We’ve discussed Southern Living’s Best Catfish Places and reviewed their readers’ picks for Best Barbecue Places in each Southern State here, here, and here. Before we leave their Best of the South lists, let me say a word about Southern Living’s 2020 Best Small Towns the South list.
The Southern Living readers pick Williamsburg, VA, as the top small town in the South. Williamsburg is a lovely place. It has Historic Williamsburg and there are lots of shops and shoppes and restaurants. So the choice makes sense on one level. I cannot stress too much, however, that Williamsburg was chosen by the readers in Southern Living’s annual survey. I suspect that the City of Williamsburg hands out ballots to the hordes of visitors on the tour buses that clog the streets and can make the place all but unbearable at times. Williamsburg is very nice, but the best in the South? Hardly.
The actual best small town in the South — indeed, in all of America and, by extension, the world — is Ayden, North Carolina. Ayden is, of course, the home of Bum’s and the Skylight Inn, the two best Eastern North Carolina style barbecue places on the face of the earth. And have you ever had the heirloom collards at Bum’s? The banana pudding?
As if that weren’t enough, there’s more. Just up the road are Sam Jones in Winterville, with very good barbecue and Pitt Street Code of Conduct Hazy IPA on tap; and B’s in Greenville, with their magnificent barbecued chicken. (The Skylight Inn and B’s, by the way, both should be UNESCO sites.) Ayden is a short drive away from the life-changing corn sticks and fried chicken at Parker’s, and within easy reach of the beach and the best shrimpburgers in the world at the Captain’s Kitchen. I won’t even mention the craft breweries … again. Shopping? Amazon! Entertainment? Netflix, plus all the drama, music, and sports at East Carolina University! It’s all right there, a veritable feast spread out before you. And with the low, low housing prices in Ayden, you could actually afford all the stuff you want. Well, most of it. Barbecue, beach, beer, and the world at your fingertips — what else do you want?
I have a couple more beefs with the list.
The readers dropped Davidson, NC, from the list. Liza went to college at Davidson. I sent a lot of money to Davidson, and I don’t regret a cent of it. I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company perform four plays at Davidson, the four best public performances of any type I have seen in the United States aside from Raul Julia and Meryl Streep in the Taming of the Shrew and Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin in concert. Davidson is a lovely town, an oasis in the Charlotte suburbs, and Davidson is within easy reach of a lot of good barbecue places. You can go to Richard’s and Noble Smoke and Sweet Lew’s for lunch and get back for your next class. Well, not all of them at once. One lunch per day. Lexington #1 and the Barbecue Center are not out of the question, assuming you make your class schedule with barbecue trips in mind. I went to college in Ohio and made my schedule with Perry Mason re-runs and the Galloping Gourmet in mind, except for the semester I forgot that I was taking Physics. (I was able to take it again later.)
I’d also raise Paducah higher on the list. I’ve never been to Paducah but my co-grandfather, David Boyd, came up there, and I generally favor river towns. Within Paducah there are the following places that cook exclusively with wood: Backwoods Bar-B-Que, Harned’s Drive In, and Starnes. David tells me that Starnes is a good place for a barbecue sandwich and a cold beer. ‘Nuff said. And Paducah has a barbecue festival, Barbecue on the River, that I might actually attend one day, despite my strong aversion to events that may involve waiting in line for a portable toilet. UPDATE: I just discovered that Paducah is within lunch distance of the Catfish Kitchen, #8 on the Best Catfish Places in the South list. (They say it’s in Benton but it’s actually just the other side of Draffensville.) I probably will go to Barbecue on the River.
Next year, I might actually participate in the reader survey. You should, too — after visiting Ayden.
For now, though, stay home and stay safe.
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