So here’s a negative chapter. These happen sometimes.
So I was off on another circumnavigation, only this one wasn’t a great big loop like the previous four. It was a seven hour drive followed by two days of zig-zagging and then back the way that I came. My objective: eastern North Carolina, and the heralded whole hog cooking that so many writers have celebrated. From Atlanta, the most sensible way to the promised land of Ayden and Farmville is to take I-20 all the way to its end near Florence SC and then north up I-95. I estimated this drive as about 1200 miles, total. A quarter of the mileage done, approaching Florence, my spirits were low. This was a bear of a drive, and I couldn’t afford the time to stop and smell the roses in the cities along the way, just make quick stops. Some of these joints on the agenda closed kind of early.
330 miles in, I stopped at Wholly Smokin’ in Florence for a quick lunch. They were closed, pending a move to a new location. My spirits sagged even more. I decided to use Urbanspoon to find the nearest barbecue joint, and that’s how I ended up at Roger’s Barbecue, about two miles away.
I don’t want to linger on unpleasantness; it’s just understood that, on any given two-day jaunt, visiting eleven barbecue joints, I’m going to enjoy one of them the least, and that’s what happened here. Roger’s is a buffet restaurant with a separate door for carry-out orders. The meat on my sandwich was cooked in that style I don’t enjoy: simmering for too long in a tomato-vinegar sauce that completely permeates the meat and, left in a steam tray, results in meat that doesn’t taste like smoke, or like anything, really. And the texture was mushy, like grocery store barbecue-in-a-bucket sold to people who don’t know better. I was reminded of a 1980 episode of Judge Dredd in which an entrepreneur explains that he’s expanding his empire of foodstuffs with a new pre-chewed line for the toothless.
And then there was the side of hash and rice that turned out to be a cup full of rice with about a soup spoon’s worth of hash poured atop it. For the price – a sandwich and side is $8.25 – I expected substantially less rice than what I got.
Overall, this was my second stop in Florence, following a huge letdown at Schoolhouse two years ago, and my second disappointment with the city’s barbecue. Fortunately, better things in the region would be in store for me on the next day, but I had to drive past South of the Border twice, going and coming back, to get there. You’re aware of South of the Border, I’m sure. It’s a gigantic truck stop turned tourist trap that revels in quite dated stereotypes, but it is notable, despite its garish and flagrant awfulness, as being a place to stop for a Blenheim ginger ale.
Alan Schafer, who started South of the Border, loved Blenheim, which is apparently South Carolina’s “only native soft drink” to have any distribution, and which was foundering at the end of the 1980s after some ownership changes left it rudderless. Schafter bought the company in 1993 and moved its production facilities to the South of the Border complex. There are, I believe, five different restaurants on the grounds of South of the Border, and Blenheim is sold in each of them, as well as in the sundries and convenience stores.
The most frequently-visited restaurant at South of the Border is probably Hot Tamale, which is open 24 hours and sells tacos which bring to mind the output of a public school lunchroom. I had one bite without the hot sauce and one bite with it, and thankfully, Blenheim is so spicy and so powerful that it nullified any trace of the food’s flavor. The restaurant also offers nachos and hot dogs, and I have very, very little interest in ever sampling them. I left, sucking down Blenheim and trying not to be numbed by the monotony of the long, long drive and the lousy food in the Pee Dee region of the state.
It took another two hours to arrive in the town of Wilson for my first sampling of eastern North Carolina barbecue. I was in a bad mood. This drive had taken a lot out of me, and I was tired. I spent every inch of those two hours shaking my head and grumbling “This had better be worth it…”
You can see all the restaurants that we have visited for our blog on this map, with links back to the original blog posts. It’s a terrific resource for anybody planning a road trip through the southeast!