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|Site Updated: 7:15 AM | SUNDAY, OCTOBER 26, 2003|
Monday, October 20, 2003 7:51AM EDT
After chatting it up online, 'food geeks' gather for three-day feast in Raleigh in real time
By SUSAN HOUSTON, Staff Writer
The smells of slow-cooked pork and deep-fried hushpuppies hovered reassuringly above the tennis court on Raleigh's Dixie Trail.
But the rest of the tent-covered buffet raised suspicions. Chipotle-marinated portobellos and grilled chicken pasta salad with saffron dressing don't usually sit alongside pulled pork. The host talked about getting the entree from an "abattoir" instead of a hog butcher. At least one guest had a decidedly British accent, while others spoke with the vowels of the Northeast and Midwest. And the cheery fellow playing "Jambalaya" on the accordion was rumored to be a real Mummer from the famous Philadelphia parade.
That's when 38 high-tech foodies from a dozen states plus Canada and England -- subscribers to a funky Web site called eGullet -- convened here for their first taste of North Carolina barbecue.
"It just shows what people will do to eat good food," said Suzi Edwards, chic in black with a long pink scarf. She should know -- she came all the way from London to eat pork cooked by the man she knows as Varmint.
Varmint is the eGullet screen name of Raleigh lawyer Dean McCord, host of the event, along with his wife, Marcella. Despite getting only two hours of sleep the night before, he enthusiastically chopped cooked pork with a meat cleaver, offering tender chunks to anyone who passed by.
One of the first in line is Wade Cole, the Johnston County farmer who raised the 200-pound free-range, heirloom-breed pig cooked by McCord.
"Dean did a real good job on this one," said Cole, one of the 70 locals at the event. Most of his pigs go to upscale Niman Ranch, supplier to restaurants and gourmet markets. "I went to Chinquapin last night for a pig cooked by Ed Mitchell [of Mitchell's Chicken, Bar-B-Q & Ribs in Wilson] for Mr. Niman himself, and what Dean cooked is better than they did last night."
That's exactly the response McCord had in mind when he proposed his pig pickin' online back in May.
"I take great pride in North Carolina and in pig pickin's, but few people do them well," McCord said. So his cyber friends challenged him to do better -- create the ultimate pig pickin' for people who really love food.
They weren't looking for chichi food or something different just for difference's sake. "No pork foam," McCord said, poking fun at Spanish chef Ferran Adria 's flashy (but controversial) technique of aerating savory flavors like Parmesan cheese and squid and spraying them from a canister. "It's simple as you can get, but done with a twist."
'A lot of food geeks'
Varmint's Pig Pickin' quickly caught the attention and imagination of the very curious foodies of eGullet. A few days before the event, McCord had tracked nearly 800 responses to his original post.
Among the mundane posts about flight and hotel information and some good-natured regional ribbing sprang up some typically eGullet discourse about the most important topic -- the food. Should the pig be brined before cooking? (It was, in McCord's bathtub.) What were the proper side dishes for a pig pickin'? (Hushpuppies, coleslaw and anything else anyone cared to contribute.) What goes into the ultimate Brunswick stew? (In this case, ingredients included capon, duck, rabbit and heirloom tomatoes.)
"I'm just wondering if there has ever been this much planning for an event that is nearly 5 months away???" Varmint posted after the first week.
The event had taken on a life of its own, much as the eGullet Web site had a few years before. The original plan for eGullet, said Steven Shaw, one of its founders, was to combine the work of online regional food writers like himself (creator of fatguy.com, about New York restaurants) into one international supersite of restaurant commentary.
"That lasted about a month," Shaw said. "eGullet became its own world. It's a Frankenstein. We often say we created a monster."
Fueling the change in direction was the spirited participation of eGullet subscribers in various online forums. Opinionated foodies, both amateurs and professionals, earnestly (and often wittily and eloquently) debated one another. New York, New Jersey, the United Kingdom and Chicago are the real homes of some of the most active participants. And with Varmint acting as moderator, the Southeastern forum is particularly lively.
"The meat of eGullet is its forums. Today it's one of the most exciting, in-depth food sites on the Internet," McCord said. The Daily Gullet shares food writing from around the world, and the site hosts Q&As with food authorities and celebrities like Anthony Bourdain ("Kitchen Confidential") and Paula Wolfert ("Mediterranean Grains and Greens"). But mostly it's a place for serious foodies to dish.
"People are highly opinionated on this site. They are good people. Some are a little bit over the top. For every snob, there [are] 10 who are not," McCord says. "And there are a lot of food geeks."
Virtual into reality
Geeks or not, eGullet people take their food, but not themselves, seriously. That's why "Tarka," as Suzi Edwards is known online, built her American holiday around Varmint's Pig Pickin'.
"The pork is much sweeter and juicier than I've ever had before. It's quite rare you get good pork in the U.K." She eyed the deep fryer, waiting eagerly for the next batch of another new favorite. "The hushpuppies are fantastic!"
And, this being an eGullet affair, the pups are not ordinary ones either. Recent culinary school graduate Rochelle Myers of Takoma Park, Md., ("Malawry" online) developed the recipe as part of her final school project. "I wanted a corn flavor with a little bit of sweetness, so I put Vidalia onion in there," Myers explained. At culinary school, they were shaped in graceful crescents. At Varmint's, they are puffy free-form blobs, airy and delicious.
The Stevens brothers provided some of the other side dishes. Mark is a systems analyst in New Jersey, while Rich, of Arlington, Va., is a former chef who's now in the food service business. They often travel together to food events like "hotlucks" (potlucks for chiliheads) or eGullet gatherings that they find out about online.
"I have yet to run into a Net weirdo or a stalker" at these food gatherings, Mark said. And when food is the main event, "what better reason could you want to go somewhere?"
Everyone seemed to be celebrating their new taste experiences. There was the pig, of course, and the hushpuppies. But "Maggie the Cat" Rovai of Chicago also loved her first taste of grits. "It's a starch. What's wrong with that?"
And Deb Adams of Norwich, Conn., raved about collard greens. "I had seen them on 'The Beverly Hillbillies,' but I had never tasted them," she said. "They're good, not bitter. They're better than spinach."
Adams politely brought conversation to an end, though, when she spotted the parade of desserts descending from the house to the tennis court. "Do they have pecan pie? I'm addicted to pecan pie."
Dessert may have signaled the end of the event, but Varmint's Pig Pickin' lives on in memory and, of course, on the eGullet Southeast forum. Digital photos have been added to the thread, as well as this appreciation from Rich Stevens:
"Wobbling slightly, either due to drink or to a newly shifted center of gravity, faces shining from a surfeit of pig fat, the hardy e-Gulleteers once again put on their human disguises to blend in with the common people," he posted the following Monday. "Should another pig appear, they will be ready."