Sailing Away to Eat Barbecue!

Rob Temple
Sailing Away to Eat Barbecue!

Life doesn’t get any better than this!

When Sundae first started doing the Ocracoke Current several years ago, she asked me to contribute a regular column called “The Shipping News” which was to contain not only my own thoughts and experiences on the subject of sailing, but also stories of the many interesting people who visit our island by boat. 

Well, I suspect she knew me well enough to realize how unlikely I was to do anything on a regular schedule, but since she seemed happy to have whatever I might come up with whenever I was willing, I’ve tried to oblige.  Of course, one of the problems I’ve run into is that sailing to Ocracoke is an activity usually limited to the warmer months, so during the colder months, I tended to stray from the subject and to write about other things.

Two of my absolute favorite activities are sailing boats and eating barbecue (I believe there’s a third activity near the top of the list but I can’t, at the moment, remember what it is).  So in the bleak winter months, I started writing about various barbecue joints I’ve enjoyed visiting around the state. By now, whenever patient readers of the current see the appearance of a new entry under the “Shipping News” heading, they wonder: “What’s it going to be this time—sailing or barbecue?”

Well to those loyal readers I’m pleased to announce that it’s not an “either/or!”

Having known for a couple of months that my friend Chuck wanted to sail his newly-purchased 32’ sailboat over to the boat yard in Minnesott Beach at the earliest opportunity, I realized that last Thursday, January 7 looked as good as might be hoped for at this time of year.  The forecast was calling for a high temperature of 60 with a low chance of rain and NNE winds at 15 to 20 knots. 

With 24 hours’ notice, Chuck was down with the plan.  He’d laid in provisions, topped up the fuel tank and arranged for his friend Art to bring his car over for our return trip.

My son Emmet and his buddy Andrew, both on winter break from college, signed on for the adventure.

Shortly before dawn we all gathered aboard as Chuck cooked up a hearty breakfast.  The weather forecast had prepared us for the fresh northeast winds but not the dense fog that covered the harbor.  Since I’m the sort of guy who has the National Weather Service office in my iphone I gave them a quick call.  The meteorologist I spoke with was surprised to hear we had fog and seemed pretty certain that it was very localized and temporary.  We’d been planning on slipping out between the 7 a.m. Swan Quarter ferry and the 7:30 Cedar Island but when 7:10 rolled around and both ferries remained at the terminal, we decided to shove off.  As I always like to say at such times, “What could possibly go wrong?”

We took a single reef in the mainsail and headed out, always keeping one eye on the GPS chart plotter. As we broadened off the wind in Nine-foot Shoal Channel, the boat heeled over to port and picked up speed.  We killed the engine, engaged the autopilot and settled back with a second cup of coffee. Soon we were plunging ahead at a little over six knots with the wind on the beam and hardly any spray making it aboard.  At 58 degrees, it wasn’t ideal summer sailing but, hey, it wasn’t exactly Cape Horn weather either.  I was stoked to be under sail again after weeks ashore.

As we rounded the marker off Royal Shoal, still more or less socked in by fog, I got a phone call from our friend Al. 

“You know what the best thing is about sailing across Pamlico Sound in the fog?” says he.

“What?” says I.

“You don’t have to worry about being run down by a ferry!”

The fog, as it turned out, was not as localized or temporary as the weatherman would have had us believe and both ferries remained at the dock in Ocracoke until afternoon.

By the time we entered the mouth of the Neuse River, visibility had improved considerably. We pulled into Wayferer Marina in Minnesott Beach at 4:10, exactly nine hours after departing from Ocracoke.  Surprisingly, nothing in the least went wrong with the entire plan and Art showed up with the car before we’d finished our first round of self-congratulatory beverages.

Although we’d had sandwiches and chips for lunch underway, we all had an appetite that only a brisk day on the water can produce so we piled into the car and drove to Arapahoe for a well-earned dinner at Gary’s Downeast Seafood Restaurant. 

Considering it was a week night in early January in a remote corner of rural N.C., we were surprised to see a sizeable crowd in the restaurant.  Our waitress was friendly and charming and obviously enjoyed her job.  She made us feel right at home as she passed out menus, took our drink orders and announced she’d be right back with a basket of hot hushpuppies.

Chuck had heard good things about Gary’s home-cooked barbecue, so I decided to go for the large barbecue plate with two sides (I opted for the house salad and fried okra) and a draft beer.  Since Gary’s presents itself as a seafood place rather than a barbecue pit, it should have been no surprise that the table was devoid of the usual bottle of house specialty barbecue sauce, but when asked, our waitress was quick to bring out the Texas Pete (which, in spite of the name, has been made right here in the tarheel state since its invention by a barbecue guy named Sam Garner in 1929).  

I started with the tossed salad, which was remarkably fresh and crisp.  And of course there was nothing at all wrong with the generous portion of golden fried okra.  But the real piece de resistance was the ‘cue – oh my goodness the ‘cue! After the first taste it occurred to me that there might be a story for the Current in this little adventure.

It was somewhat leaner than might be expected in this part of the state.  In fact the texture along with the absence of fat, gristle and skin made it seem more like barbecue from the western half of our state where only pork shoulders are involved. However the degree of moisture, hint of wood smoke and balance of seasoning (vinegar and pepper of course) put it right up there in the winners’ circle.  Like most good barbecue, it really didn’t need to have a thing added, but I’m the sort of stubborn diner who salts his food before tasting it so I sprinkled a dash of Texas Pete on it for color if nothing else just to give myself sort of a feeling of participation in the whole process.

When our waitress reappeared I asked for more specifics about the barbecue than she was able to provide.

“I know Gary makes it himself, “ she said, “but you’ll have to ask him about it.  I’ll bring him out."

Despite being obviously quite busy, Gary Hardison greeted me with a broad smile and a firm handshake and patiently answered all my questions.  Since the opening of his restaurant in 1985, he had always served barbecue which he purchased locally in 5-gallon tubs.  But over the years, he became disappointed in the quality of the product and eventually decided he could do it better himself.  Eight years ago he acquired a smoker and began cranking out his own ‘cue which he calls “braised” because, using only pork butts, he starts out smoking the meat with wood chips then finishes off with roasting it in a pan. 

It took a little trial and error before he was satisfied with his seasoning which, in keeping with eastern N.C. custom, consists of vinegar and pepper.

“Some people don’t know a whole lot about barbecue,” he explained.  “They know mine’s not Kentucky ‘cause it’s not red and they know it’s not Alabama ‘cause it’s not white and they know it’s not South Carolina “cause it’s not garbage.  I just have to tell ‘em, ‘if you don’t like pork, vinegar and pepper, you need to order something else; that’s just what North Carolina barbecue is!’”

From our brief chat I not only learned about his barbecue, but also that he occasionally visits Ocracoke via one of his two small airplanes. Obviously an interesting chap worth getting to know better but since he was busy and we’d had long day, we wished him luck and went on our way.

I definitely plan to be back.  And next time, if I can resist the temptation of the barbecue, I’ll try Gary’s oysters since, now that I think of it, eating fresh oysters is the third thing in life I most enjoy doing! 

Note:  Gary’s is open for lunch and dinner.  Closed Monday.




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