A honeymoon never happened. Instead September 11th happened. Our wedding was a bit of a shambles anyway; a paramedic had wheeled a gurney through the crowded dance floor midway through the event to collect a guest who had fallen in the ‘moat’ around the bar. House lights went up, music stopped. It was tricky to regain the momentum of the party, but we tried. Then, the next morning; no airlines. No honeymoon. An alternative appeared seemingly from nowhere ten months later; a road trip to North Carolina. We would travel together in rented van with our old friends, Mike and Emily. My accustomed anxiety bubbled up. The deepest I had ever probed into America was an outlet mall in Buffalo. This would be my first proper swan dive— the south land still raw from 9/11; American patriotism was at its zenith—I had no clue what to expect.
Our destination was a summer home in the Blue Ridge Mountains owned by Emily’s family. Known as Perrin Place, we were told it was uninhabited for the most part and rarely maintained. It squatted unassumingly, almost hidden, in a wooded hillside somewhere in the Western extremity of the Carolinas. Mike did most of the driving— a sixteen hour journey done in one shot. Inexplicably, right before the trip, he had clipped his hair short like a Marine and dyed it bleached blonde. I stared at the back of his head for hours. How would that be received in the south?
“Nobody lives permanently at Perrin Place,” Emily said, craning her neck back from the front seat. “To be honest, I’m not even sure what to expect. I haven’t been there since high school. I apologize in advance if it turns out to be shitty.” We were silent for a while, then Emily added, “Oh, I almost forgot, you have to look out for snakes.” I caught Dorothy’s glance in the rear view mirror. I could practically read her mind: What have you gotten me into you crazy man? Is this supposed to be our honey moon?
We arrived in the Blue Ridge Mountains at dusk and drove into the tiny town of Saluda, up a hill and through a wooded bit of country to find the silhouette of a Perrin Place sitting dark, spindly and a little crooked. Mike parked on the grass and we sat momentarily in the car listening to the pings of the cooling engine. Finally someone got up the nerve to open a door and let in a whoosh of muggy air.
The inside of Perrin Place smelled like old newspapers. There was an ancient out-of-tune grand piano which dominated the sitting room along with other dusty artifacts—military paraphernalia, collegiate sports swag, a mysterious marble bust, mealy old books, dour portraits on the walls and curious dinged up furniture that would probably fetch a bundle in a Yankee antique shop. The electric lights functioned as hoped for and as much as there was hot water, it was only available in a small bathroom with a rusty-edged claw foot tub.
According to the lore of these summer homes, the mountains were supposed to be a cool respite from the coast. But it was plenty hot in those mountains, a deep, soulful heat. Bodily invasive, it pulled the sweat out of the pores. Our first night there, I listened to billions of insects screaming among the black trees like we were in darkest jungles of Peru, perched at the precipice of Conan Doyle’s Lost World. Covering everything in choking green tendrils was the native plan. “It’s called Kudzu,” Emily said. “It grows everywhere around here, like ivy.” Indeed, the vines silently crept up telephone poles and tangled among electrical wires. It grew so quickly you could practically see it slithering doggedly toward the light.
The next morning I awoke after a troubled sleep on a damp lumpy mattress in a room that Emily referred to as ‘the chamber of horrors’ (So named due to some errant magicians props that had been stored there for years—by whom and for what reason was not ever explained). I got dressed and took a walk to get a look at the place in daylight. It was hot. Hotter than hot. Despite being under the shade of the mountain foliage, the trees suffered with us. The woods were humid with moss and loam, smelling of wet dog and swarming with mosquitoes. Venomous snakes lurked under stones and logs, lethal creatures with prosaic names like cottonmouth, water moccasin and copperhead. Heat mirages waved lazily in the air, while pavement, unprotected from the shade of the canopy, buckled and cracked under the intensity of the sun, it oozed tar and gave my toes second degree burns if my foot inadvertently escaped from my flip flop. It was so hot that all human movement was slow and deliberate, each muscle employed economically. It was an effort to be mobile. There are no sidewalks; it was understood that nobody walked anywhere. Most people just sat around and got fat. I didn’t blame them. I immediately thought that nobody should live in the South. It should be abandoned and left to the snakes and kudzu. There is plenty of room in Canada for all of us to cool off.
