Today we celebrate the recent birthday of one of the Ladies of the cul-de-sac. Her birthday was actually last week but everyone was rushing around preparing for the Memorial Day festivities. Besides, somebody’s birthday is undoubtedly one of the more valuable excuses we have for skipping kitchen duties and gathering at a local restaurant for comestibles and camaraderie. Tuesday the excuse was that it was Tuesday; yesterday someone brought a week’s supply of gumbo from the Farmer’s Market and we were all satiated (gumbo, by the way, makes an excellent spaghetti sauce and if you’re like me where there is always a large Tupperware in the refrigerator full of pre-cooked pasta, it makes for a fast and tasty meal).
Tonight we had one or two amateur barbecue-nibblers from the north so we had to avoid being too ethnic. One of our favorite joints is a few miles north of here and although their barbecue is good, it’s really all the sides that make the meal … that and an open invitation to refill your plates as often as you can. This place started as a weekend-only catering business that opened the steam-bar Friday night and Saturday for locals that didn’t mind the lack of class in the old building that housed the barbecue. They’ve cleaned it up a lot through the years and now even have some matching tables from a diner that redecorated. I would list the sides but they are many and change often, but generally there is fried okra, okra with ‘maters, turnips, collards, steamed cabbage, succotash, cream corn, sweet potato spears, mashed potatoes, fried potatoes (chips), hush puppies, white slaw, red slaw, two or three gelatin salads, ambrosia, banana pud’, peach cobbler, chocolate cake, fried chicken, barbecue, ribs, chicken in gravy, gizzards, knuckles, etc etc etc. On the table is generally a roll of paper towels, a loaf of white bread, and an unlabeled jar of wicked looking peppers. Did I say it was $6.95 a person?
But tonight the place was on the Island where we could sit-down and be served using real plates (most good barbecue joints serve on paper plates … we always bring our own utensils to avoid the inadvertent ingestion of a tine from the plastic fork). This place tonight has about the best brisket in two states. Our large table of friends all ordered the brisket, some got it in combination with ribs, others (myself) went simple but requested the large order. Add sides of collards, sweet potato fries, a nice piece of jalapeño corn bread, and a frosty Diet Coke (no sweet tea for us diabetics) and we have a real feast. Because of the birthday, we even brought along a decadent chocolate cake and everyone had a too-big piece.
One advantage of living in the south is a ready supply of barbecue. In New Jersey we got our first barbecue place about thirty years after I moved there. In the Garden State, however, we did the same routine with diners as we do down here with BBQ: one place had good french toast, another had those big fat sausages, and around here, one has the best ribs, another has the great brisket. If you have a few similar eating spots to select from, you can start to preselect from the menus before you even settle on the restaurant.
I personally enjoy the good southern smoked sausages but this place no longer offers them. In other restaurants I will have those sausages or the catfish or a side of chicken. But tonight it was brisket. If I go out tomorrow, I may stop by another joint and bring home a full-rack of ribs for noshing during the late-night drive-in movie on the cable out of Buffalo … I hope it’s a scary one and not too stupid.