Carolina is for Pig-Lovers



BURNED-OVER DISTRICT, NY–Here comes the Fourth, and instead of asking why Americans revolted against remote authority in 1776 yet countenance it today, let us now praise picnics and beer and baseball and illegal fireworks. Via First Principles, herewith my review of a choice cut of gustatory patriotism from the Tar Heel State.

(And here’s a link to my latest column in The American Conservative, which considers putative “North Carolinians” ashamed of their state. . . . Aw, hell, I can’t figure out how to do this. Just click on Better yet, subscribe.)

Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue by John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed with William McKinney (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press), 316 pages, $30

A lovely woman of my acquaintance was flummoxed when on a recent trip to the Midwest she discovered that “all the chain restaurants were different” from those back home. Where to eat?! She resolved this dilemma at a Shoney’s, I believe. Ah well. At least it wasn’t Applebee’s.

If my friend ever visits North Carolina I will give her a copy of Holy Smoke and if she reads it I can guarantee she’ll drive past fifty Shoney’s in search of a roadside eatery with a sign featuring a happy pig and the letters BBQ.

Holy Smoke is a celebration, a history, and a lament for North Carolina barbecue, which “is an edible embodiment of Tradition,” a symbol of “Home and People,” according to authors John Shelton Reed, Dale Volberg Reed, and William McKinney.

This is savory regionalism, localist patriotism in service of the palate. “The Old North State is to American barbecue something like what New Orleans is to jazz,” argue the authors, convincingly. The Reeds and McKinney are poets of pork North Carolina style, whose superiority to the barbecue of the Outside World they assert with conviction, wit, and a comfortable erudition-but then it is hard to be pedantic when discussing the etymology of “pig-picking.”

“The Tar Heel barbecue tradition” is no tourist scam or marketing ploy. It is venerable, for one thing: a Byrd of Virginia, those beaky aristocrats, once called Carolinians a “porcivorous people” whose piggish tastes made them “extremely hoggish in their Temper.”

The hog part is critical. North Carolina barbecue is pork-usually whole hog or shoulder-“cooked for a long time at a low temperature with heat and smoke from a fire of hardwood and/or hardwood coals.”

The sauce in which the pork is basted is where North Carolina’s house of barbecue divides against itself. East Carolina sauce is a thin blend of vinegar and pepper, but Piedmont barbecuers add tomato ketchup to the mix in what the authors, who never quite show their hands-probably because they’re greasy as hell-call “the Lexington Heresy.” Ketchup in barbecue sauce was “viewed by many Easterners with much the same enthusiasm that the medieval Catholic Church had for the Protestant Reformation.” As with the Reformation, you can blame or praise the Germans. Once bottled ketchup became widely available, “those Germanic barbarians in the Piedmont started adding it to the classic vinegar-and-pepper sauce, adulterating God’s intended condiment, turning their backs on a cherished tradition of the Old South.”

Or as Dennis Rogers of the Raleigh News and Observer marveled, “somebody who would put ketchup on barbecue and give it to a child is capable of pretty much anything.”

(The far western part of the state the Reeds and McKinney dismiss as a no-man’s-land of the ersatz and the eldritch, of tourist-catering BBQ that may even be served with “strange, noncanonical side dishes” such as garlic bread.)

The authors are traditionalists who applaud experimentation and variety but when they take their stand they are unmoveable. Texans with their beef and Kentuckians with their mutton (mutton?) barbecue are gently mocked, as are South Carolinians with their mustard-based sauces, but as for Yankees who “notoriously confuse barbecuing with grilling, and even speak of ‘stove-top barbecue'”-well, “that way lies the Sloppy Joe.”

The book is garnished with humor, with Reedian puns (eminence grease) and the occasional good-natured potshot at Yankees. Of the “Boston butt,” which is the meaty part of a hog shoulder, the authors can’t resist saying that “when it comes to hogmeat, Bostonians don’t know their ass from their elbow.” Fair enough, I suppose, though I’ll take New England clam chowder over Carolina carp chowder any day.

The accompanying photos are wonderfully evocative and often appetite-whetting: vintage barbecue joints, old men cooking over pits at plantations, funky signage featuring the ubiquitous smiling pig. The book is packed with marginalia and oddments from which we learn, among other things, that North Carolina leads the nation in the percentage of yellow-page listings containing the word “barbecue”; the swamp-rockabilly band Southern Culture on the Skids has a tune titled “Too Much Pork for Just One Fork”; and the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation discovered that female sexual desire is inhibited by the fragrance of barbecue.

Or should I write “barbeque”? In an aside on orthographical regionalism, the authors note that “que” is preferred to “cue” as the caboose syllable in the states of the South. Black Panther Bobby Seale defended “que,” arguing that “cue” is “drab” and “square.”