“Okay, enough of this shit, it’s time to get some proper barbecue,” Emily said later that afternoon. We had been sitting lackadaisically all day, trying in vain to process the heat. In 2001, I had never heard of pulled pork or hush puppies. Barbecue was a cooking device, not a category of food. Ten minutes away was the Green River Barbecue, a local place off of state highway 176. It was there, that I made discovery, that in my personal experience, carried as much grave importance as Watson and Crick’s discovery of the double helix. The joint was inauspicious, operated casually by a bunch of drawling locals, but the menu was strange poetry, a script from an art house movie set in the south: hush puppies, fried green tomatoes, collard greens, grit fritters, fried catfish, sausage gravy, okra, and of course, pulled pork. It was as foreign sounding to me as Mongolian cuisine. We ordered the whole menu and took it back to the old house to eat at the impressive plantation style dining table.
I didn’t even know where to begin. The fried green tomatoes, my first choice, tangy from a soak in buttermilk were delicious and crunchy with a slight grit from the coarse cornmeal crust. Hushpuppies, corn fritters of sorts, echoed this flavour profile but was all bass notes, definitely requiring some kind of tangy sauce. I tentatively spooned a bit of the so-called Carolina barbecue sauce on to one of them; it spilled all over, thin and runny. This seemed wrong to me. I took a bite anyway and scrunched my face up in surprise, vinegar! This was like no barbecue sauce I had ever eaten; fucking sour. “Put it on the pork,” Emily helpfully instructed. It suddenly made sense. The pulled pork was dripping with smoky fat and piled generously on to the plainest of white rolls. The acidic and spicy sauce cut through the fat with such a calculated precision that if I hadn’t stuffed it into my face, I wouldn’t have believed it. No other garnish was necessary. Then there were the ribs; sticky, smoky and categorically piggy. Knives and forks were unnecessary for this ultimate finger food. I’m not sure why the pork from the backwoods of North Carolina tasted different than what Toronto grocery stores had to offer, but I wasn’t going to question it. And why oh why do we not have fucking biscuits in Canada? We do, you say? Not even close bro. These biscuits defied the laws of physics. Like Dr. Who’s Tardis, the masses of butter they contained could not be accounted for by a casual exterior observation. Next I tried the collard greens; my one disappointment. I did not like them. They reminded me of the way mums cooked vegetables in the 1970s, pallid, drained of colour and boiled until dead three times over. To this day, I don’t like the way they cook collards in the south. Some contemporary southern chefs have attempted fresher approaches, but the traditional barbecue shacks, I suppose for familiarity, still cook the greens till they’re grey.
The four of us ate silently and thoughtfully for some time, enjoying the sheer greediness of the feast. You only get to try something for the first time once, so these memories tend to cut deep.
We eventually retired to the porch with a bottle of Bourbon and a mistakenly purchased pack of Virginia Slims. Mike, with his close-cropped platinum hair, looked fairly ridiculous with the skinny cigarette wedged between his meaty fingers. After a few drinks, we pulled out the guitars and strummed half-heartedly for a spell, but ultimately surrendered to the laziness that is a summer night in the South land. As night set in, we listened to the cacophony of strange insects colliding noisily around the single street lamp on the country road. As much as Emily had spent many childhood summers in the place, I think it also took her a bit of time to acclimatize to Perrin Place as an adult. The moment did arrive though, and I think I felt myself coming around too, as I contentedly creaked back and forth on an old rocking chair. The heat, which had started out as a foreground-dwelling, inescapable thing, was mercifully sliding into the background, becoming but an ambience. The lumpy mattress didn’t seem so bad that night and I slept well with a belly full of whisky and pig.
“It’s a democratic oasis in a Republican wasteland,” Emily said as we drove toward Asheville the next day. “It’s an artist community with a lot of old hippies, pot heads and other weirdoes who just drifted into the mountain village over the years and made it their home. I think you’re gonna like it.”
“Do they have barbecue?” I asked.
“Better. They have Mexicans,” she grinned.
