Road Foodie

Some people drive simply to arrive.

The Pork Tour, Day 6: Durham, North Carolina

Posted By on March 25, 2009

Crazy for a pig, that's me. Ben too.

Crazy for a pig, that's me. Ben too.

Some time back, I’d heard that Ben Barker did a “crazy pork dish,” and thus my detour away from the direct route up to New York, and down to Durham for the final day of the Pork Tour. John Currence (Day 3)—actual originator of the crazy pork rumor—also told me that Ben is the chef (and man) he’d like to grow up to be. When I arrive at the perennially popular Magnolia Grill to visit with Ben, he and I track down what John must have been talking about: Ben cooked the Saturday lunch during the Southern Foodways Alliance conference on Barbecue, in Oxford.
Ben Barker.

Ben Barker.

“It’s like being asked to cook lunch for the Queen, as far as I’m concerned. We did smoked pork cheeks on a Brunswick Stew with butterbeans; the dish invokes all the elements you find in North Carolina barbecue, but in a more elevated style.” Johnny Apple, a mentor and early patron of the Magnolia Grill (“One of the great human beings on the planet”), was in the group, and Ben was honored to be cooking for him.
“I’m not sure that’s a crazy pork dish, but at the time it might have seemed a little convoluted.” Though best known for including squirrel (ie, rats with a good PR company), Brunswick Stew takes different form wherever it’s discovered across the South, kind of like cassoulet in France. day6pig
With the cheeks, Ben started with an ethereal, silky-fat feel, and then added a little smoke on top of it. He’s preachin’ to the choir, with me. I tell Ben about the middlin at Ricky Parker’s (Day 4 ), and he shares a tip about another whole hog master nearby: Ed Mitchell, at The Pit in Raleigh. “Pure Piggyness,” says Ben.
(Evidently, Ed works with the skin as well, something most pork southern barbecue masters don’t bother with. Being originally of the Tuscan school of pork, I have something of a crispy skin fetish, so hearing about Ed Mitchell starts me pondering the next pork tour even before I’ve finished this one. Home and husband beckon, so it won’t be on this trip, even though Raleigh is only a few tantalizing miles away. Almost smellin’ distance.)

The Magnolia Grill, in a southwest Durham neighborhood

The Magnolia Grill, in a southwest Durham neighborhood

In a few weeks, Ben will be going ramp picking with my buddy-in-ham from yesterday, Allan Benton. “Foraging is a very cool thing I want to do more of,” he says, and ramps and bacon—especially Allan’s—are his idea of heaven. This is a man who thinks pork. A lot. His license plate reads “Pig Daddy,” and his e-mail features elements of the same phrase. As someone who cares, he has quite a lot to say about heirloom breeds, humane treatment of meat animals, and the feed-lots. “I’m both proud and embarrassed to be from North Carolina,” he says, referring to the infamous operations that mar the landscape and reputation of certain massive-scale pork farmers in Tar Heel. Here, as is my wont, I begin to wax enthusiastic about the flavor superiority of the old breeds and the need for happy living conditions for pigs (plus humane handling of their departure from said conditions). Most of the pork barbecue in the south is made with feed-lot pigs, and more and more people believe this must eventually stop. I needn’t go on: Ben’s been putting his money where his morals are when it comes to buying pork for over eleven years. We agree that more chefs, an intelligent audience, and more pig and pork lovers must take up this banner. Lots of farmers he knows are already trying hard to meet the need, he says. “Stand on your soapbox and sing loud, Brigit,” Ben tells me. Happy to.
Busy, piggy kitchen on a Friday night.

Busy, piggy kitchen on a Friday night.


Ben and I chew the fat for a good forty-five minutes before I turn my attention to the menu. (I could chat all day and night with this warm and pork-forward southern gent, but it’s Friday night and of course Ben’s needed in the kitchen.) I’m here to eat pork, preferably as fatty as possible, and, since Ben, famously, always offers a pork belly appetizer, I don’t have much decision-making to do. Today, it’s Smoked Eden Farm Berkshire Pork Belly in Sorghum-Bourbon Glaze on Baby Butterbean Fondue with Red Mustard Greens and Pickled Turnips. After the excessive smokiness I experienced earlier on the Pork Tour, it is fine indeed to be in the hands of a chef who is certainly not afraid of flavor but also sees no need to hit you over the head with it. The chunk of belly is generous and gelatinous, just the way I like it, and the butterbean fondue a perfect foil for its fabulous fattiness. The greens and turnips, nice nods to North Carolina—also add their slightly bitter-sweet notes to the performance. I am, uncharacteristically, silent, immersed briefly in the safety and satiety triggered by my prehistoric genes as soon as they sense such richness on the tongue.
Wisdom imparted.

Wisdom imparted.

When I’m alone, I often eat at the bar, and talk with anyone I can collar, plus of course the bartender. Here, my bartender Tom (Maxwell) reveals that he is late of the esteemed band Squirrel Nut Zippers. Parenthood and the resulting lack of enthusiasm for the touring life has led to his current stint at the Magnolia Grill, where his professionalism and enthusiastic welcome mark him immediately as worthy of my national list of Best Bartenders. It’s a very different life from playing and touring with a hot jazz band, of course, and perhaps not quite where Tom imagined himself at this point. The music man offers me words of wisdom, in the language of the wise ones, on a cocktail napkin—not the first time profound words have been conveyed via such a medium. (See above.) In other words, “In adversity, opportunity.”
Karen's tart.

Karen's tart.


Those who know me well and dine with me often are aware that dessert is not my chosen terrain. So when Ben said “Karen wants to be sure you try her tart,” I did not immediately bounce on my barstool in anticipation. But I have not reckoned on two crucial things: One, Ben’s wife Karen Barker is a Beard-award-winning Best Pastry Chef, and Two, there is bacon in the tart. Hmmm. Although I have requested a child-sized portion of Karen’s Maple Bacon Nut Tart with Cinnamon Cream-Cheese Ice Cream, I immediately consume the whole portion and then gaze hungrily toward the kitchen. “I don’t think I see any child sitting at my bar,” comments Tom.

Today’s Question: Is the word “chat” a contraction of “chew the fat”?

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