It’s been 10 years since I last ate at your fine establishment, but I can still see the teal blue vinyl that covers your booths and chairs. It’s a shade of blue that belongs to a different era, which is appropriate, as so do you. And of course, I can smell the hickory smoke and the sharp jabs of vinegar that accompany every tray that emerges from your kitchen.
A love letter to North Carolina’s Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge
It was October 2002, and my husband and I were in your home town of Shelby, N.C. — my first trip back there in decades and his first ever — for the wedding of our friends Sean and Kristin. Kristin is a local girl whose parents still live in Shelby. Sean grew up in Connecticut, the same state my husband is from. My husband and I joked that their marriage, like ours, would be a mixed marriage: a Northern boy and a Southern girl, of course.
Back in Brooklyn, where we all lived and still do, Kristin and I had been amazed at and laughed over the fact that I had grown up in neighboring Boiling Springs, and that my parents were both graduates of Gardner-Webb, a Baptist college that is now a university, located in the sleeping heart of that little town. “Town” is perhaps too expansive a word for Boiling Springs. I once called it a “freckle” in an essay. It was the most neutral-sounding, diminutive word I could think of for it. My relationship to Boiling Springs is complicated, but so is my relationship to you and, therefore, the writing of this letter.
Over the course of that long weekend, my husband and I ate at your establishment three times, and that’s really saying something given the packed schedule of meals, receptions and parties that Kristin and her family had arranged for us out-of-town wedding guests. My husband and I attended them all but also made time in our day and room in our stomachs for your Jumbo Plate: pork shoulder, fork-tender from its overnight sojourn on the pit. In the vernacular of your menu, I ordered mine “chopped” with a mix of “white and brown” meat. I didn’t know about the “crunchy brown” option back then, which would have added crispy, fat-rendered bits of skin to the mix. I knew enough, though, to order extra sauce.
As you know, yours is North Carolina Piedmont-style barbecue sauce at its finest. If you’ll forgive me while I slip into the language of food writers (we too have a vernacular of our own), Bridges, your sauce has a top note, a middle and a base. What Italian perfumers call the testa, corpo and fondo. The top is, of course, the vinegar. It’s there to invigorate the taste buds; slap them to attention, if you will. The middle note is undoubtedly tomato, either ketchup or paste. It’s a velveteen, light touch, a make-up kiss after the physicality of the vinegar. The base note is the reassuring warmth of spices easily found in any American kitchen. Nonetheless, it’s your secret, which I’ve tried to uncover in my own kitchen many times since. I’ve a deep appreciation for the elusive, a profound respect for flavors that play hide-and-seek with my tongue. I’ve tried sweet paprika, black pepper, a bit of brown sugar, a wink of cayenne. I’ve come close but have never matched it. The obvious conclusion, of course, is that your sauce — any barbecue sauce worth licking off your fingers, in fact — does not sing alone. Sauce needs its pig. And there’s no way I would try to conjure up your pit-cooked pig in Brooklyn. I’m persistent, but I’m no fool.