Claude Lorrain, Pastoral Landscape with the Arch of Titus, 1644, oil on canvas.
Last year the writer Denis Johnson came to Wilmington, North Carolina, where I live, for a conference. Ben George, who edits the magazine Ecotone and was hosting him, graciously asked me to tag along. There were memorable days. Granted, I would file a trip to Food Lion with Denis Johnson under fairly interesting life events. Even so …
It emerged that Johnson had been fascinated by Venus flytraps since childhood, and Wilmington happens to be the one place in the world where those strange carnivorous creatures grow wild (or at least where they’re truly native: the nutrient-starved coastal soil made them turn to insects for food). We took him to an actual flytrap preserve, behind an elementary school, where you walked on narrow paths through bright green clusters of the plant. You could bend down with a pencil and touch their little hairs, causing them to snap shut. The speed of it made us jump back. We touched only a couple, though, because once an individual trap has clamped down, it can never open again.
The point is, after this excursion, we went to a barbeque joint downtown called Parchies. In the Cape Fear country, and throughout the piedmont of the state, we have this unusual kind of barbeque, which uses a light vinegar sauce instead of the red stuff and tastes totally different than what you expect if you grew up west of here. Strangest of all, it’s served with the coleslaw on the sandwich, right on top of the barbeque. Sounds vile, but when you eat it with a side of finger-shaped hush puppies, you feel that the coronary episode this meal will trigger at some unknown moment down the road makes for an even trade.
Johnson grew visibly excited, waiting for the food. He told us that he had some roots in Carolina and that once, when he was very young, his grandparents had taken him to a barbeque place somewhere in the country and bought him a sandwich. He’d never gotten over the memory of this sandwich. It was perfect. In his mind it had become the ur sandwich. Every barbecue sandwich after it, even the good ones, had been on some level a mockery.
“Hey,” Ben said, “what if this is the one? What if you’ve been remembering this piedmont-style all these years, and now you’re about to reexperience it? Is that a good thing?”
Enter expectation, pressure.
The sandwiches came.
He lifted his and bit into it. Read More