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Southern Barbecue in a New England Village

Published 08/19/2009 12:00 AM

At Porky Pete's Barbecue & Fixin's, owners Peter and Selene Sweck believe a little bit of hog is good for the soul.

"Our signature dishes are based on beef, pork and chicken, but pork is the most obvious," says Selene, a Nashville native who does all the cooking at the Essex eatery. "We've got that and all the things that are supposed to go with barbecue."

Diners can find many of the typical comfort foods at Porky Pete's, ones that are common in Southern kitchens - chicken and dumplings, potato salad, cornbread and any number of sweet treats, like pecan pie and banana pudding.

Porky Pete's has been selling such rib-sticking foods to residents in this small town since the shop, which was a Valentine's gift to Selene from her husband, opened in February 2004.

"We live here, so we figured if we could make it work in a small town with less than 7,000 people, we could make it work anywhere," she explains.

Most of the eatery's dishes are derived from recipes Selene memorized and created during the many years she spent hanging out in her mother and grandmother's kitchens.

"I make eggs, but I call them 'dressed eggs' not 'deviled eggs.' In the south, they're not going to give honor to the devil in any way. I know my grandma wasn't going to do that," she says with a laugh.

Sweck also makes creamed potatoes instead of mashed potatoes and swears by her "Williamson County Corn Light Bread" as the perfect accoutrement to any barbecued meal. The restaurant's cole slaw, which she encourages diners to add on top of their sandwiches, is named after her daughter, Keely, who rightfully so, "didn't want to be associated" with baked beans.

"So my son," Chad, says Sweck, "has that one."

Her method employed for making the best barbecue is also steeped in tradition.

"All Southerners argue about the best way," explains Sweck. "The meat smokes the same amount of time, but it all depends on whether you use a rub or a sauce, and what kind of wood you use (in the smoker)."

South Carolinians use a yellow, mustard-based sauce while those from Tennessee and North Carolina lean toward a vinegar-based sauce, she says.

Although originally from Tennessee, she has adapted her sauce to meet the taste buds of New Englanders.

"My brothers think I'm a communist," she says.

Despite the chagrin it might elicit from many of her relatives, Sweck has incorporated certain techniques in her cooking that are uncommon in traditional southern cooking.

At Porky Pete's, the pork used on the sandwiches is hand-pulled to ensure the entire batch is completely lean.

"In Texas they just chop it up a little and go with the fat. Here, every single bite you take will be straight meat. I hate to have gristle or fat in it," she says. "I said I would never let that happen in any of my sandwiches."

Her Pulled Pork BBQ Sandwich comes on either a bun or Kaiser roll and has just enough sauce to hold the meat together, but not so much that it's oozing down your hands and face as you eat. A small sampling of cole slaw completes the sandwich.

Porky Pete's provides catered lunches for a handful of local companies and also prepares meals for brunches, cocktail parties and wedding showers.

And if you're too lazy to cook Sunday dinner and want to dine on what the Sweck's have prepared, a cool case at the front of the shop has quick fix dishes that include Sweck's reheating instructions. But you better plan ahead: Porky Pete's is closed on Sundays.

"I wish more people would honor that," says Sweck. "That's where borrowing came from. When I was a kid, my mom would send me next door to borrow some sugar. That's how you got to know people, but now you don't because everything is open on Sunday."

 

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If You Go:

PORKY PETE'S BARBECUE & FIXIN'S

90 Plains Road, Essex

860.767.1021

Hours: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday to Saturday; Closed Sunday