Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Barbecue Primer

To be clear, the word "barbecue" in the South is not a verb.  It is a noun, defined as a dish of smoked meat as tender as melted butter, smothered in a sauce so good it makes grown men cry.
We Southerners are funny about our barbecue.  We'll lock arms against an outsider who casts aspersions on it, but when we begin to discuss the same subject among ourselves, all the wheels fall off the wagon.
We disagree on everything connected to the word - from the type of wood required for smoking it to the best way of cooking it, not to mention the proper way to remove the meat from the bone and serve it.  And on the question of whose sauce is best - well - you might fare better slapping your mama than you would throwing that topic out into the middle of a Southern gathering - and we all know not to slap our mamas.
Since this is a blog and not a book, I'm limited for space, so I'll narrow my perspective and talk a bit about North Carolina barbecue.  And, really, is there any other kind?  Don't misunderstand.  Even within the confines of the state line, the variety of barbecues and sauces is vast.  Seeking to identify a clear winner has been known to cause fist fights, protracted court cases, family estrangements and even the occasional divorce.
About the only thing North Carolinians will attest to is that there are two general cagtegories of barbecue around here - Eastern and Western - and we'll grudgingly agree that the line of demarcation seems to fall somewhere between Raleigh and Charlotte - and we'll give it to you that smoking a pig over hickory wood is generally a good idea.  However, there is no road sign that says "You Are Now Entering The Eastern NC Barbecue Zone", no line on a map that says "Western NC Barbecue Continental Divide".  So stop looking.
Way down east (past Raleigh sort of) they smoke their pigs and baste them in a sauce made from vinegar and red pepper and not much else.  Then, coming back toward Charlotte (but well before you get there) the sauce begins to take on a little color.  Right about Lexington you reach a sort of barbecue equilibrium - a near perfect balance between Eastern and Western styles that has resulted in the famous "Lexington-Style Barbecue" - a delicious happy medium that seems to cause the least amount of friction among us all.  We're even content to let the rest of the world come to Lexington and leave thinking they've tasted the real NC BBQ deal.  They have...until they cross over into the next county.
West of Lexington (for the most part) all bets are once again off.  We still love our hickory smoke, but the sauces are thick, brick-red, sweet, spicy, hot, sour and savory - all at the same time.  The recipes vary from county to county, even family to family.
I know a set of brothers who won't let their wives know the secret to the family recipe.  I have tasted their sauce, too, and I fully understand why.  I once saw it served for lunch in a corporate board room in New York City.  The prospective client held a multi-million-dollar advertising account in his hands.  Going in, the odds were against the sales team trying to land that account, a sales team that was headed by my sister.  She knew it was do or die, so she called me from New York and had me buy a plane ticket for several pounds of barbecue with fixings, plus a pint or two of that sauce.  We flew it into Newark, she had it couriered into the city, and she served it all on a red check tablecloth.  After lunch, the account was hers - won by a little bit of pluck and a Mason jar full of barbecue magic.
You notice, too that I'm only talking about smoking pigs - for good reason.  Here in the Carolinas, we aren't real impressed with that whole Texas business of barbecued beef - well - except for the beef served by the famous Mr. Sims in Dudley Shoals, NC - but, see there - I'm proving my own point.  As my husband would say, boiling us down to one style or flavor is about as easy as nailing jello to a fencepost.
And just when I find myself declaring that there is no such single thing as NC Barbecue, a timely trip below the state line into South Carolina jolts me back to reality.  Down there, they tragically fill their sauce full of mustard and don't know any better than to brag about it.  All of a sudden, the North Carolina picture once again comes into focus.  It's like an Impressionist painting that makes perfect sense from a distance but loses all capacity for definition when viewed at close range.
And, of course, the people in South Carolina get just as worked up over the obvious ignorance of the people in Georgia who claim a special dispensation from the barbecue gods.  And the people in Georgia laugh out loud at the people in Alabama who pride themselves on how to pick a pig.

My best advice?  Come see us and enjoy it all.  But if you don't agree at the end of the day that North Carolina barbecue in all of its many forms wins the trophy - well - you'd be wise not to let that out until you're at least ten miles across the state line into either Virginia or Tennessee.

Tomorrow is Countdown Friday, by the way...
The count will be 295 


  1. LOL! Remind me never to discuss BBQ with you! Sort of like religion and politics! ;-)
    Bet I'd like what YOU'D cook up though!
    Hugs, Diane

  2. It is however, a nice problem to have.

  3. How true, how true! Great insight.....

  4. A place called Maurice's in Columbia, South Carolina has a sign on the wall that says "There are BBQ and there are BBQ. But there ain't no other BBQ like Maurice's." I ate some of it. And I would agree. :-) But I would also add "There ain't none better than the BBQ King in Lincolnton, North Carolina."