans, I have returned for a four-pound grocery bag twist-tied shut. While I’ve since learned to boiling the whole nuts will make the job easier, the ensuing experiences have been as rewarding as the first.

I don’t know where I’ll be in 12 years after Kalista finishes high school. While I enjoy my parents being nearby, I’m too dependent on place … and if the landscape or culture cannot embrace my lust for distinct seasons or love for sarcasm, cynicism or many other -isms, they do not comprise my kind of place.

But as long as pecans keep falling and the old lady keeps selling, I now know I can feel at home for an hour at a time.

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5 Responses to Barbecue, cast iron and pecans

  1. Loved this Justin. It caught the way i felt when first moving to S.C., 13 years ago. The very first thing I loved was the weather but the first thing I wanted to do was eat my way through southern food…I love it…Haven’t tried cooking with the pecans cause on one else would eat them…
    I fell in love with the low country and the sawgrass baskets near Charlston,which is an area I love…
    Love your writing and it always makes me smile. keep up the great work. I look forward to the next.

  2. EmmieElle says:

    I grew up in Arkansas…right now I’m living in Minnesota. Everything you said rang true to my Southern-born ears…even the part about barbecue hash (I have family in S.C. and N.C.). And, bless your heart for finding real pecans! I’ve given up using pecans in baked goods…the ones that come out of little plastic packages are not the same as what you buy alongside the road 🙂

    • Thanks for your comment. Sorry I’m just now seeing it! I don’t think I’ll ever be a Southerner (not that there’s anything wrong with being one), but I can definitely learn some new traditions. Maybe someday I’ll be able to slow down my Northern tendencies! I hope …

      • EmmieElle says:

        As hard as I try, I don’t think that I’ll ever be a true Northerner. The pecans just aren’t as good and I can’t find sweet tea 😉

      • Beef! That’s the biggest difference I’ve noticed… in New York, steak, beef on weck and hamburger were as popular as pork is in the Carolinas. It’s basically a trade because the beef isn’t as good in the South and the pork isn’t even close in the North. Once I realized I had to embrace the differences and work with them (instead of trying the things I was used to), it became more fun!

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