Today would have been my maternal Grandma’s 91st birthday. To say I miss her would be an understatement. Aside from my parents, she was the family member to whom I was closest, and since her passing, I’ve had a really hard time adjusting to life without frequent phone calls and visits to her house when I go home. I pitched the following essay to INDY back in October for the DISH issue, but it didn’t get picked up for its lack of mentioning specific NC BBQ places. I thought today would be a good time to share it with y’all. This one is for you, Grandma. I love and miss you so much!
Since my mom was a child, my family has been ordering barbecue from Marshall’s BBQ in Farmers Branch, TX. We always selected the same spread, and we always enjoyed our feast in the comfort of my grandma’s house, rather than in the restaurant. Many a holiday celebration commenced at her wooden dining room table adorned with fancy patterned plates that held the savory meats and vegetables (does fried okra count as a vegetable?) from the Styrofoam takeout containers in the kitchen. I grew up watching my grandma forego classic southern sides, so she could make sure to have enough room to indulge in the main event, her favorite dish: pork ribs. When I was a child, I didn’t like ribs… or at least I thought I didn’t.
Years passed. I went to college 45 minutes from home, but then I moved to North Carolina for graduate school. While I fell in love with the four seasons and diverse culture, I struggled to adjust to the competitive pace of a PhD program. I longed for the close proximity of my family and our Texas barbecue dinners. I can’t recall the moment when I reluctantly ordered a rib plate to escape the pervasive whole hog NC ‘cue, but I do remember vividly that I called my grandma the next day to share my revelation. Although I regarded a newfound appreciation for these saucy treats as noteworthy, my grandma responded with her special combination of sass and charm, wondering what took me so long.
Discovering the simple pleasure of foregoing manners and eating ribs helped me feel at home in my new state, yet every time I sunk my teeth into the unctuous meat, I was transported back to my grandma’s dining room table. About three years stand between the moment when I fell in love with ribs and when my grandma passed away. I am thankful we were able to share at least biannual barbecue feasts together during that time. I last saw her in April 2017, but she was bedridden and could not partake in our Easter dinner. I ate Marshall’s ribs reluctantly, saddened by her inability to do so. I watched as our family and friends plowed through cartons of barbecue in her living room following her funeral in July, and I first was disgusted at their apparent ease. I intended to skip lunch, but the rumbling of my stomach insisted otherwise. I picked up a rib and realized that perhaps this comfort food could fulfill its purpose without dulling the pain. Though tears streamed down my face onto the rib bones, I smiled thinking of my grandma who answered the question, “What’s your favorite part of the meal, Betty?” mid-bite by simply holding a single rib up into the air.