How can you not love a place that has five little neon piggies running across its storefront? Given my love of bacon and, really, all things pork -- I managed to work "the other white meat" into no fewer than three dishes at Christmas -- it should come as no surprise that one of my must-eat places when I went East for the holidays was a barbecue joint.
When I was a kid, my folks would pile Little Brother, Little Sister and me into the car at least once a month to drive two hours south to an itty-bitty North Carolina town called Roanoke Rapids. My mother had grown up there and her parents and extended family live there still. When in R-squared, we'd pack as many of our relatives as would fit around my grandmother's long dining room table for dinner. The food that fed our crowd -- long slabs of salty Virginia ham, casserole dishes full of macaroni and cheese with Saltines crunched up on top, two kinds of slaw, jello salads quivering in every color of the rainbow, soft yeast rolls folded into half-moons -- came rolling out from her kitchen and from my great aunt Margaret's kitchen next door.
Occasionally we gave my grandmother and Margaret a break from the stoves by heading out to local restaurants. Taylor's Fish House or Rosemary Restaurant are both closed now, but I loved them dearly, from deep-fried clam strips and the bathrooms at the fish house -- "gulls" for me and Little Sister, "buoys" for Little Brother -- to the way Charlie Thanos, who owned Rosemary Restaurant, would make me blush by telling me that I had the biggest, bluest, most beautiful eyes he'd ever seen.
One of those dinners was inevitably at Ralph's Barbecue. While all the grown-ups chowed down on barbecue and Brunswick stew, I stayed in blander, safer pastures of deep-fried scallops. One time I veered from my standard, and it was a disaster. Ordering the "fried chicken sandwich" produced a deep-fried chicken breast, bone and all, with a thin slice of white bread underneath and another one flapping about on top like a flimsy hat. Little Sister and I looked at each other when it was served and, if memory serves, I burst into tears. Scallops it was from then on out.
But in recent years I've developed a taste for barbecue and wanted desperately to eat what my family considers the world's best. The holiday trip to R-squared was to be a day-trip, and we couldn't even consider passing up the local burger and hot dog mecca for lunch, so we settled for picking up some Ralph's on the way home.
The to-go space isn't much to holler about -- a couple of naugahyde-covered chairs and an ancient menu board with stick-on letters -- but the food sings out like a gospel choir on their way to meet the Baby Jesus. The barbecue is moist but not dripping in sauce, and can be ordered sliced or chopped (which is most folks' preference). It's been served since 1941, first by founder Ralph Woodruff, later by his offspring, and is meant to be eaten bite-for-bite with sweet cole slaw. The designation "sweet" means the slaw is made with finely diced cabbage, sugar, mustard, mayonnaise, apple cider vinegar and salt -- no grated carrot or other veg to sully it.
Then there's the Brunswick stew, a creation from Brunswick County, Virginia that dates back to 1828 (though Brunswick, Georgia would dispute that claim). Brunswick stew was traditionally made with squirrel meat, but the modern version is a thick slurry of shredded pork and chicken, butter beans, tomatoes and corn. The sweet corn tames the stew's tanginess and since the meat is shredded, it mingles with the other flavors rather than asserting itself in showy hunks.
The meal wouldn't be complete without hush puppies, deep-fried balls of cornmeal that are often served in place of bread. After we placed our order, which included a quarter of a fried chicken so Mr. Food Musings could taste the real deal, Little Sister chirped up, "...and two sweet teas, please." That's right, sweet tea. If you ever order tea in the South, be prepared to specify if you want yours sweetened -- and most do. It's brewed with sugar from the outset, which helps the sugar dissolve and melt into the tea without the need for additional stirring at serving time.
And so we drove home with the smells of barbecue coming from the back seat. Our coolers were packed with two quarts each of stew, slaw and barbecue, and the hush puppies were passed around the car while they were still hot. My parents take the back roads, preferring to go the "old way," and as we munched our hush puppies we watched the nearly barren winter countryside roll past, the trees nothing more than thin sticks silhouetted against a sky first gray with rain, later midnight blue. Eventually it turned pitch black, since most of the small towns we drove through are too poor to worry with broken and busted streetlights, but the stars were out in full force.
Dinner, when we finally ate it, was a feast. With greasy fingers, we fed ourselves morsels of moist chicken coated in a crunchy, flaky fried crust; while the stew reheated, we mounded up heaps of chopped barbecue with slaw on top. I'd traveled 5,114 air miles and another 4 hours in the car for a few bites of succulent pork and a spoonful of stew. All that for a perfect bite of yesteryear, and worth every bit of the journey.
Ralph's Barbecue, North Carolina, 1400 Julian Allsbrook Highway in Weldon (2 blocks East of I-95), 252.536.2102