Cue or que, or just plain Q, “has never been ‘home cooking,'” explain the authors. It’s an undertaking, and even a family of gluttons can’t finish off a pig at one sitting. Early North Carolina barbecue was a communal feast, served on the Fourth of July, at political rallies, at celebrations and even solemn occasions. It was and is joyfully biracial: the second barbecue restaurant in East North Carolina was founded in Goldsboro in 1917 by the Reverend Adam Scott, an African American preacher.

In the last quarter of the book the authors let the barbecuers, pitmen, and restaurateurs speak for themselves. Theirs is “a story of masters and apprentices, gurus and disciples,” of sons learning from fathers, of family knowledge beyond book learning.

The oral histories emphasize the links between generations. Consider these remarks by Samuel Jones, grandscion of the Skylight Inn in Ayden:

-“My grandfather wouldn’t turn me loose in the pits until I was eighteen or nineteen years old, and once I was back there, he was questioning me all the time. Anybody that knew him would know that was his way.”

-“I don’t look at it so much as a job but that there’s a family history here. I would hate to know that my granddaddy spent his whole life building something and I pissed it away . . . There’s a lot of businesses that have been passed along to this generation and they go to pot. They want to change over to something easier. Cooking with wood is a good example-that would be an easy thing to do away with-[but] I think we would probably be out of business in a year if we did that. Then there wouldn’t be anything that sets us apart.”

-“Our family is not subject to change at all. We hold on to something until the bitter end . . . We still pretty much deal with the folks we always dealt with, outside of the suppliers who’ve died off. I’m kind of like my granddaddy; if I’m doing business with somebody and feel like I can trust them, then I’m not going to go anywhere else.”

I like that: “Our family is not subject to change at all.” Change is the shibboleth of the suave politician, the airport bookstore business paperback, the advice columnist. Listen to their oleaginous pule: Embrace change. Accept change. Don’t fear change.

Well I say f– change. Or as Deano Allen of Deano’s in Mocksville phrases it, “People ask me why I do things this way and I say it’s because everybody else always did it.” That’s the way to barbecue pork, say the Lord’s Prayer, and hit a baseball. Innovation, by contrast, gave us the atom bomb, Ellen DeGeneres, and microwaveable tofu burgers. I’ll stick with the old ways. (Especially when endangered old ways are being revived. For the last half century most of the pork used in North Carolina barbecue has been grown on factory pig farms. But humane and decentralizing solvents are at work. North Carolina A&T is working with small farmers to encourage the raising of “pasture pork.” As a result, “supporting your local farmer and being kind to pigs is getting easier.” Finally: change you can believe in.)

John Shelton Reed, now retired from the University of North Carolina, is the preeminent sociologist of the South, so if he offers advice on matters Dixie I take it. For instance, when scouting barbecue restaurants he counsels “the fewer items a place offers, the better the barbecue is likely to be”; “billowing smoke rates a stop”; “a mix of pickup trucks and expensive imports in the parking lot is a good sign”; and “if the sheriff’s car is there, hit your brakes immediately.”

Holy Smoke offers practical advice on cooking pork the Tar Heel Way-whole hog hundred pounders over hardwood coals from hickory, a tree native to North Carolina. The authors also provide recipes for side dishes: hushpuppies, cornpone, coleslaw, macaroni and cheese, brunswick stew (with and without squirrel), and desserts (banana pudding, peach cobbler).

I am a wretched cook but when I made the macaroni and cheese recipe my wife and daughter ate it without the usual contorted faces and mimicked gagging that typically accompany consumption of my concoctions.

Barbecue fanatics are given to ex cathedra pronouncements. Wilber Shirley, founder of Wilber’s in Goldsboro, declares: “You gotta have coleslaw. I won’t even sell somebody a barbecue unless they get coleslaw. If they want a barbecue and they don’t want coleslaw, there’s something wrong with that person. It all goes together.”

I cringed when I read that, recalling a trip to Chapel Hill when John Shelton Reed took me to a great barbecue shack and I passed on the slaw, which I have always detested. So as penance I chopped and spiced and squirted ketchup into Holy Smoke’s cabbage-y recipe for Lexington Barbecue Slaw. I still hated it. Blame my Yorker genes.

Holy Smoke shot North Carolina several notches up my list of favorite states–not enough, of course, that I would ever root for the Tar Heels or, God forbid, Duke. Yet unless you’re reading the book in North Carolina you’re out of luck, restaurantly speaking. I can’t find any pit-roasted pig in my neck of the woods, and the only hushpuppies are in the Salvation Army’s retro shoe corner. But that’s alright. We have beef on weck and white hots. You eat ’em when visiting western New York and I’ll feast on barbecue when in North Carolina–with or without ketchup in the sauce, depending on my distance from the Piedmont.

