New Bern, N.C. — Food is vital. I’m not just referring to the obvious need of nutrient ingestion to remain in good standing health-wise; I am talking about food as a part of an experience.
When I planned to visit my brother, now stationed outside of New Bern, N.C., I nominated barbecue — specifically pulled-pork — as the perfect brother-bonding compliment. I love pulled pork, but I am afraid to order it most of the time. There are plenty of great places in the Central Valley, but some drown little fibers of pork in thick sauce, while others throw thick chunks of dry meat onto a roll and try to reconstitute it with watery sauce. A good sauce should complement the meat, not hide it. I had a feeling North Carolina would get it right.
But the first night in New Bern I ordered a New York strip steak with garlic mashed potatoes at Morgan’s Tavern and Grill. It was cooked perfectly medium and required no sauce at all.
Morgan’s started as a garage in 1911, so the original wooden beams and worn brick provide a great dining experience. The food is fantastic too, which is why the place has won awards since it was converted and started serving food in 2006.
The next day we went to Mumfest, which flooded all of downtown New Bern with fest-goers. The population of New Bern is just shy of 30,000, but the free Mumfest draws 80,000 people during the two-day event.
For some perspective, Stockton’s Asparagus Festival annually tops 100,000 over its three days. Mumfest features outdoor life exhibits, BMX stunt show, painters, sculptures, musicians, a car show, police K-9 demonstrations, fire trucks, carnival rides and of course, food.
The setting itself provided most of the non-culinary enjoyment, and complimented the festival. Every other building has historical significance it seems. There’s the birthplace of Pepsi-Cola. That’s the former North Carolina capitol (rebuilt because a fire destroyed the original, but I couldn’t tell the difference). Old churches guard headstones from the days of muskets and red-coats. Beautiful two or three story brick homes with white columns in front and wooden chairs on wooden porches watch every street near downtown. Even ordinary houses have little plaques proving they are a century old. It’s legit and I knew the pulled pork would be too.
I ordered from the first booth selling pulled-pork. I forgot the name when I was handed my sandwich. The lady didn’t ask me if I wanted a drink, she just handed me a sweet tea, because that’s how people in North Carolina take their pulled-pork and just about everything else.
The pulled-pork was wet, sloppy, tender and piled onto a roll. After handing me a second napkin she encouraged me to try the spicy mustard sauce. I had expectations of greatness, and this first place came through. Unfortunately I ate the sandwich too fast. That’s what I do when I eat really good food. I was born without the savor gland so I get excited, lose self control and eat it as quickly as I can.
Fifteen minutes later I got another one with my brother from a place called My Daddy’s. This version had a similar Carolina vinegar taste and again the texture and flavor were outstanding. We walked by a homemade root beer stand that sold commemorative mugs. You got the mug and unlimited refills of the half a dozen blends for $15. A steal.
We spent another hour at the festival then headed back home.
That night at the East Carolina homecoming football game against Memphis, I had pulled-pork sandwich number three from a barbecue place just inside the stadium gate. It would be impossible to properly apply the deserving superlatives let alone choose the best so far. I do know that when I leave Saturday I won’t be an expert on Carolina barbeque, but I will have a good idea of how New Bern tastes.
To contact Jeff Lund, email firstname.lastname@example.org.