'Holy Smoke': Barbecue Means Big Doings in Tar Heel State
"Y'all down South now."
How many times have the millions of people who moved to North Carolina in the last two decades heard that comment? There is a lot to learn for these transplants who now call the Tar Heel state home, especially about food. Barbecue, to be specific. The Old North State is to American barbecue as New Orleans is to jazz.
Newcomers, beware! Barbecue is not a subject for the conflict-averse. For the unsuspecting "Quiche Woman in a Barbecue Town," as author Clyde Edgerton calls a Yankee adjusting to the Carolina environment, one thing guaranteed to start an argument is barbecue. Not barbecue, exactly; it's more the sauce that is the point of contention.
For non-Southerners, it's hard to understand the fuss over a sticky substance spread over a chunk of meat. So before engaging in a discussion of the "smoky grail," those not Tar Heel-born and bred should go to The Country Bookshop in downtown Southern Pines Wednesday, Dec. 3, at 4 p.m. to hear pork pro John Shelton Reed and pig-pushing Dale Volberg Reed, authors of "Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue," share the fascinating story of the food that is as uniquely Southern as moonshine.
North Carolina claims the longest continuous barbecue tradition in North America. When Virginia aristocrat William Byrd II visited North Carolina in 1720, he found the state populated by a "porcivorous" people whose only business is raising hogs which affords the diet they are most fond of. "Eating so much pork," he said, made North Carolinians "extremely hoggish in their Temper, & many of them seem to Grunt rather than Speak in their ordinary conversation."
Whole hogs were cooked over an open wood fire on a grate called a "barboka" designed "to roast and smoke at the same time." It was originally used by the "sauvages," a French soldier reported, to cook captives taken in the war.
Seven years before the Boston Tea Party, North Carolinians "stepped up to the plate," so to speak, when Royal Governor William Tryon laid on a barbecue in Wilmington for the New Hanover militia, but the Sons of Liberty poured out the beer and threw the barbecued ox in the river.
"This was not an early expression of their preference for pork," Reed writes, "the patriots were upset about the Stamp Act."
By the mid-1800s, pork was the table meat of the South. Each year two hogs were raised for every human being who lived here. Today, there are still more hogs in North Carolina than people. Barbecue has never been "home cooking" because it's just too much trouble, and before refrigeration, it produced too many leftovers for even the largest family. Until stands and restaurants came along in the 20th century, pit-cooked meat was usually served under the trees, on special occasions, to large gatherings. People ate barbecued meat, drank toasts, discharged firearms, and listened to orations by politicians and local dignitaries.
"The former, like flies, have always been drawn to barbecue because early on they saw the vote-getting potential of giving it away," Reed says. "No man was ever elected governor of North Carolina without eating more barbecue than was good for him," one politician claimed. In 1984, a candidate for governor lost the election because, he said, in a "very, very lax moment -- the devil made me do it -- I made a horrible statement. I said I'm through with barbecue."
Churches, schools, charities, and even city governments have held barbecues as fundraisers for centuries. The Hemby Bridge Board of Aldermen even held a barbecue to raise money in lieu of a tax increase. At a charity auction in Charlotte in 1988, the highest bids were for a weekend in Paris and a pig-picking.
By the turn of the 20th century, some barbecue men began to sell their product off the backs of wagons or from temporary stands. Soon the automobile made it possible to open more permanent businesses. The N.C. Museum of History's online "History Highlights" has two entries for 1924: the founding of Duke University and the opening of Bob Melton's Barbecue in Rocky Mount, the state's very first sit-down restaurant.
When looking for a really good barbecue "joint," Reed says what you want is a barbecue place, not just a place that serves barbecue. At one time, the best were characterized by a sign out front showing a smiling pig that seems to be inexplicably happy about its contribution to the menu, sagging screen doors, smoke-blackened walls, toothless proprietors, smoke coming from the wood pit, and flies -- the more the better. "One rule for a good barbecue place is the presence of those flies: If there aren't any, you should ask what the flies know that you don't."
It's certainly true that a sanitation grade of A can be a bad sign, but B ratings should be worn with pride if cooking with wood is the reason, and sometimes it is. According to Bob Garner, himself a barbecue expert, county "environmental health" inspectors don't exactly forbid wood cooking, but it's an almost automatic three-or-four-point deduction.
The best barbecue sandwich uses a cheap, commercial white-bread bun -- some tasteless, absorbent vehicle. It's just a medium; the barbecue is the message. Coleslaw is an almost universal side-kick to barbecue. Brunswick Stew, another sidedish, "is what happens when small mammals carrying ears of corn fall into barbecue pits," says Roy Blount.
The classic drink to accompany barbecue is tea -- real sweet tea.
"Carolina sweet tea coats the back of a spoon. Left undisturbed, rock candy will form in the glass. Were it much thicker you could pour it on waffles," says a writer for Chile Pepper magazine. "Sweetened ice tea in North Carolina isn't a beverage. It's an intravenous glucose drip."
While a lot of places don't have desserts, when they do, they're so sweet they'll make your teeth ache.
But what of the sauce: the vinegar-based Eastern-style and the tomato-based Piedmont version, the source of food feuds and family feuds for generations?
Even in North Carolina, pitmakers from one end of the state to the other agree that it's how you cook it, not what you put on it, that makes good barbecue. The late Pete Jones of the Skylight Inn said, "If it's pure barbecue, it's barbecue before the sauce goes onto it."
Greensboro's Chip Stamey agrees. "If you've gotta use a lot of sauce, it's not good barbecue."
Jim Early of the N.C. Barbecue Society proposes a "sauce" truce.
"We've been shooting ourselves in the foot with this Eastern-Western thing," he says. "No other states fight within the state. Let's stop that. Let's fight somebody else if we have to fight. Let's unite as kin."
Hmmm. Maybe not.
John Shelton Reed is a retired Kenan professor at Chapel Hill, and the only practicing sociologist to be included in "Roy Blount's Book of Southern Humor." He and his wife, Dale Volberg Reed, collaborated on "1,000 Things Everyone Should Know About the South," one of the best one-volume introductions to the region. The couple live in Chapel Hill.
For information, call The Country Bookshop at (910) 692-3211.
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