"Der Mensch ist, was er ißt."
Pop Translation: "You are what you eat."
- Ludwig A. Feuerbach
To a southerner, heaven is walking into a famous barbeque restaurant, breathing in all the amazing aromas coming from multiple outdoor wood-fired meat smokers, and then, after ordering a big plate at the cash register, being asked the almost unbelievable question, "Do you want an open tab?"
The only possible answer to that question in that setting is: "Yes, please."
Not long ago, I had seen a short segment on the Food Network about the Southern Soul Barbeque Restaurant on Saint Simons Island, Georgia. Actually, this incredible Q spot was featured on one of my favorite shows, Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives -- a masterpiece of education and entertainment that may be one of the greatest gifts television has ever brought us, and one that's perhaps even capable of redeeming the medium from its worst mistakes over the decades. Host Guy Fieri visits small funky places around the country where people who are passionate about food cook things from scratch, and often use recipes that require enormous amounts of work for simple foods like sandwiches. But these are places that prove the value of excellence in small things. The results inevitably send customers into paroxysms of pleasure and turn them into true evangelists for the eatery.
It turns out that, about a month after Guy Fieri filmed his trip to Southern Soul, the small restaurant building, a former gas station surrounded with piles of split oak ready for the smokers, burned to the ground, a massively ironic turn of events that deeply disturbed the balance of justice in the universe. But, thanks to the unbreakable commitment of the owners and the energetic efforts of the surrounding community, the little restaurant was rebuilt within six months. And even during that time, they were able to use the welcoming resources of surrounding restaurants, a food cart, and the great outdoors to keep serving loyal customers their favorite smoked meats and sides. Right after the fire, Harrison Sapp, founder and chief pit master, told a local paper, "I'll be doing barbeque forever. It's a Zen thing for me."
In the middle of writing my first fiction, after twenty nonfiction books -- a series of novels about a king and a prince in Egypt in 1934 -- I recently had the good fortune to be able to take my family to a wonderful and beautiful historic hotel named The King and Prince, right on Saint Simons Island. I was not about to miss the chance, while there, to visit what may be the Platonic Ideal of a barbeque joint.
The food at Southern Soul is indescribably good. I started off with a huge plate of pulled pork and beef brisket, accompanied by fried okra, potato salad, sweet collard greens, Brunswick Stew, and thick toast, all washed down with two or three bottles of Bud Light on tap. You have to cut your calories somewhere. Then, with the mighty power of the open tab available, I waved at a guy behind the counter and asked to try their smoked andouille sausage. Great move. As reported of the famed Oracle at Delphi in ancient Greece, the smoke and vapors of the place were already having their effect and raising my overall level of wisdom. And again, it was an ineffable experience, but if I had to take a stab at a description, I'd say that the sausage, like everything else, was "a work of genius, immensely tender, and infused with smoky flavor to perfection." If Socrates had just done his discoursing over pit fired, pulled pork, he would have been a lot more popular in his time.
After my return home, I read through the most recent Sunday New York Times and, as usual, came across article after article about greed and selfishness and people who just don't seem to care -- about their jobs, or their communities, or their nation, or even the fundamental value of human life. The contrast with my experience at Southern Soul could not be any more dramatic. As soon as I had arrived with my family and stepped up to the counter to order, there was a friendly feeling of community, beyond even the normal experience of southern hospitality. The preparation and presentation of the food was a result of the passion, care, and mastery too little now seen in our world. And, at the end of the meal, I came to an even more complete understanding of this exemplary place and what it represents.
At the end of my meal at Southern Soul, I reflected on the fact that I was going to drive back home to North Carolina the next morning, and wanted to pack the trunk of my car with the wealth of their culinary delights. But I had to leave at 10 AM and they don't open until 11. I casually mentioned my plight to one of their philosopher-cooks, a compassionate man named Robby, and he said, "Well, look, we're here at 5:30 in the morning getting ready for the day, so you can just come by any time and knock on the back door, and we'll get it all packed up for you."
Aristotle was right to connect happiness, or ultimate well-being, with excellence and character. Both shine through at this tiny place of gustatory fulfillment, and give any visitor a taste of that all too elusive goal of the human quest.
There are still people who care. There are still master craftsmen in America, people of skill and knowledge who are dedicated to quality, as well as to the good of the people they meet every day. And many of them cook and serve in the best diners, drive-ins, and dives around. Be on the lookout for one near you, or take a road trip to Southern Soul, and catch a whiff of greatness in one of its most satisfying forms.