Smoky, smoky mountains: The changing face of North Carolina barbecue

12 Bones Smokehouse  Photo by Cindy Kunst
12 Bones Smokehouse Photo by Cindy Kunst

“Write about the succulent glories of Tar Heel barbecue at one’s own peril,” warned Rosemary Roberts of the Greensboro News & Record, “It’s much safer to take on the National Rifle Association.” Barbecue is North Carolina’s love, lust and food of choice. Hell, it might as well be our state religion. And if love, religion and food are the three most common causes of rifts, rivalries and wars, barbecue is a deeply entrenched battleground.

A brief history of Tar Heel barbecue

North Carolina might be the birthplace of American barbecue. In the early 1700s, German and Dutch immigrants brought with them a love of pork and a craving for vinegar. Smoking the meat helped preserve it, and the seasonings and sauces developed in tandem with the tastes of the people who created them and the trade routes.

From those isolated communities emerged several distinct barbecue camps, whose territories remain ferociously entrenched to this day. Hinged on the hog’s butt and shoulders, eastern South Carolina barbecue favored a mustard-based sauce. “My family settled in Lexington, near Columbia, in the 1700s,” says Jason Caughman, Pisgah Brewing Co. co-founder and barbecue bon vivant. “They put the Germans in the wildest part,” the native South Carolinian explains. “They gave all the immigrants the land on the frontier, to buffer themselves from the Indians. I guess they must have had mustard with them.”

Around the same time, though, something totally different was happening in eastern North Carolina, whose inhabitants loved whole smoked swine, coarsely chopping the crisp skins along with the fatty parts and drowning it all in vinegar and black pepper. But a little later in the game, in a different Lexington in North Carolina in the mid 1800s, the pit masters began to innovate on what had become an ingrained barbecue tradition in the East.

“Western North Carolina barbecue is an anomaly,” says chef Mike Moore, founder of the Blind Pig Supper Club and the owner of Seven Sows Bourbon & Larder. “I see ‘WNC barbecue sauce’ on modern restaurant menus and I say to myself, ‘What is that?’ Where are the mom-and-pop restaurants that have been doing barbecue since the 1920s or earlier?” says Moore, who’s cooked with some legends of Carolina ’cue, including Ed Mitchell of The Pit, a Raleigh barbecue mecca. “I don’t think there are any at all in Western Carolina! Lexington is considered Western North Carolina, but not to us that live in the mountains.”

Moore’s not the only one who finds WNC barbecue hard to pin down. “I feel like, back in the day, there were a lot more barbecue places in WNC that probably had their own sauces, but all those places are closed down now,” says former Admiral chef Elliott Moss, who’s working toward opening his own barbecue pit in Asheville. “I know of Little Pigs and their sauce, but I haven’t had enough of it to say ‘Oh, hell yeah, that’s Western North Carolina style.’ Even 12 Bones is doing a hybrid, where all of the sauces are represented. It’s the same with Moe’s and Luella’s.’”

Lexington, N.C., began mixing tomato into its sauces in the 1800s, but in keeping with barbecue’s slow evolution, it took time to catch on. Still, by the 1940s, the cultural divide was firmly fixed, and the Wilmington Star lambasted the tomato-based barbecue, calling it “the loathsome Lexington style.” Ironically, it became known as Western North Carolina barbecue: fitting, in a way, since Asheville had only two ’cue joints before 1980 and none before 1962, when Gus Koole opened the now defunct Barbecue Inn; the following year, Joe Swicegood started pit smoking at Little Pigs on McDowell Street.

“That’s one of the things that has always boggled my mind,” says Moore. “We have such a rich history of trading between the low country, the Carolinas high country and the Cherokee nation: Why aren’t there more barbecue restaurants in Asheville?”

Moore talks a lot about the old Buncombe Turnpike, also called the Drovers Road, an early 19th century trade route enabling farmers in Kentucky, east Tennessee and WNC to send herds of hogs and other animals to Charleston.

“It’s crazy to think about,” he says. “But Sherrill’s Inn was a really historic point where drovers would stop and stay the night.” And Aston Park, continues Moore, “used to be a plot of land where all of the herds of cattle and pigs were penned up. There’s a lot of history that revolves around the pig here.”

Not everyone was happy about it. Civil War-era Gov. Zebulon Vance complained, “The rain continues to fall, and our streets are almost impassable with the mud, and thousands upon thousands of hogs moving through the town adds to the general filthyness of everything around.” Meanwhile, in the wake of Sherman’s march, the infrastructure linking Asheville and the low country all but vanished.

“There are so many barbecue pits in the Piedmont region that have been around since the early 1900s,” notes Moore. “Those places have been doing their own sauce for that long. And you don’t see that in Western North Carolina.”

