The best days in life fall into place, for the most part, unplanned. Drops that ripple through stillness of permanent chaos, experiencing joy through the serendipitous activity of youth. Mac again stumbled into one of these days, living through feelings without pausing to reflect on them. Captive in moments with a permanent grin. Today the moments came with smiles, tingles, and sense of being. Clean and bright eyed in crisp air with a clean blue sky inviting him to drive with the windows open. Hat blowing off into the back floor board and hair flapping against his ears and neck. His light new beard spoke to other priorities. Fingers lightly on the wheel and back melted into the seat. An Allman Brothers song on the radio loud enough to stir melodies over the hum of the diesel. Leaves occasionally falling in every warm color.
Heading southwest through the city, Mac was on his way back. A few miles before the turn onto the old Huston Branch Road, he pulled up to the barbecue shack. B-Bob’s Joint. As far as North Carolina barbecue joints go, B-Bob’s was a baby, only five years old. It was, however, a real deal when it came to shade-tree barbecue. Just off the west edge of the Huston property was an old red brick country store that had stood for decades in questionable condition. In its day, it boasted the red star of Texaco, selling fuel from a glass globe, cigarettes, soft-drinks, and serving as a rural post office annex. It was constructed with mix matched bricks, a shallow shed roof, and had a double Dutch door over a concrete stoop worn by time. Now, sparingly did anyone go into the building except B-Bob and his boys. It was more of a smokehouse than a business place with its windows occluded by stone and all transactions taking place on the narrow porch before it. As Mac pulled into the sandy drive, he could see the deep circle of cars he expected on a Saturday morning. Chubby arms hanging out of windows. A mixture of tunes wove into the air from their radios. Gospel and country and rockin’ roll. Most folks were there for the perfect fare, the gregarious ones working up through the line, two cars wide, sharing in conversation.
B-Bob-Que, as it was called without a sign claiming it, was only open on Saturdays. On Friday evening, a hickory-wood fire would start in an old two hundred and fifty gallon steel drum behind the building. By ten in the morning, the cars would come filing in. He always cooked three whole hogs. Good sized ones. When the meat ran out, the shop closed. Depending on the time of year, the disappointed person, after the cutoff might, get the bad news as early as 11:30 in the morning.
Mac pulled his truck underneath a spot of shade and walked toward the building on the side opposite the crowd of idling cars. A post card country store, smoking. A clean raked yard and just enough paint to cover the bad spots. Little unnecessary details that spoke of the care he took in his perfect product. Thin blue smoke curled through weep holes in the brick wall. The hickory-rich air had a luxurious and comforting smell. That smell served as a beacon beyond site of the activity of the joint. As Mac rounded the corner he could see his old friend there, covered in thin perspiration, shoveling hot embers through tendrils of smoke into a wheel barrow.
“B-Bob you need to let those boys of yours do the heavy lifting and you should get up front and do the smilin’ and sellin’,” Mac called out to his friend.
“Mac, my brotha from another motha. What’s up?” B-Bob had a fascinating voice. It was large, square, and country. When he tried to speak in black colloquialisms it was humorous. They matched up to his voice as poorly as one would think his voice matched up to him.
“Just chillin’. I’d love to tell you I had three beers and eight hours of sleep last night, but opposite is true.”
“Well you’re lookin’ mighty fine, movin’ pretty good.”
“You know, sun is shinin’, thought I better make some hay. Just headed back out to the farm to put the last touches on deer season. Put corn in a few feeders, look for sign. Thought I’d say howdy, see what you’re up to, and grab a few to-gos,” said Mac.
B-Bob only had two things you could order; a to-go or a here. A here consisted of a thick paper towel with a wide mound of pulled pork in two pieces of white bread. A scoop of sweet slaw and his own secret sauce politely dolloped on each sandwich. Every here came with a bottle of Coke from one of his ice chests and a bag of generic wavy chips. A to-go was the same thing wrapped in wax paper and put into a craft paper poke sack. Every order spoke of great care, the creases in the paper clean and consistent, the short stripe of masking tape his maker’s mark. There were not substitutions. No “hold-the-slaw”, no “I want outside meat”, nor “extra-sauce”. The drink was a real cane sugar Coke. The real thing in green glass bottles. Not the corn syrup variety the boys in Atlanta were poisoning folks with. They still knew how to make it in Mexico and B-Bob knew how to work the local field hands for crates of it. If you did not want one, you paid for it anyway with your donation. He did not have a business license or want to deal with the food inspector–so he took payment as donations. There was not a cash register, they did not even have electricity out there after the fuel pump ran dry. B-Bob was not rigid because of stubbornness or pride. He just did not have time to slow down to keep the line moving. Since nearly all of his customers came over and over, anybody that disliked his system had self-selected to another place to eat.
