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North Carolina

Allen confessed that he rarely ate barbecue; his real appetite was for the labor itself. "I just taste a little," he said. "I don't want to spoil my palate." I followed his lead, tasting a pork sandwich, a helping of ribs, and several of the 23 desserts on the menu, which Allen had baked himself. The pork sandwich looked moon-size, on a large sesame seed bun, but the ribs held the strong hickory flavor better. In the neatly appointed restaurant (the main color motif was a soothing Mylanta green), prim university professors feasted on Allen's barbecue delicacies, next to portly sheriff's deputies, who kept their radios blaring as they ate. A tasty hush puppy is a rare thing, but Allen served them round, like golf balls, and fried to a feathery crisp. The vanilla ice cream that accompanied his pies was made fresh daily, in an electric churn. "I look for the mom-and-pop shops when I travel," he said. "That's where the pride is. There ain't no pride in no franchise outlet."

The franchise signs grew tall as palm trees along Interstate 40, on the way to Lexington, but inside the modest little town (pop. 16,500), they seemed to disappear altogether. Lexington is under an hour's drive southwest of Greensboro, on the southern edge of the hilly Carolina piedmont country. Furniture making is the largest regional industry (you can see one of the world's biggest chairs, down Route 85 in Thomasville), but barbecue is the town's peculiar passion. Local purists trace their taste for chopped pork back to Sid Weaver and Warner Stamey, barbecue impresarios who opened diners in the town many decades ago. The Stamey dynasty has since moved on, mainly to Greensboro, but his acolytes, like Wayne Monk and Jimmy Harvey, stayed behind to set up pit-cooking operations of their own. Today, the Lexington Yellow Pages list 16 active barbecue joints, plus a world-famous annual barbecue festival, which convenes on the county courthouse steps every October.

Wayne Monk, founder and proprietor of the renowned Lexington Barbecue, reckoned he sold more than three tons of barbecue per week. "I can serve you chopped, sliced, coarse-chopped, fine white, brown or fat barbecue," he said, as the public filed dutifully into his tidy clapboard restaurant, like parishioners into church. Semi-retired now, at age 64, Monk looked spry for a barbecue man, and his gold-rimmed glasses gave him a studious air. "Chopped" was more or less a regular pork sandwich, he explained. "Sliced" was a thick, lean cut, and a "brown" sandwich comprised the crispy edges of the shoulder. I ordered "brown sliced," with a sliver of pork crackling on top, then Monk took me back to the pits to show how it was done. He cut a crispy portion from a freshly cooked shoulder, and presented it to me on the end of a fork. The meat was pinkish, instead of the usual over-barbecued brown, and tasted succulent to the point of sweetness. "You see what I mean," he said when he saw my eyes light up. "We get spoiled for the best."

Although Monk has a national barbecue reputation, he remains faithful to his quirky, local clientele. "Lexington people are very discerning about their barbecue," he said. "We work our butts off because they demand it." Carhop service was available at Lexington Barbecue, at the Barbecue Center on North Main Street, and at Speedy's on Winston Road, among other establishments. A coarse-chopped sandwich at Speedy's cost $2.75, came with a cup of red dipping sauce and was the size of a duckpin bowling ball. At Jimmy's, off the I-85 business loop, the menu featured "livermush," an intestinal pork delicacy, which locals called "redneck pate." Jimmy Harvey, who had been in the barbecue business longer than anyone in Lexington (41 years, compared to 36 for Monk), thought I might prefer his pit-cooked barbecued chicken instead. But when I asked him for specific tips on the best barbecue in town, he gave a little chuckle. "I can't help you, sonny," he said. "It's all good!"

THAT WAS MORE or less my sentiment, as I swerved, late that afternoon, toward Shelby, the last stop on my tour. Shelby sits in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, perilously close, on the North Carolina barbecue map, to the rib-eating apostates in Tennessee. Old-line aficionados, like Pete Jones, tend to regard this territory with the same blase suspicion Manhattanites reserve for New Jersey. But Shelby was colonized, decades back, by two families named Bridges, both of whom traced their pit-cooking lineage back to Warner Stamey, in Lexington. Red Bridges, founder of the Bridges Barbecue Lodge, by Route 74, had learned his craft from Stamey himself, and the folks at Alston Bridges Barbecue, downtown on Grover Street, were related to the Stamey clan by marriage. "The Stameys' mother was my daddy's sister," explained Alston's son, Kent. "When you're in the North Carolina barbecue business, things can get pretty confusing."

Although the Bridges patriarchs have passed on, their restaurants survive as shrines to the ancient way of doing things. At Alston Bridges Barbecue, the walls were lined with portraits of three generations of the barbecue-cooking Bridges family, and at the Barbecue Lodge, it was still possible to buy a deviled egg sandwich and a bottle of peach Ne-Hi for less than $3.

After four days on the road, however, my own eating habits were firmly set. My pork bloat had been replaced by a sense of merry abandon, and I swaggered between these last barbecue joints like a cowpoke on a farewell tour of western saloons. I ordered up elaborate trays of pork, pausing to clean my palate with cool bites of cole slaw.

I bolted down the Pork-Coarse-Chop-Brown-Special at Alston Bridges, and when I reached the Bridges Barbecue Lodge, the sun was setting, and the evening air smelled of wood smoke and apple vinegar. The restaurant's Art Deco decor had not changed since the '50s, and the short-order menu from those days had not changed either.

I took a seat at the lunch counter and ordered a final pork sandwich as the dinner crowd came in. The cut was chopped brown, I dimly recall, still hot and topped high with a crown of cole slaw. "I guarantee it tastes like it did 30 years ago," smiled Debbie Bridges-Webb, whose father, Red, founded the Lodge in 1946. "That's what keeps bringing people back."

It was my 14th sandwich in four days, I calculated, and after I'd savored it bite by bite, I gave her a glazed look. "Thank you, ma'am," I heard myself say in a weird Carolina twang. "I think I'll take one more for the road."

Getting There

To get to the Skylight Inn, drive south out of Greenville, N.C., to Ayden, turn right on South Lee Street and look for the trademark plywood dome (252-746-4113). B's Barbecue and Grill had no telephone when last I was there. It's located north of Greenville, on State Route 43. Order the chicken before anything else. Scott's Famous Barbecue is on North William Street, running into Goldsboro from U.S. Route 70. It's got to be the tidiest barbecue joint in the Carolinas (919-734-0711). Lexington Barbecue is on the outskirts of Lexington, on U.S. Route 29-70, off the I-85 business loop. The coarse brown chopped is best (336-249-9814). Bridges Barbecue Lodge sits among the old motels and strip malls along U.S. Route 74 running through Shelby. Look for the lovely neon sign (704-482-8567). -- A.P.

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