The smokeless mountains

Because mountain barbecue got started so late, we weren’t as bound by tradition as the folks in other regions. By the time our pig scene developed, Asheville already had a tourism-based economy, and rather than creating its own techniques, mountain barbecue just assimilated everything that had passed through. The Blue Ridge Barbecue Festival became a showcase for Tennessee, Alabama, Texas and Kansas City ’cue, rather than troubling itself with the trifles of the Western vs. Eastern Carolina rivalry.

“That’s actually something really great about the barbecue scene here: Since there is no strict tradition, people aren’t so deep-seated in their preconceived notions about it,” says former 12 Bones chef Chad Gibson. “The reason there’s so much variation throughout the state is that even though there is a lot of tradition, everywhere barbecue has popped up, people have always done their own thing. They’ve added their own flavors; they’ve come up with their own recipes.” That’s abundantly evident in Asheville. Luella’s, for example, which specializes in Missouri style ’cue, offers almost a dozen sauces to choose from — some spicy, some sweet. A far cry from the Eastern and Piedmont traditions of one true sauce, often chopped in with the meat.

“I’ve been cooking for over 17 years, and there is no other segment of food culture as adamant, arrogant and as mean as people are when it comes to barbecue,” Gibson declares. Author John Shelton Reed, he points out, “called the Carolinas ‘the Balkans of Barbecue,’ because if you go 40 minutes from here to over there it’s a different culture; it’s a completely different product. And not only is it different, but they are adamant that only what they know, only what they grew up with, and only what they’ve had is the right way to do it.”

“You know who really screwed that up for everybody is KC Masterpiece, Heinz, Sticky Fingers and all that crap that came out in the ’80s,” says Moore. “There was just an explosion of tomato-based, sugary sauces.” And that bottled stuff can now be tasted in every potato chip and Hot Pocket in every gas station across the country.

As for Asheville’s barbecue scene, “What’s really missing,” says Moore, “is smoke. It’s the wood: It takes a lot of time to tend to the fire, stoke the coals and whatnot.”

There are more than 300 barbecue restaurants, stands and food trucks in North Carolina these days, but the North Carolina Barbecue Society estimates that fewer than 30 of them still use pits. Most have converted to modern smokers with temperature regulators, automated dampers and robotic bellows. It’s so much simpler: You throw five or so logs in the furnace, set your temperature, rub down your meat, wait 13 hours, and then indulge yourself with a perfect butt or shoulder (smokers are generally too small to accommodate a whole hog).

“Can you produce the same quality barbecue in a smoker as you can in a pit?” asks Gibson. “I believe so. But with a pit you have one guy whose sole job is to watch that pig and know when it’s done. When you switch to the smoker, you don’t have that. A pit gives you a continuous interaction with the product.”

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire

“I’m definitely drawn to the pit, but it comes from wanting to cook whole hog,” says Moss, who’s teaming up with fellow James Beard Award nominee Meherwan Irani of Chai Pani on a new barbecue venture. It’s too early to say when Buxton Hall will open, but Moss promises there’ll be wood-fired pits. “For me, the core of barbecue is that you have a pit. You can cook a butt in anything: even a barrel. But a pit comes from cooking whole hog, and that becomes a whole different thing. You don’t just have one piece of meat: It’s long, stringy pieces of belly and chopped shoulder, pulled pork. … It’s just everything, and you get all the different textures and flavors of meat.”

No one’s doing whole hog around Asheville, which is what makes Buxton Hall such a standout in the world of mountain barbecue. “With whole hog, you’re cooking the animal in its own skin, its own fat,” he explains. “It doesn’t tend to dry out like a Boston butt, which is just raw meat with a bone in it. I think a lot of people put rubs and things like that on Boston butts because that will help seal in the juices, which creates a layer, but then that’s all you’re tasting is the rub. I just want to taste the meat with some salt on it and a sauce. I don’t want a dry seasoning on my barbecue.”

“Growing up, we cooked whole hog and just smothered it in vinegar and pepper,” Moss recalls. “I can enjoy other people’s barbecue, but I just prefer mine.”

Still, even once Buxton Hall opens, Moss won’t be the mountains’ only pitmaster. Starr Teel — a graduate of France’s Le Cordon Bleu and owner of Hubba Hubba Smokehouse, a hidden gem in Flat Rock, N.C. — has been smoking in his custom pit for over seven years.

“We’re a throwback,” says the energetic, passionate Teel. “When I started all this, I’d had a history with baking and wood-fired ovens and building them commercially, including the original oven at the Flat Rock Village Bakery. And I’ve always felt like that craft piece lent something to it, and made it special in a way that these mechanical add-wood smokers can’t quite accomplish.”

