The pork was pre-chopped and piled into a metal container on a steam table. I eyed the menu, which had a title: “Down Home Cookin’.”
“I’ll have a pork sandwich,” I said.
“What?” the server responded.
I pointed at the mound of brown meat. “Pork sandwich?” I repeated.
She spooned a hefty portion onto a hamburger bun.
“Sauce?” she said.
Sauce? I hesitated.
I was off my game. Not my sauce-on-the-side game. My game-game. I was in an airport, ordering faux Carolina ’cue, and I was lost. Technically, I suppose, I was in Charlotte. But the
capital of (*) North Carolina city is itself lost, barbecue-speaking. It does not adhere to one of the state’s famously partisan styles, whether eastern or western. As a city within one of the great barbecue regions, Charlotte is regarded as a barbecue embarrassment. If Charlotte were a relative, it’d be the one everyone wished didn’t come to Thanksgiving.
But here it was, all, “Hey, guys, can I play?”
Worse, I was in an airport. An airport anywhere is a place nowhere. To be in the nowhere that is an airport, in the nowhere that is Charlotte, is to be marooned, like David Bowie’s Major Tom.
Disoriented in this placeless place, I forgot — or, more precisely, didn’t know — how to order. If I were in eastern North Carolina, I’d get the sandwich the way they serve it: sprinkled with pepper vinegar and topped with a mayonnaise-based coleslaw. If I were in western North Carolina, I’d do the same: Take it as they give me, damp with a ketchup-vinegar “dip” and crowned with a similarly dip-flavored coleslaw.
But I was neither east nor west. The twain had met, and the twaining was cataclysmic, expressed in my mind as an uncontrollable repetition of cliches, like Tourette’s:
There was no there there.
The center could not hold.
Have it your way.
Finally, I gathered myself. I don’t want it my way! I want it the right way. But here in nowhere, there is no right way.
The server glanced up at me, suspending the ladle by the sauce pot.
“Sure,” I said. “A little.”
She listened, which surprised me. She did not drench the sandwich in the thick red sauce, but rather dabbed it on.
“Thank you,” I said.
The next server asked what sides I wanted. “None,” I said. “Just the sandwich.”
“Same price,” she said.
“All right, then I’ll have the greens.”
She asked this question after putting the greens on my black plastic plate, and I realized that slaw, as it should be here in North Carolina, simply came with the meal, if you wanted it. It was not a side dish.
“Sure,” I said.
“On top or on the side?”
“Side,” I said.
Immediately, I scolded myself: “On the side? You know better than that.”
“Yeah, in a real place,” I responded to my inner critic. “This is a fake place. Taste the meat, taste the slaw, then decide what to do.”
Stepping carefully to not trip over a suitcase, I carried my plate to a table. I noticed that there was something fried on the plate. A hush puppy, I thought. I took a bite. No, a fried pickle.
The pickle was actually a pleasant surprise. So was the sandwich. The shreds of pork had more texture than I would have expected. It was not just a wet pile of mush. Little crisped exterior pieces were mixed in for a faint crunch. And, amazingly, there was even a more-than-faint smoke flavor. The coleslaw was generic and overly sweet. So was the barbecue sauce. The bun was soft and held its shape, even as I took my time eating the sandwich.
In other words, for a sandwich from nowhere, this was not bad. More than that, despite everything, this sandwich almost transported me to somewhere in North Carolina.
Remember, this is an airport. That’s the point here.
I’d like to know the airports with good — okay, halfway decent; oh, all right, edible — barbecue. Do you have a favorite place? Do you have a go-to dish at that place? Finally, I’d like to know if what you ate had any sense of place, if you could tell someone that having, say, the ribs at wherever or the brisket at somewhere else was not a half-bad representation of the region.
Let me know in the comments below. I will eventually compile a list and provide it for our hungry barbecue road warriors.
Send your tips, ideas, opinions to email@example.com. Follow me on Twitter @jimshahin.
* Correction: Raleigh is the capital of North Carolina, not Charlotte.