Going the whole hog: Telling porkies on the Barbecue Trail in beautiful North Carolina
Barbecue is to North Carolina as the hot dog is to New York.
The state claims to be the 'Cradle of 'Cue', and there are smokehouses and restaurants on every highway, annual Hog Festivals, a Tour de Hog cycle race, and a historic route of 24 pits and shacks stretching across the state to Tennessee.
My husband Gary and I wanted to sample the best slow-cooked food this south-east corner of the United States could provide, and the North Carolina Historic Barbecue Trail would lead us across plains and through mountains, vineyards, tobacco warehouses and cotton fields to find it.
Food for thought: Fiona's husband Gary faces up to another super-sized portion of barbecue
Now, barbecue is nothing to do with grilling a few sausages: the authentic version is what you put on your plate with four 'sides' of vegetables and a wodge of cornbread. It is a glistening mound of slow-roasted pork, cooked at 200 degrees over hickory wood for anywhere between ten and 20 hours, pulled into shreds by hand and dressed with a vinegar or mustard sauce.
We tasted our first pulled pork at Mac's Speed Shack on the edge of Charlotte, North Carolina's biggest city. The barbecue zinged and the mac 'n' cheese side stuck to our ribs.
Next day we travelled Interstate 40 to the Blue Ridge Parkway, and into the Appalachian mountains where, as it was Fall, the leaves changed colour before our eyes.
In the mountain town of Asheville, we stayed in the Grove Park Inn - a wonderful Gaudi-esque gingerbread house with stunning views across the Blue Ridge mountains. The town is most famous as the place where Zelda Fitzgerald (Scott F's troublesome writer wife) died in a mental hospital in 1948.
Our barbecue experience came at Asheville's 12 Bones, the place President Obama went straight to in his motorcade from Air Force One when he visited the area last year.
We queued at the counter for a half order of six ribs with a dry brown sugar rub and sides of corn pudding, green beans and slaw - and vast beakers of sweet tea.
The next day saw us motoring further along the 469-mile Parkway and the barbecue du jour came at the highest point east of the Mississippi, Mount Mitchell, which rises to 6,578ft.
It was not on the historic trail but we perched at the counter for pulled pork and mashed potatoes with brown gravy and cabbage.
Long road ahead: Fiona covered 1500 miles on her road trip through North Carolina
Then it was on to Boone, of frontiersman Daniel Boone fame, and Grandfather Mountain via the spectacular Linville Falls. At Grandfather, we walked over the Mile High Swinging Bridge, clutching the rails desperately, to enjoy a near-death experience and breathtaking views.
To celebrate our survival, we ate at the Old Hampton Store, a local barbecue shrine. We went the 'lite' route and ordered 'half sandwiches' - which turned out to be half a pig on a sourdough roll.
Next stop was Lexington and legendary smokehouse Smiley's, where we enjoyed barbecue so good it tasted like nothing we had tasted before - something of a feat as it was our seventh plate in six days.
I have to confess that we failed to do all 24 stops - but we tried.
The journey had been long - 1,500 miles - and our cholesterol compromised, but North Carolina had also given us stunning scenery, fabulous stories and a glimpse at an often-overlooked America.
On the plane home I glanced at the menu: no barbecue. I should have been relieved but, loosening my seat belt over my own pork belly, I felt a small pang...
America As You Like It (020 8742 8299, www.americaasyoulikeit.co.uk) offers a nine-night package to North Carolina from £1,325 per person. This includes return flights with US Airways from Gatwick to Charlotte, accommodation in various towns and ten days' fully-inclusive car hire, and is based on two sharing, departing in May or June 2012.
For further information on North Carolina, call 020 7367 0937 or visit uk.visitnc.com.
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