Teel’s labor of love lends a rich, smoky, tender flavor to his pulled pork, chicken, brisket and ribs. “Wood is a 24-hour-a-day event.” he says. “Once I start the fire, I burn it around the clock up until right before we close at Christmas. It’s a seven-day-a-week event. Once my pit reaches optimal temperatures, right around that 200 degree mark, I maintain it by adding the right amounts of wood throughout the day; then, overnight, I don’t have to chase my heat. You don’t want to chase that heat up or down. It’s hard to get a consistent product if you don’t have a nice, constant burn in there.”

A typical day in the pits, says Teel, starts “as early as 6 in the morning. You come in, you check to see how things are, and the meat starts coming off around 7:30 or 8 o’clock. Your brisket will go for another couple of hours, then you start pulling out the pork butts, your ribs, your chicken goes on… and you’re doing that throughout the day. Then at the end of the day, with everything out, you’re still feeding the fire until things go back in at 7:30 or 8 o’clock in the evening, and they go on overnight. The last wood I usually put on is around 9 o’clock at night, and to be perfectly honest, that’s why nobody does it.”

“Even some of the great, classic barbecue places that you presume are operating traditional pits,” he continues, “are not doing it anymore.”

More than the meat

Here’s the really disappointing secret of barbecue,” says Gibson: “Making the meat isn’t the hardest part. It’s really the sides that make barbecue great.”

“The reason I ended up working at 12 Bones was because a friend took me there, and I was eating their grits, and I was looking at the little peppers in there. It was very clear to me that nobody put those in a Buffalo Chopper. The only way to get your peppers cut like that is to cut them by hand and take your time. And it occurred to me that someone who gives a s**t is making this food. It’s not fun to dice 30 or 40 poblano peppers, you know? I started as the nighttime prep cook, and that pretty much meant coming in at 4 p.m., when they closed, and cooking into the night just to have enough prep for the next day.”

Moss, too, lauds 12 Bones’ sides. “In South Carolina, it’s just all about the sides,” he says. “I remember moving here and the thing that I liked the most about 12 Bones was that the sides were way above the bar for barbecue joints anywhere. It was cool to see some place that doesn’t just serve potato salad and coleslaw: They’ve got smoked mushrooms and stuff. And it can change every day! You can’t do that down south: People get pissed if they don’t get their hush puppies or whatever it is they like.”

Moss, too, plans to focus on what Gibson calls “froufrou barbecue,” depending on local farmers for everything from greens to hogs and offering seasonally oriented sides. “We’re going to be using good meat and good veggies, all North Carolina or South Carolina products,” he reports. “Not just in North Carolina but all over, barbecue can be thought of as not really trying to be sustainable with local products. Nobody blinks an eye anymore paying $12 for a cheeseburger, but with a barbecue sandwich that takes 13 hours to cook, wood to burn it and a good hog, it can get expensive.”

Asheville may not have eastern North Carolina’s rich barbecue history or the Piedmont region’s legacy of pride and innovation. Yet restaurants like Little Pigs, 12 Bones and Luella’s have been instrumental in developing an autonomous mountain barbecue scene that’s set the stage for pitmasters like Moss and Teel. With their integrity of craft, their respect for tradition and their willingness to innovate, it’s hard not to think of what John Shelton Reed wrote in his 2008 book Holy Smoke: “Maybe a hundred years from now there will be three competing, mutually scornful barbecue regions in North Carolina.”

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About Jonathan Ammons
Native Asheville writer, eater, drinker, bartender and musician.

5 thoughts on “Smoky, smoky mountains: The changing face of North Carolina barbecue

  1. Good article!

    But bottom line is that the mountains just don’t have a barbe-chew tradition, nor does this area have many decent BBQ joints beyond 12 Bones and one or two others. If you want real barbecue, of whatever style, don’t come to Asheville. Go to Eastern NC, go to the Piedmont, go to South Carolina, go to rural Georgia, go to Memphis, go to Texas. ‘Nuff said. Moe’s is a bleeping chain out of Colorado or someplace like that. I can’t believe so many folks think it is some kind of local joint and plug it on TripAdvisor, Yelp and so on. Puh-leeze!

    –Lan Sluder
    http://www.amazingasheville.net

  2. I love the fact that Moe’s (the BBQ chain in Biltmore Village) gets to compete with Moe’s (the Southwestern Grill on Biltmore Ave a few hundred yards away and now Merrimon). What’s a tourist to think?

    BTW, why does anyone boil their ribs before cooking them?

  3. Pingback: Barbecue Bros

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