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Peanut Butter Sticky Rice

Old Sturbridge Village is one of Massachusetts’ premiere historical destinations: a picture-perfect recreation of a 1830s New England village, inhabited by costumed interpreters, who explain the tasks that occupy them in speech free from contemporary usage like “hello” as a greeting (“good day” is historically accurate).  In 1830s buildings moved to Sturbridge from all over New England, the tin-smith punches out his wall-sconces, the blacksmith forges nails, and the farmer splits rails to pen in his animals, pigs and chickens and oxen bred to resemble their nineteenth-century ancestors.  In summer, the fields and farms and the mill-dam host groups of day-campers, also dressed in 1830s garb, who spend five days amusing themselves with games of ring-toss, picnics out of wicker baskets, and fishing with an iron hook and balls of stale bread.

Some of the older girls at day camp were set to working in the kitchen, recreating “receipts” for garden produce.  Visitors, especially children, were encouraged to help them shell fresh peas, which would be mixed with pale green leaves of Bibb lettuce and the bulbs of onion grass (the onions themselves not yet harvested), and stewed in milk for a few hours over a blazing fire.  The resulting dish would be served with white bread and butter.

I had a much better idea for lunch: B.T.’s Smokehouse, located directly across the road from the entrance to the village.  The business upgraded a year or so ago from what had been a portable smoker located on the side of the road to this restaurant space, with three booths and four counter stools.  The smokers are relegated to the parking lot, and Willy—the Assistant Pitmaster—mans the stovetop behind the counter, with two burners, a deep-fryer, and an enormous tank of chili.   It could not be farther from the pewter-and-quilt charms of nineteenth-century New England village and farm life, and I could not have loved it more.

Although B.T.’s bills itself as Southern-style, I was the closest thing to a Southerner in the place: the owner and pitmaster Brian is from New England, Willy is a native of Puerto Rico, and the engaging and clever women behind the counter are all local.  The meat, however, was absolutely South of the Mason-Dixon line, with pulled pork that rivals Ken’s, a beef brisket luscious with charred fat, a house sauce vaguely in the North Carolina style, pickled onions and peppers, and tender chicken.  The brioche-like buns made no attempt to contain the enormous piles of meat laden into them.  Thinking of the chicken fingers we’d eaten in the dark, Sysco-stocked cafeteria of Old Sturbridge Village on previous visits, I wanted to weep for barbecue opportunities lost.

Nothing is perfect.  The side dishes took Southern sugar too far: the black beans and the bean salad were painfully sweet, and while I liked the spice in the mustardy potato salad, it also was too sweet.  It was as if the chef had read a “receipt” for Southern food, and applied too energetic of a Yankee hand to the corn syrup.   I thought to myself, let’s see just how Southern this place really is, and asked Willy about how he makes the collards.

“Well, I render a side of our own bacon over high heat, so it takes on a little bit of that extra char flavor,” he says, “And then I take a crate of red onions, slice them, and sauté them down.  I deglaze the pot with vinegar, loosen up all the onions, get a good juice going.  And then we add in the collards…” At this point, he’d lost me, or rather, he had me.

Brisket and pickled onions.

I looked over at Ascher, who had eagerly explained to his friend from Ann Arbor, along with us for the day, exactly what barbecue is, and that it is one of his favorite foods.  “What if,” I asked, thinking aloud, “What if you catered an event at a synagogue where pork wasn’t allowed, for example, a bar mitzvah?”  “Oh, that’s easy,” he said, not missing a beat.  “We’d use brisket fat instead of the bacon—that would be culturally appropriate—and then just take it from there.  You could even chunk up brisket and mix it into the collards.  It would be great.”

And perhaps it will be.

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