$100 ‘Q sandwiches

This Short Final was written by Walt Burton, a dear friend of Deb McFarland’s, as she recovers from surgery.

I send greetings from Statesboro, way down here in southeast Georgia. I wouldn’t say that it’s been hot here, but I did see two gnats fanning each other to stay cool. Fortunately, the air temperature up above our pattern altitude is in the 70s and that alone encourages us to go flying. Usually, flying requires a reason or a mission.

Sometimes, the reason is to practice takeoffs and landings, but it’s no fun flying below pattern altitude because it’s so hot. Also, it’s no fun because on landing, our airplanes just skim along forever in the over-heated air above the runway. It’s like they don’t want to put their tires down on the hot asphalt until the last moment and we’re almost out of runway.

June and Walt Burton and their C-172, "81Lima."

So, we look for worthy missions — missions that will allow us to stay up in the cool air as long as possible. If we were somewhere else, we might fly for $100 hamburgers, but not here. Statesboro is uniquely located within reasonable flying time to barbecue (to us it’s called ‘Q) in South Carolina and North Carolina, so our missions are for $100 barbecue sandwiches.

We have much excellent ‘Q to choose from in all the different regions of the Carolinas. The history of slow-cooking pork in the Carolinas goes all the way back to colonial days and some of the pit masters of today can trace the knowledge of their craft all the way back through their family trees to the original settlers.

Beef, cooked Texas style, and called barbecue by some non-natives, will definitely not be discussed from this point on. (I mention this so no one will be disappointed.)

While the pork cuts for ‘Q and the cooking processes are more similar than different across the Carolinas, the ‘Q sauces are another story altogether, a story that I’ll probably mess up according to someone reading this. So please let me be clear right now. My scholarly reference is a book, “Holy Smoke,” by John and Dale Reed.

The North Carolina ‘Q sauce story is fairly simple. Divide North Carolina into a western third, a middle third and an eastern third. Expect to find tomato-based sauces in the western region, light tomato-based sauces in the middle region, and vinegar-based sauces in the eastern region out to the coast. Also, understand that there might be minor exceptions in any of the regions.

Both of the tomato-based sauces, regular and light, are the familiar sauces like the bottled sauces on the shelf in your grocery store. I’ll say nothing about the vinegar-based ‘Q sauces. You either like them or you don’t and it only takes one try of a ‘Q sandwich with a vinegar-based sauce to decide.

The state of South Carolina is a bit more complicated. Along the coast and for some distance inland there is a region of vinegar-based sauces. There is an exception, and a very important exception, in the Charleston area — one that I will revisit. Otherwise, regions in North Carolina extend into South Carolina across the top of the state. Western South Carolina is a region of tomato-based sauces. Then there is a region of light tomato-based sauces going eastward toward the region of vinegar-based sauces on the coast. South Carolina has a region of tomato-based sauces along the border with Georgia. That region extends on into Georgia, which itself is pretty much a region of so-so tomato-based sauces.

The exception of note in South Carolina is a finger-shaped region that starts on the coast at Charleston and follows the rivers north and west toward Columbia. This region is unique with its lesser-known mustard-based sauces. I am told that we have the early German settlers to thank for what some call “The Only” sauce for ‘Q and what others refer to as simply unthinkable to put on anyone’s slow-cooked pork. You can decide for yourself.

This might be a good place to mention that you can sketch out your own map of the ‘Q sauce regions in the Carolinas. Dig up a Charlotte sectional chart and a yellow marker or a red marker if you are a fan of tomato-based sauce. Mark and label the regions of different ‘Q sauces following the paragraphs above. Or, the next time you are experiencing the joy of a ramp check you could suggest to the FAA agents that Charlotte charts should be printed with the sauce regions marked and labeled for flight planning. We surely deserve as much for our tax dollars.

Now for a couple of suggestions of where you might go. Recently a flying buddy, John Rule, and I took in a plane and car show at the Walterboro Airport (RBW) in South Carolina. A ‘Q vendor, in a trailer that said Duke’s on the side, was handing out sandwiches that were almost as big as little-league baseball catcher’s mitts. I had to have one (a sandwich, not a mitt). The sauce was mustard-based, a little on the sweet side and very good. I wasn’t surprised. Walterboro is on the edge of the mustard-based sauce region toward Georgia.

A few weeks later I was visiting my brother in Pinehurst, N.C. Now, Pinehurst is a location known for an outstanding golf experience, but my mission was to sample ‘Q. Louis had found a ‘Q place called Pik-N-Pig that sits beside the runway at the Gilliam-McConnell Airport (5NC3) near Carthage, N.C.

The Pik-N-Pig treat came in two parts. First the ‘Q was as good as Louis had promised. North Carolina pit masters honestly earn their stellar ‘Q reputations. The sauce was, as expected, a light tomato based sauce.

The best-of-the-best ‘Q sandwiches can differ a bit on details such as pickles and chips — but not the buns, which should be fresh, warm and as soft as a cumulus cloud in a summer sky. Rarely is one sandwich better than another at this level of excellence, just different. Pik-N-Pig was right up there with the best.

The second part of the treat was watching a flight of six RVs land at 5NC3. The arrival was a military-like drill. The RVs parked together on the ramp in a precise line and the pilots walked into the Pik-N-Pig with Charlotte charts in hand and chatting about their flight. Had they been wearing World War II flying suits and leather helmets, I would have believed that I was in the presence of a group of Yanks returning to England from a fighter escort mission over Germany. (For future reference, there is nothing like the aromas of burned oil, 100 octane avgas, and old sweat to whet an appetite for good ‘Q.)

As an extra special treat on my Pinehurst trip, my sister-in-law loaned me a small paperback collection of true stories. There was a portrait on the cover of a woman wearing a 1930’s leather flying helmet and goggles. Sister Cindy said something about the author living and flying in Africa. At that moment, I wondered what do they barbecue in Africa? Did German immigrants introduce mustard-based sauces in Africa too? I have read the book, but I’ve not found the answers to those questions.

The book was written by Beryl Markham in 1942. Turns out she was raised in Africa and became a horse trainer, a pilot and a writer. In 1936 she became the first woman to fly the Atlantic Ocean solo westward from England to North America non-stop — a trip made more difficult because of the prevailing Atlantic headwinds, which required more fuel and time than was required for an eastward journey from North America to England.

“West with the Night” is written in a wonderful story telling style seldom seen in contemporary prose. Some of the stories are funny, some are sad. All of the stories convey a sense of the feel of what it was like to fly an airplane back in the 1930s, day and night, without the instruments and charts for navigation that we take for granted today. These stories are perfect for reading while munching a good ‘Q sandwich.

I mention “West with the Night” because the stories and the style of writing remind me so much of the writing style and the stories of our delightful and talented Deb McFarland, the resident wordsmith, who claims ownership of these column inches and who graciously loaned me her pen and paper to fill them.

Cool temperatures, dreams of Beryl Markham and Margaret Mitchell visiting, and good ‘Q to you, Deb.


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