Wednesday, September 19, 2012

North Carolina Barbecue and the Meaning of Life

This just in from The Wall Street Journal: "Studies show that food cravings involve a complex mix of social, cultural and psychological factors, heavily influenced by environmental cues."

In other words, my blog and I are back from vacation, and we want to talk about comfort food.

Nick and I recently spent two weeks on the East Coast. It was one of the best visits we’ve had there in years: a whistle-stop journey visiting family and old friends from Boston and Provincetown to Richmond, Va., where Nick is from, to my hometown of Greensboro, N.C.

It hasn’t always been easy for us to visit our hometowns. Nick has often spoken of the ‘wet blanket’ of the past--unhappy memories that descended upon him as we drove into Richmond. Growing up gay in a dysfunctional family tends to do that to you.

To help salve those wounds, Nick and I would seek out Richmond 'comfort' food. Bill’s Barbecue, a long-term Richmond institution, was a frequent destination, not just for its minced pork barbecue sandwiches but for its limeades and crinkle-cut French fries, too.

In Greensboro, any number of emotional sand traps would cause me to "self-medicate" with food. To the rescue would come Krispy Kreme, whose illuminated neon ‘hot light’ would suddenly cause our rental car to careen into the doughnut palace’s parking lot. Rarely could we drive past a Chick-fil-A without soon having their crispy chicken sandwiches dissolving in our stomachs. And a visit to Greensboro was never complete without at least one stop at Stamey’s barbecue.

This trip was different.

In Richmond, we dined out with Nick’s old friends in new restaurants. I even nibbled a pig's ear (though I had to be prodded into it). We went to Bill’s Barbecue, but only for the limeade. In both cities, we gave the Krispy Kreme “hot light” the cold shoulder. Given all the recent uproar, we didn't even consider Chick-fil-A.

But then there was Stamey's. For years, my brother-in-law Larry had been trying to convince me that Country Barbecue, also in Greensboro, is superior to Stamey’s. And for years, I’ve smiled and nodded and completely ignored his advice. Stamey’s, for me, was the comfort food I looked forward to most on my Greensboro visits. So why risk your comfort on something unknown, especially at a time when you need that comfort the most (or think you do)?

On this visit, however, we took Larry’s advice. On our way to visit Larry and my sister Nancy, we picked up sandwiches for everyone from Country Barbecue. And you know what? Larry was right. Their North Carolina-style chopped pork barbecue sandwiches are better than Stamey’s.

What was different this time? The "environmental cues" that caused us to seek comfort have mostly faded now, and good riddance. Seriously: Why did we need comforting? Nick has a close group of fabulous friends in Richmond whose company I greatly enjoy. I have a huge, wonderful family in Greensboro that I love, and who love me and Nick. Sure, my mother has dementia, and that's painful to watch. But she's also still quick on the draw. When being ushered to the bathroom by a nurse's attendant at the memory care facility where she lives, my mother turned to Nick and me and said, "Better watch out, she'll make y'all go next!"

Nick and I have learned to enjoy our hometowns for what they offer now, rather than begrudge them for what they didn't provide years ago. And we're hungry for new experiences, which are the opposite of tried-and-true 'comforts.'

Don't misunderstand. Comfort food, on occasion, truly hits the spot. But does it comfort you? Or does it just keep you in the past and actually make you feel worse? What I've grown to learn, thanks to my most recent trip "back home," is this: Comfort food can be like a friend who pats you on the shoulder--while reminding you just how miserable everything is.

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  1. Great post Jim. I grew up on Stamey's but am a recent convert to County BBQ. If you haven't had Lexington BBQ (they believe there's no such thing as BBQ outside of Lexington), we really like Jimmy's (I85 at Lex). Down east BBQ is a completely different thing. Bob Melton's in Rocky Mt where my ancestors were from was lost in the big Hurricane a few years back. We always imported that. But Parker's in Wilson/Greenville (Julia imports it for us) is great. I actually prefer eastern NC BBQ. You'll get a lot of BBQ arguments inside and outside NC. Glad you liked Country BBQ!

    1. Thanks John. There's no shortage of great NC BBQ. Maybe I can get Julia to import some Parker's for me on my next visit!

  2. Jim,

    Glad you had a great visit. Next time go to Carvers in Greensboro. I really missed your Blog so welcome back. You are right life changes but your friends were always there.
    Even Chic made a change yesterday.


    1. I haven't heard of Carvers, Tim; I'll have to check it out. And yes, I read about Chick-fil-A's change. That's progress! Hope you're well.

  3. Welcome back friend! Missed your posts. Paul and I went with my family to Stamey's last time we were in Greensboro. It seemed darker and smaller for some reason. Comfort food: Sometimes it is good to move on. We have found a donut shop in Wells, Maine, where we spend our weekends that gives Krispy Kreme a run for their money. Congdon's donuts...But why does comforting always have to be fattening?

    1. Thanks Bill. Comfort food can be a vicious cycle -- it's fattening and tasty, you eat it for comfort, but then you put on weight, you need comforting again. Sigh. Hope you too had a great summer and will be back in SF again soon!

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  5. Weird. I had a similar conversation about "comfort food" a few weeks ago with the DH. He questioned the premise all together (altogether?)--not really "getting" the idea of comfort food--and this from a man raised in the South (i.e., Texas) with familial roots out Arkansas and Mississippi way (for those who question Texas's inclusion in the "South.")

    I sometimes delve into the comfort food myth, but more a long the lines of making something at home (not eating out)--and for some strange reason, most of it reminds me of my grandmother and being in her kitchen, which wasn't all that often as we lived in California for my "growing up years" and she in Texas.

    Much more to say on this; but I think it'll have to work itself out first.

    Glad you're back, and I'm sorry but I must admit I don't like BBQ at all. ;)

    1. Thanks Claudia. It's OK if you don't like barbecue -- that leaves more for me!

  6. Oh yay! I am so pleased to see your return to Blogville! What a great post. You guys have both grown and don't "need" that food to get you over the hump anymore. You've don't that on your own. (You've humped on your own? I digress) Now, that food can be just for pleasure!

    My family calls it, "eating memories." Sometimes you just return to the scene of the crime for the heck of it. (and the food might just be crap!)

    Welcome back friend!

  7. Greeting fellow southerner.
    Firstly, glad your travels were safe and sound-I have experienced the same returning to a place that warms my heart simultaneously disturbing my memory banks.
    Secondly, the internet was just not the same place without you.
    Thirdly, I don't know if it is just me, but I am suddenly hungry for BBQ-but, at this time of year, my comfort comes from the most incredibly ripe tomatoes, on a sandwich, the only time I use mayonnaise, but generously so with black pepper.
    Now go to the gym. LOL
    Welcome back...

    1. Thanks Tim. And yes, I've been hitting the gym since my return. Oddly enough, I didn't gain even one pound while I was gone. Must have been because I minimized the comfort food!