In North Carolina, you have to be careful when, where, and amongst whom you discuss barbecue. It has as many factions and denominations as politics and religion. Sometimes it was hand and hand with religion, like the annual fund raiser the boys enjoyed up at the Mallard Creek church, which because it was held in early November, was full of politicians too.
Barbecue is not a verb. The sacrosanct foundation (to the fortune of his patrons) to B-Bob, was the meat itself. The B-Bob-Que ran a little against the trend of Piedmont barbecue made up in Lexington, with its tart catsup and vinegar sauce poured over chunked shoulders. Fellows from the next town over were fond of a barbecue joint that had a flavorless oven-baked pile of sawdust covered with a vomitesk thousand island based slaw. His sauce and slaw were added in a diminutive proportion. B-Bob insisted that barbecue was only the genuine article made from a whole hog. He reminded folks that the word itself came from the French words meaning from beard (barbe) to tail (queue) and that people of African descent have been showing folks how to roast whole beasts this way for five hundred years. He was particular about making the fire and the selection of wood, splitting it, nearly fifteen cords of it, throughout the year. He conjured coals in his hot-pit in the back. In deliberate anticipation of the moment, he smoked his meat patiently, the building replete with the blue smoke of hickory coals. B-Bob used the old windows and doors like dampers, chimneys, and carburetors. Feeding oxygen as fuel through a swirling draft . Choking it out when the room got over the temperature of boiling water. The meat was transfixed by the smoke and as the fats and juices dripped free of the animal on the long iron grates they sizzled back into the meat as a fragrant steam. The primitive nature of cooking over wood held the men’s fascination. They could stare deep into flames and silently question its nature. They could see a grey ember flicker orange with the passing of a draft and know that the spirit was moving. Long deep thoughts about the formless energy. It was natural.
The boys down at the hunt camp admired anything B-Bob served up. When he was a young boy, his Grand-Daddy Lewis always brought him along. Somewhere along the line, a few men decided to give B-Bob the title of Kitchen Steward. It was a polite way to let the always hungry and growing boy know they were watching him eat all their food every weekend. Eventually, the honorary title sparked what would be a life-long passion for feeding others what the Huston men called Good Eats. He had a call to it. Not only was he talented at the art and science of food, there was a deep and generous feeling he exuded when he served it to others. The men loved him and their stomachs loved his food.
B-Bob’s sauce was counter to others in the region. As he developed his menu over the years it became known that he got the most smiles from the vinegar based sauce they introduced to him from time up in Chapel Hill with origins farther East. So for years, B-Bob had been making a sauce that everybody loved: a pleasantly hot and tart concoction of red peppers, brown sugar, salt, and vinegar that he let age in white oak barrels for months. An amalgamation of Eastern style sauce and the Louisiana hot sauce that kept a prominent place on the table at hunt camp. Salt and pepper, Tabasco, and saying grace all fixtures on those tables. B-Bob’s little recycled Coke bottles of his sauce earned a place with them for duration. His slaw was simply crisp grated cabbage with the sauce spooned over, a sparse amount of mayonnaise and a little more brown sugar.
Mac helped B-Bob distribute the glowing coals down the cinder block troughs that held the split hogs on grates two feet above them. As Mac piled lumps of embers, B-Bob politely cut them, behind him, into even lines with his spade. The smoke was thick and only two thin lines of sunlight cut through the apertures of dilapidated meat kiln. B-Bob stayed surprisingly clean for someone surrounded by soot. Mac could see his white T-shirt framed by his Pointer Brand overalls. B-Bob was not fat in the normal way you would picture a large person. He had been large as long as they had known him, ever since they were little boys, but even then, little he was not. He was square. Everything about his person was square in every dimension. His torso. Head, mouth, glasses– square. The sound of his winsome voice. When Mac looked at him, he could see every tooth in B-Bob’s square smile. Good ole Robert. A visit with a great lifelong friend. One more piece of a perfect day.
* The Joint is the twelfth chapter in Providence: A Story by William Kelly
An unedited, print on demand and eBook version of Providence is available at: www.Lulu.com/spotlight/WilliamKelly
Copyright William Kelly 2013.