The citizenry in Asheville appeared to be slightly more limber and lithe, negotiating obstacles easily, eating a little more sensibly then the rest of the county. It was refreshing, a break from the surrounding towns which felt the seismic effect of morbid obesity and deep Christian fear which resulted in a lot of quivering arm fat and inquires about our religious status. There were plenty of Mexicans in Asheville, traveling from all over the south west to get jobs in the fruit picking industries. It was there that I ate real Mexican food for the first time, Mexican food made by real Mexicans and not zit-faced teenagers at Taco Bell brandishing nacho cheese caulking guns. It was fresh, colourful and delicious. More importantly, it was honest. The cook had a connection with the food – it meant something to them. The dining room was no frills, sparse and without a hint of gringo hipster shit anywhere. A mariachi band appeared out of nowhere and I asked to join them. They crowned me with a sombrero and let me play the fattest, jumbo-est fucking guitar I had ever seen in my life.
After a week of delicious eats in North Carolina, it was time to head back home. We took the long way home along the coast and stopped at Cape Hateras on the Atlantic seaboard. It is a surprisingly bleak place with very little vegetation, just sand dunes, low lying scrub and endless rental beach homes populated by bloated sun burned families, like pink hairless pigs in bathing suits. Eventually we found a small hotel with a fancy-looking little restaurant that promised fresh seafood for which we got a table for four. “What do you recommend?” Mike asked with a friendly smile. The waitress chomped on her gum and assessed Mike’s bleached hair for a moment.
“If y’all like seafood, I suggest you git the sampler,” she said brusquely. So we did. After a very long wait, the waitress came around and dropped plates in front of us that contained nothing but piles of brown indistinct clusters; supposedly clams, shrimp, mussels and crab, all deep fried into knobbly unidentifiable trapezoids. The only garnish was a sad afterthought, a tiny plastic ramekin carelessly filled with oxidized bottled tartar sauce, the outer crust yellowed like old alabaster. Despite ordering the ‘sampler’ plate, most of the food in front of me was visually indistinguishable. The only way to determine there were different things on offer was by mouth texture. Some bites revealed an alarming lack of structural integrity to the food, while the rest produced an unpleasant rubber bounce between the molars accompanied by a vague fishy taste like a recently extracted diaphragm. Everything was coated in wet breading and likely fried in murky, tainted fryer oil. Despite being next to the ocean, it was without a doubt that not a single example of marine life that we had ingested came from anywhere near the lovely waters surrounding us. I’d eaten better seafood at fucking Red Lobster. I almost spit out my syrupy Australian wine when I got the bill. Our waitress was not shy in her condescension and seemed to take great relish in counting out our hard-earned tourist money, which when considering the exchange rate, was about on par with the dinner for twelve in the finest restaurant in Toronto. I longed for the corpulent but friendly folk of the Blue Ridge mountains who offered us solid barbecue at good prices, their slow cooked food was unadorned and authentic or the vinyl table-clothed family-run Mexican eatery for which the cook was probably the mum and the bartender the dad.
Cape Hateras was tourist-land, a sucker born every minute. The seafood restaurant could count on the fact that the sunburned summering families in the area would tolerate their swill. They didn’t have to worry about building a clientele – something I would later learn is critical for any restaurant worth its salt. After dinner we opted to camp in the local ocean-side park— the money we had budgeted for the motel having been misappropriated for an overpriced shitty fish dinner. Later that night, we roasted in the stagnant heat of our tents listening to the whine of mosquitoes buzzing in clouds around us. A distant rumble of thunder prevented us from removing the rain flies from our tents that would have at least allowed a bit of fresh air. The thunder was mere bluster; the night remained torpid and humid without a drop of rain falling. It was a hot, sleepless night, our bellies engorged with leaden fish nuggets floating in a sea of carbolic Wolf Blass Chardonnay. The hangover was Dante’s ninth circle of hell.
We finished our trip by travelling through tiny towns along the coast, each with a black neighborhood and a white neighborhood with long stretches of unremarkable highway in between. I thought a lot about food on the long drive home. I thought about the misconceptions I had about Mexican grub and fancy restaurants and the American south. I thought about the importance that time plays especially with things like good barbecue. It also had become evident that it is often the small independent folks with the cluttered disorganized cooking shacks that can provide superior nosh over the fancy sea-side eateries. It was about authenticity, passion and the personal relationship a cook has with their ingredients. Ironically, it didn’t seem too hard to run a good eatery. The barbecue guys of the mountains weren’t harried or stressed out. They produced decent food at decent prices. The seafood place was pure cynicism. I was willing to bet they changed management regularly. All these thoughts were put on the shelf for a while, later to be dusted off and examined as I contemplated my own restaurant. The one lesson that burned brightest was this: cooking can be honest. Cooking can also lie.