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The Man Vs BBQ Challenge

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When faced with the best pork in the US, Ben Isaacs does the only sensible thing you can do: keep eating

If one day you find yourself drinking moonshine at lunchtime on a weekday – after eating a plate of chopped pork, ribs and hush puppies (fried corn balls) – something has gone very wrong or very right. If you’re doing this with a revered pitmaster at the home of baseball’s Durham Bulls, the answer is obvious: you’ve hit a home run. Probably with a bat made of pork. In the states of North and South Carolina, the hog is king. But how much can one man actually eat?

Days 1-2: Charleston

The adventure starts in Charlotte, the Carolinas’ largest city, and the area’s only true metropolis. But even its airport has a down-home, genteel southern charm. White rocking chairs are everywhere, making my wait for a connecting flight south to Charleston more like an afternoon sipping iced tea.

South Carolina’s oldest city is a foodie haven, but fine dining is off my agenda. The first stop is Home Team BBQ (hometeambbq.com), home of what have been hailed the “most life-changing ribs in America”. Imagine the shame of only having the nation’s ‘second most life-changing ribs’.

The place is packed and noisy, and I order, well, everything. Home Team BBQ is like a greatest hits of barbecue styles, lovingly prepared, cooked low and slow. Hot wings, brisket, smoked turkey, ribs, pulled pork – with beer from nearby Holy City Brewing and a bourbon/rye blend from Jefferson’s.

Before I flew out, I had to explain that this wasn’t an attempt to see how much I could consume each day. My focus was quality not quantity. That’s all well and good until you’re handed huge portions of dishes that all require just one more bite. This is comfort food, but I feel rather uncomfortable after one too many ribs.

The next morning brings about another bad decision when I set out early to run off some of the previous night’s meat. Not only is it 32C at 7am, but I also convince myself the exercise warrants a breakfast of omelette, home fries, French toast, biscuits (the Deep South scone-like confections, not Rich Teas) and cheese-and-bacon grits. The great meal at Toast (toastofcharleston.com) fills me with guilt, not due to its calorie count but because I feel I’m being unfaithful to barbecue. But options are limited in that regard at 9am.

At any other time, barbecue food and savoury southern specialities are easy to come by. A lunchtime trip to high-end sandwich shop Butcher & Bee (butcherandbee.com) finds pulled pork on its daily changing blackboard, before a bourbon with a ‘perfect’ spherical ice non-cube at Husk (huskrestaurant.com) and dinner at upmarket local institution Poogan’s Porch (poogansporch.com), where tender barbecue brisket is king.

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Day 3: Durham

It’s time to head north across state lines. Destination: the Research Triangle Region. It may sound more lab coats than brisket and bourbon, but the college towns have a barbecue tradition that predates scientific breakthroughs. Durham’s economy was once based on tobacco, and factories have been converted into leisure areas, with the new baseball stadium (to replace the decrepit park featured in Bull Durham) a highlight. Hip locals flock to The Pit (thepit-durham.com), a whole-hog enterprise with a rooftop bar. A former pitmaster there, Ed Mitchell, is now in business with his son Ryan (a disillusioned Credit Suisse investment banker), and the pair have just left a small restaurant with a view to taking over a large, modern space.

Nearby Bullock’s Bar-B-Que is a different proposition. Owner Tommy Bullock describes it as a “southern restaurant” – regional staples such as beany brunswick stew share space with the customary pulled pork on his massive menu. The walls are covered in signed pictures of celebrity visitors (although Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly had takeout delivered), with Robert Duvall a regular.

Day 4: Lexington

Even if you’re some dangerous subversive who hates barbecue, Charleston and Durham are fantastic places to visit, but I can’t imagine Lexington existing without its slow-cooked pork. Having said that, the local council is pretty switched-on, adding lots of free public Wi-Fi, and Main Street could pass for a Hollywood film set.

But it’s the barbecue joints that caused an international festival (barbecuefestival.com) to be held here. These guys are laser-focused on the local style: pork shoulder (chopped, coarse chopped or sliced) in a vinegar-based red sauce, served with red slaw and hush puppies. Bar-B-Que Center (barbecuecenter.com) and Lexington Barbecue (lexbbq.com) have been the standard bearers for decades. When I turn up, both are rammed with loyal regulars. At Lexington Barbecue I’m told Bill Clinton has eaten everything on the menu (a mental image I have no problem conjuring), but that his favourite item is the peach cobbler. It truly is something special – but perhaps I’m just savouring the novelty of a dish without pork. Rival Speedy’s (speedysbbqinc.com) cooks using electricity rather than wood fires – a no-no for purists – but I defy you to tell the difference. I eat at all three in one day, and wonder if anyone has ever done this before. Or done it and lived.

Late that night, I end up in a bar cornered by a one-eyed man who claims to have connections all over town. An out-of-towner hears us talking about local restaurants and asks why the barbecue joints ignore beef. The one-eyed man gives me a look that says ‘Can you believe this lunatic?’ and goes off to lecture him on pork’s superiority.

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Day 5: Charlotte

As I fly home from Charlotte the next afternoon, I start to get nervous about the contents of my suitcase. I have an unwise number of glass bottles containing regional barbecue sauces wrapped up in my clothes, and to an overeager TSA agent it probably screams ‘dirty bomb’. I’m not sure what to expect when I land. Once the case is retrieved from the carousel, I open it up, my heart pounding, fearing my precious sauces have been confiscated. But they’re intact – the TSA hasn’t even opened my case. There can only be one explanation: once you’re in with the one-eyed man, you’ve got diplomatic immunity. I vow to raise a bourbon with spherical ice to him at home. 

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THE DETAILS

Fly: British Airways, US Airways and American Airlines fly from the UK to Charlotte; connecting flights to Charleston take around an hour

Stay: Mills House, 15 Meeting Street, Charleston, SC 29401; millshouse.com; DoubleTree Suites by Hilton, 2515 Meridian Parkway, Durham, NC 27713; doubletree3.hilton.com; Country Hearth Inn, 1525 Cotton Grove Rd, Lexington, NC 27292; countryhearth.com

Need to know: Plan your own barbecue tour of the US at discoveramerica.com. For more on North and South Carolina, see uk.visitnc.com and discoversouthcarolina.com/united-kingdom

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