A landmark was razed to the ground last week.
It had existed in its present location for less than 20 years, which means the building itself was not the landmark so much as it represented the landmark institution that lived within. Before moving into its more modern building in the 1990s, it resided in a rundown little shack only a little ways away.
I first ate at the restaurant in 1990 when I was a wet-behind-the-ears newspaper reporter and the rundown shack was still its home. It was my introduction to several Southern staples, including Carolina barbeque, the classic Carolina-style hamburger, the grilled chicken sandwich with mayo and pickles, sweet and tangy baked beans, greasy green beans prepared with chunks of bacon, and hushpuppies. Whatever you do, don't forget the hushpuppies.
Being a Yankee born and bred, hushpuppies were not known to me as being delectable balls of cornbread lovingly deep fried and served by the dozen in tiny plastic baskets. Hush Puppies were a brand of shoe. More specifically, they were the brown or black leather loafers our parents made us wear to church on Sundays or to school for class pictures. They were not soft and chewy. They did not smell like fry grease and cornbread. They were hard, smelled like feet, and caused blisters to form on the backs of our heels.
It is as incontrovertible as the wetness of water that John's Barbecue served the lightest, fluffiest, sweetest hushpuppies ever known to man. Some people don't care for them light and fluffy and sweet. Some people like their cornbread to resemble packed sand with a flavor to match. Those people are fools.
John understood how to treat his cornmeal like a gentleman should. He showered it with sweetness, formed it gently into golden nuggets, protected them from over-cooking, and served them piping hot.
The best thing to do with one of John's hushpuppies was to take a bite out of it and use the remaining portion as a scoop for the baked beans. Forget peanut butter and chocolate, these two tastes were beyond great together. Hot and tangy baked beans swimming in a thick, brown, sugary sauce that soaked into the nooks and crannies of the cake-like fried cornbread. My mouth waters just thinking about it.
Unfortunately, for reasons unimportant to this blog, the restaurant has slowly been withering away over the past few years. Like an old hound hanging back from the hunt, it seemed to lose its will to continue with the old traditions. For me, the restaurant became a ghost long before it died.
In it's place they will erect a Cracker Barrel. A fine restaurant with some excellent food, certainly. But their cornbread crumbles to sawdust in your hands, and to the best of my knowledge they don't even list hushpuppies on the menu.
The passing of an era takes a toll on people in different ways. If you were to survey the former patrons of John's Barbecue about what they will miss most, you would probably receive a broad range of responses. Some will miss the camaraderie of old friends at their favorite haunt, some will miss the smiling faces that served them faithfully all those years, and some might even miss the pig-themed decor.
I will miss the hushpuppies. Rest in peace, little doggies. Rest in peace.
© 2010 Mark Feggeler