One black cloud does go scudding across the sky at book’s end. North Carolina has been invaded by placeless professionals and retirees in recent years, so much so that in 2007 Metro magazine of Raleigh gave its top three “Best of Barbecue” citations to “a Memphis-style chain, a Texas-style chain, and an ‘Eastern-style’ chain that cooks entirely with electricity.” Besides revealing “epidemic ignorance among Triangle-area yuppies,” the poll points to a disturbing trend: by the Reeds’ reckoning, no more than perhaps one in four North Carolina barbecue restaurants and joints cooks entirely with hardwood or charcoal–that is, the North Carolina way. Consequently, “what many places serve these days is to real pit barbecue what Velveeta is to cheese.” The authors are unreconstructed, humorously defiant in the best Dixie tradition. They conclude, “In some circles, ‘barbecue’ has come to mean slow-roasted pork served with a tangy vinegar-and-pepper sauce: Barbecue Lite. We say it’s faux ‘cue, and we say to hell with it.”

During the Confederate flag controversies of the 1990s, John Shelton Reed recommended a new Southern emblem: the dancing pig, symbol of Southern high spirits and interracial amity. Ed Mitchell, an African American barbecuer in Raleigh, echoes Reed: “Cooking barbecue is a craft handed down from generations to generations. I like cooking barbecue this way because it’s something to hold on to that hasn’t been tarnished yet. It allows all of us to interact. Barbecue was one of the things that held the tension down during the race movement in the 1960s. When there was a barbecue, it did not matter who you were, the only thing that could settle any issue would be having a pig picking. It’s a feasting time, a festive time. Nobody’s upset or mad, and there’s no other dish that powerful. And don’t ask me why because I don’t know. Maybe there’s a connection with the Bible-prodigal son went away, when he came back, they said, ‘Surely kill us a calf,’ and roasted it barbecue-style.”

Holy smoke indeed.


  1. I am a Mid-South bbq man myself: Memphis, St. Louis, Kansas City, Arkansas, Oklahoma. You can take take yours Carolina-style if you prefer, but I say, along with Robert Johnson, that the best bbq comes from the cross-roads.

  2. As a Kentuckian I have tried the mutton in establishments all over the state…and find that while I like it, nothing beats pork for BBQ.

    This book is one of a long line of tomes that confirm what many of us know: To really understand a culture, eat and learn about their food. BBQ is one way to do that. Another way I am fond of is to ask people how they make their chili. That recipe alone will tell you volumes about their roots.

  3. […] Michael Harrelson wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptNorth Carolina has been invaded by placeless professionals and retirees in recent years, so much so that in 2007 Metro magazine of Raleigh gave its top three “Best of Barbecue” citations to “a Memphis-style chain, a Texas-style chain, … Besides revealing “epidemic ignorance among Triangle-area yuppies,” the poll points to a disturbing trend: by the Reeds’ reckoning, no more than perhaps one in four North Carolina barbecue restaurants and joints cooks entirely with … […]

  4. South Carolina celebrates with bbq too! I raise pigs and am kicking myself that I don’t have any 80-100 pounders (only weaners) available for sale. I have been getting calls all over the place for bbq pigs. Next year I will plan better. Enjoyed reading this.

  5. I’m with R.A.F……Abe’s in Clarksdale, Mississippi may be at one of the rumored Crossroads and while it might have reasonable Ribs, there is no end to good rib joints all along Route 61 from Memphis to N’arlins. Dry rub or wet, it don’t matter but what matters is the Collard Greens and the absolutely vital meat stock reduction these bluesy greens simmer in. Proper Collard Greens is a thing of art.

    Gnawing ribs with a mess o greasy sticky sauce all up in your hands is about a fine a repast one can enjoy.

    Not to mention some Pecan Pie.

    Now, wheres my Charlie Patton tapes?

  6. I’ve had cause to stay in N. Carolina & Memphis. You get no turf divide here. All of that ‘cue is sweet to me–vinegary or saucy, no matter. It’s never all about the pork anyway. The sides make the meal. Simmered red taters, collards, red beans, green beans, dumplings, biscuits, homemade iced tea, corn on the cob… I can’t live by meat alone.

  7. What a delight to read this! I took a course in college (in North Carolina) all about Southern Culture. A lively debate ensued between those of the ketchup variety of ‘cue and those of the vinegar variety. Geography set me promptly in the vinegar camp, and good taste has kept me there. I am amenable, however, to trying other types of barbecue; I’m just delighted to get back to my senses with a good dose of vinegar when an opportunity affords itself.

  8. Thousands of Virginians died on their own soil to protect North Carolinian barbeque pits from Unionist intruders. Long live vinegar!

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