Friday, May 12, 2006

Waiting for Bar-B-Q in Blighty

“Now don’t let your grandmother take you to Agnes and put a permanent in your hair!”

Those were the inevitable parting words of my mother as she handed me over to the Eastern Airlines stewardess in New York whose job it was to get me safely to Raleigh, North Carolina and in to the waiting arms of my grandparents, upstanding members of a small rural community where I spent my summers as a child.

In the eyes of my southern grandmother, all nice little girls should look exactly like Shirley Temple. Those who didn’t were taken to Agnes, local hairdresser and purveyor of extremely permanent permanents. Like punctuation, Agnes marked the beginning and end of my summers. She was the first stop on my ride into town and the last person I saw before being shipped back North. Agnes is as much a part of my North Carolina summers as cicadas, horses, tobacco auctions, sweet tea and barbeque.

Speaking of barbeque, today, I am sitting at my PC, waiting for Agnes' daughter, Jean Stanley Howell, to arrive here in London with two pounds of the finest barbeque in the world, all the way from Stephensons Bar-B-Q, established in Willows Springs, North Carolina in 1958. Eastern Carolina BBQ which is slow roasted pork in a spicy vinegar sauce deserves its cult status. It is simply the most divine thing ever created to put in your mouth. Period.

However, as this blog is ostensibly about sharing authentic and uncrowded experiences in Europe, I must, at last, get to my point. If the urge to eat barbeque overtakes you, even in London, you can do something about it. Homesick Carolinians and others head to either the Arkansas Café in Spitalfield Market or Bodeans Smokehouse with three locations in Soho, Fulham Broadway and Clapham.

If you are homesick for atmosphere, head for the Arkansas Café where Bubba, the proprietor, is straight out of Forest Gump. You can have a nice conversation about things. On the edge of Spitalfields market, the people watching is big fun. If the BBQ were better, it would be perfect.

If its really fine pulled pork you are after, head for Bodeans BBQ. Although the owners claim to be inspired by what they learned in Kansas City (good God, what does that have to do with BBQ?) however they do it, these guys know how to cook pig. Skip the bread for the sandwich and the cornbread, both of which are rubbish and ignore the “faux” Americana décor. I won’t say anything against the TVs perpetually tuned to sports channels because that is pretty authentic. What I will say is that the pulled pork and vinegary North Carolina sauce is superb.

And a final word of caution, don’t get suckered into the Big Easy on the Kings Road if you’re looking for authentic food or atmosphere or any of the supposedly “Tex-Mex” places around town. They may make a mean margarita but they don’t know the first thing about BBQ.

So come on Jean Stanley Howell from Smithfield, North Carolina, hurry up with that Bar-B-Q. I’m hungry and I do believe my hair is starting to frizz.

On a related note, today marks the 55th anniversary of the wedding of my parents, at the Baptist Church in Smithfield, North Carolina where plenty of barbeque was served to disbelieving Yankees. I'm very grateful for this happy marriage and my long association with the South without which, I suppose, I would just be another Northerner without much to say.

Arkansas Café
107B Commercial Street
Old Spitalfields Market
Tel: 0207 377 6999
Fax: 0207 377 6990


10 Poland Street
Tel: 0207 287 7575
Fax: 0207 287 4342

169 Clapham High Street
Tel: 0207 622 4248
Fax: 0207 622 3087

4 Broadway Chambers
Fulham Broadway
Tel: 0207 610 0440

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