When it comes to barbecue, North Carolina is pretty much a two-party state.
There are two competing camps in the pit-cooked pig arena: The Eastern faction, which favors whole hog sauced with vinegar, and the Piedmont contingent, which backs pork shoulder with a tomato-laced sauce. ‘Cue aficionados with the audacity to embrace alternate platforms—say, the blueberry-chipotle ribs presidential candidate Barack Obama may have ordered during his much-publicized visit to 12 Bones Smokehouse, or the baked potato with pimento cheese and brisket available at Luella’s—have long been dismissed as oddballs, curious guests at the state’s sauce-stained table.
But Southern food scholars John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed, who really have written the book on North Carolina barbecue and will visit Malaprop’s next week to talk about it, say the prevailing bipartisan system may be on the wane. They sense there’s a third style on the brink of legitimacy.
Up till now, barbecue allegiances have been determined by geography: An eater’s exit on Interstate 40 was a fairly safe predictor of sauce preference. But North Carolina’s big cities and coastal and mountain towns have lately coalesced around a very different version of ‘cue that makes use of meats and sauces heretofore foreign to the Tar Heel State.
“There’s a place in Murphy called Herb’s that’s cooking loins and collars,” John Reed exclaims. “The license plates on the walls are from New York and Florida. And then you’ve got those guys in Black Mountain who came from Alabama. These places came to the game late, and they didn’t learn their craft from Lexington, N.C. Most of them are cooking what people from Ohio expect when they go to a barbecue place.
“I don’t know if this will ever settle down and produce a mountain style, but you may be seeing an emerging third,” he predicts.
The Reeds come by their sagacity honestly, having thoroughly familiarized themselves with every aspect of North Carolina barbecue while writing Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue (University of North Carolina Press, 2008). After years of research conducted in libraries, kitchens and roadside restaurants, the Reeds are well-versed in everything from charcoal choice to cole slaw recipes.
“But we don’t just give you slaw recipes,” Dale Reed says. “It’s all history, from beginning to end. What we didn’t want to do was write a guidebook. Those go out of date. We wanted to write about how barbecue fits into the scheme of things.”
The book is divided into three sections, starting with a chapter on barbecue history that dispels some cherished culinary myths, including the long-suspect claim that barbecue owes its name to “barbe-a-queue,” a French phrase meaning “from beard to tail.” “John put that to rest,” Dale Reed says.
The Reeds also rigorously dispute the notion that “pig-pickings” are a longstanding tradition. While the concept may be a carry-over from previous generations, nobody set the words in print until 1971, when they were uttered in the course of a Congressional-committee hearing. After that, John Reed says, “it started popping up all over the state.”
The book’s second section is devoted to an exploration of the various side dishes that typically accompany barbecue, with recipes to match. “We wanted to make it possible for someone who wasn’t raised making cornbread to have North Carolina barbecue,” Dale Reed explains. After a chapter of interviews with practitioners, conducted by UNC Barbecue Society founder William McKinney, Holy Smoke winds up with an elegy for wood-fired pits.
“We would have called it the sacred and the propane,” Dale Reed jokes.
Citing cost and convenience, more North Carolina pit masters are switching from wood to gas, a move the Reeds consider an unspeakable shame. Which raises the inevitable philosophical question: If a man from Pennsylvania moves to Hendersonville and smokes Memphis-style ribs in a gas-powered pit, can his product be classified as North Carolina barbecue? How innovative can mountain and coastal pit masters get before they’re just plain heating meat?
“That’s where the great mushy middle comes from,” Dale Reed sighs.
“We’ve lost any control over what North Carolina barbecue means,” John Reed says. “A couple of the biggest operations stopped cooking with wood a long time ago, and still call it barbecue. If I was commissar, to call it barbecue, it would have to be cooked with coals. You couldn’t use electric alone.”
He adds: “You can call it barbecue with any sauce, or no sauce it all. I’m not sure you can call it North Carolina barbecue.”
Eastern North Carolinians were likely similarly dismissive when upstart Lexington pitmasters started adding tomato ketchup to their dip. The Piedmont style is a relatively recent phenomenon, dating back only to the World War I era. The innovations, the Reeds write, “were something new in the North Carolina barbecue world, and they were viewed by many Easterners with much the same enthusiasm that the medieval Catholic Church had for the Protestant Reformation.”
John Reed adds: “Lexington barbecue was invented in 1917, but now they’re more conservative than people in the East. The only changes these restaurants have made have to do with carpentry.”
It remains to be seen whether mountaineers will be able to follow the Piedmont pitmasters’ example and successfully carve out a niche in the North Carolina barbecue canon. Barbecue isn’t new to the mountains—“the folks at King’s Mountain were having a barbecue when Ferguson insulted them,” Reed says, referring to the 1780 Revolutionary War battle—but the traditional dearth of barbecue restaurants in the West (an aberration even the Reeds can’t explain) has muted the region’s contribution to the statewide conversation.
“The mountains,” John Reed says, “are up for grabs.”
John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed will appear at Malaprops on Thursday, Nov. 6, at 7 p.m.
Xpress food writer Hanna Rachel Raskin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.