Gut Instinct: Gone Country


Gone Country Driven by culinary compulsions, Southern food is consumed at an alarming clip—pork cracklin’ and all

My obsessive-compulsive urges mean my toilet is always sparkling. Sparkling. I maniacally manicure my eyebrows, which would otherwise conjoin like Siamese twins. I listen to songs on repeat, nibble my nails to the bloody quick and, with a single-mindedness that demands institutionalization, fixate on food.

Some weeks, I’ll only slurp ponds of nose-watering Thai curries. Then I’ll devour crisp dosas, stacked like firewood, followed by a month of chorizo tortas. My whims are as arbitrary as the weather. Take last week’s Southern addiction: My mania began, as often occurs in this modern age, with an email. “Put on your cowboy shirts. We’re gonna eat barbecue,” a pal wrote.

Several days later, I was seated at fat-dude-favorite Hill Country (30 W. 26th St. betw. Broadway & 6th Ave., 212-255-4544). It’s a ginormous Texas mess hall with SS-style hospitality. Ropes corral customers. Diners are crammed together like cattle. The by-the-pound ’cue (prices range from $10-$20) is doled out, cafeteria-style, by carvers with tongues sharper than their knives.

“NEXT! STEP UP AND ORDER!” a young lass ordered with dominatrix élan.

“Quarter-pound of moist and lean brisket!” I shouted back. “Gimme a sausage and a rib, too. A big one.”

I got a big one. She wrapped my meat in wax paper along with bread slices as thick and white as my butt. At an adjoining station, I nabbed baked beans, cornbread and mac ’n’ cheese: enough calories to last a week. I descended downstairs to our long, communal table—wrinkled men with sauce-slicked fingers sat beside me—and tore into flesh.

“Wipe your mouth,” my girlfriend ordered. Brown goo surrounded my pucker like misapplied lipstick.

“Mmmpphh,” I grunted, lost in carnivorous rapture. The beef ribs were caveman delicious, though the sausage was kindling and the sides as forgettable as a Paris Hilton flick. The brisket was so luscious, I chucked my manners.

When a fellow diner tied his shoe, I sliced off a blackened brisket nub. “Stop. Stop that right now,” he ordered. I repented, then repeated my crime when he visited the toilet. My Southern-eating urges were as uncontrollable as my beating heart.

My fervor continued days later when I pedaled east from my Crown Heights apartment, searching for Southern grub. Miles ticked away. Trucks invaded my path. I detoured onto frenzied Atlantic Avenue and spied Carolina Country Store (2001 Atlantic Ave., B’klyn, 718-498-8033).

Bare-bones Carolina possessed a gamy odor of grandma mixed with butcher shop. Diamond-hard candies and Day-Glo tonics beckoned beside pig parts sliced, diced, smoked, cured, brined and cased every which way but Sunday.

“What do you want?” barked a woman behind the counter.

“Uh, just looking around,” I replied.

“Mmmhmmm,” she said as sternly as a schoolmarm.

I fingered peanuts and peanut brittle. Bone-in ham was appealingly pink. “Made up your mind yet?” the lady asked, drumming her fingers. Buy something, she telepathed. Buy something.

“Not yet.”

“Mmmhmmm.” Buy something!

Flustered, I grabbed a softball-size bag of crisp cracklings. They looked like Styrofoam packing peanuts and were a red-orange hue typically painted on hookers’ toenails.

“Mmmhmmm,” the counter ma’am said, weighing my bag. “A buck ninety-two.”

I paid and popped fried epidermis into my mouth, grinding crackly skin between my molars. The cracklings were aggressively salty and stinky as a swine pen. No wonder the Jews prohibit pork consumption. To kill the foul flavor, I ventured across the street to Saratoga Country Kitchen (1991 Atlantic Ave., B’klyn, 718-498-0200). Inside the no-frills, no-menu Southern restaurant, middle-aged women with matronly bosoms piled steam-table ribs, baked chicken, collard greens and black-eyed peas into aluminum containers.

“What are your favorites?” I asked.

“All good,” a gap-toothed woman said.

“I know that,” I said. “But what would you eat?”

“Fried chicken, mac’n’cheese and cabbage.”

Done. She loaded me up with enough edibles to feed Ethiopia’s famished children. Cost? $8.32. The gooey mac was worth double, and the cabbage was as earthy and savory as it was soggy. The chicken? Cold and dry as the Mojave after midnight. Despite my clucker’s shortcomings, I still joined the clean-plate club.

I burped my thanks, remounted my steed and pedaled home, scanning East Brooklyn’s faded storefronts for another Southern gem to sate my single-minded hunger.