Monday, September 27, 2010

Reporting for barbecue duty in Mayberry

Mount Airy, N.C., would be a nice place even without its history as the inspiration for Mayberry in the "The Andy Griffith Show." A quick 90-minute run up I-77 from Charlotte, it's a pretty little town of Victorian houses perched right on the sweet spot where the Piedmont hills start building up to become the Blue Ridge mountains.

And yes, it has another claim to fame besides Mayberry: It was home to Chang and Eng, the brothers whose vaudeville act supposedly gave the world the term Siamese Twins.

For people who don't understand the Tarheel reverence for all things Mayberry, let me explain: When I was a kid in the 1960s, everything on TV was about New York: "That Girl" lived in New York, Dick Van Dyke commuted to New York, half of the "Twilight Zone" sets were built to look like New York.

For us North Carolina kids, Mayberry was the only thing on TV that looked like the world as we knew it. Aunt Bea looked like my Aunt Rosalie, Mayberry looked like downtown Wilson, right down to the courthouse square. In the pre-AC days, front porches were survival zones.

I made the trip up to Mount Airy on Saturday to serve as a judge for the Mayberry Days barbecue contest. Yes, this is sometimes my life: Eat 26 samples of chopped pork 'cue and give each one a grade on a score sheet. As a "blind" judge, I was sequestered in a little room in the Surry Arts Council with two suspender-wearing gents. John T. Matthews is a Mount Airy native and retired hog farmer. The other judge was a TV/radio guy named Roy. He prefered just Roy -- he apparently once had a traumatic judging incident that involved a children's beauty contest and wouldn't judge again unless he was promised anonymity and a locked door.

I did my duty to the best of my ability, poking through the boxes, noting things like tenderness, moisture, even distribution of sauce and inclusion of small bites of crispy skin. By 9:30 in the morning, we had eaten our way through samples A-X.

Eating that much pork that early in the morning will bring on pork fat-induced hallucinations. When I stepped out into the sunny morning, I could have sworn Aunt Bea was thumbing through the local paper.

Oh, no, wait -- that's an Aunt Bea impersonator. And if there is room in the world for Elvis impersonators, I think it's a good idea that the world also have Mayberry impersonators. I saw a very convincing Barney, hang-dog jowls and all, and an excellent Otis Campbell stumbling up the street.

After walking around to look at the barbecue teams and listen to that wonderful sound of cleavers rapping out chopped pork, I stood on the sidewalk and watched the Mayberry parade. Actress Elinor Donahue was there, perched on the back of a convertible and laughing her head off. As an early fan of "Father Knows Best," long before she played Mayberry pharmacist Ellie Walker, I was delighted to see a lovely woman who looks like a retired librarian being treated like a beauty queen.

After giving her a wave, I got in my car and headed back to Charlotte, happy to know that the legacy of Mayberry is alive and well and having a great time in Mount Airy.