On the subject of Brooklyn barbecue, Taylor Hicks is delicate. He has an opinion, sure, but he's guarded about it, aware of the fervor kicked up when barbecue lovers draw lines in the sand.
What the "American Idol" winner says is almost apologetic on behalf of those in the Northeast, not that they're not talented or capable when it comes to the smoked arts. They just have the wrong wood.
"It's tough to get the right wood in the Northeast," Hicks said in a phone interview. "They need to come down here and try our barbecue. Let's not get too ahead of ourselves."
It's fair to say that at any given moment Hicks is in between plates of barbecue.
Hicks won Season 5 of the FOX reality singing competition, launching a fan kingdom known as the Soul Patrol. He now co-owns his own barbecue joint in Birmingham, Ala., Saw's Juke Joint, and when he's on the road, it's the first thing he seeks out. A life on the road also leaves little time for sightseeing, but everyone has to eat.
"When you're in the touring business, you're in the food business too, sort of through osmosis," Hicks said, calling from Nashville, Tenn., where he's recording a new album.
After all that eating on the road, Hicks calls himself a foodie and has turned travel and food into the show "State Plate" on the INSP network, which is described as having programs with "inspiring stories that honor tireless, traditional values and celebrate the American spirit."
The show has Hicks traveling the country with each episode focusing on one state and featuring as many of that state's signature dishes as it can fit on a plate in a half hour. His stops have included Wisconsin, Illinois, Arizona, Texas and Massachusetts.
The show, now in its second season, comes to North Carolina, having been selected by fans to be featured. The episode premieres March 19 at 7:30 p.m. and spans the state, from Eastern North Carolina sweet potatoes and muscadines to leafy greens in the western mountains.
Barbecue, perhaps the state's signature food, features prominently. Hicks stops at The Pit in Raleigh and smokes a whole hog with owner Greg Hatem, sampling both Eastern- and Lexington-style sauces.
"I love the Triangle," Hicks said explaining why he picked the restaurant on West Davie Street for the show. "It's kind of like the Bermuda Triangle for barbecue. You can get lost in it."
Hicks doesn't adhere to the barbecue romance and myths that the greatest smoked meats are only found in dives far from the farthest town. He said if barbecue is done right, great barbecue can come from anywhere, but to follow heart, not hype.
"Just because it's a hole in the wall doesn't mean it's great barbecue," Hicks said. "Great barbecue can come from the nicest shopping mall in Savannah, Ga., or someone cooking in their backyard and selling it on the side of the road. It starts with how it's prepared and second, the sauce. Just because a picture of a famous football coach holding a rib is hanging on the wall doesn't mean it's the world's greatest ribs."
Hicks was raised in Alabama by North Carolina parents, eating livermush sandwiches nearly every day, a delicacy he said they brought with them from their home state. Food is often what tells our stories and gives our memories and traditions a place to stand throughout time.
That's the aim of "State Plate," to capture a state's identity a state through its food. The North Carolina episode features muscadine grape jelly from Trinity, kilt lettuce in Winston-Salem, sweet potato pie in Bailey and cole slaw from Norlina.
Minus the coast, where North Carolina waters are teeming with terrific seafood, it's hard to argue with the plate Hicks and producers made here.
But among the chefs, farmers and home cooks in the episode, no one of color is represented, an omission in telling the story of the state's cuisine and Southern food.
A spokesperson for INSP said it's a tall order to encapsulate a state through just a few of its foods and that the series overall is a better representation of the country.
"The challenge for this project is that the task is overwhelming: how to select a small selection of people and foods that are representative of each state out of the countless possibilities," a spokesperson said in an email after the interview with Hicks.
"We have had to do this for all 50 states, knowing that, inevitably, the selections would need to be somewhat subjective and that there would not be time for some very deserving people and foods. However, on balance, when looking at the series in its entirety, it will be clear that we provided significant ethnic and cultural diversity."
How to watch it
"State Plate," hosted by "American Idol" winner Taylor Hicks airs at 7:30 p.m. Mondays on the INSP network. If you miss tonight's episode, it will re-air June 18 at 7:30 p.m. Go to insp.com/insp-channel-finder/ to find the channel on your cable provider.