Barbecue is in my blood. I seek it out wherever I go. Cooking meat over flames and coals has been a family tradition for generations. Hell, for the longest time I though roasting a pig in the ground was the only way to cook pork. Ovens were for cakes. Maybe Hank Williams Jr. is a distant cousin.
My family came to Eastern North Carolina in the 1690’s with a group of Welsh, German, and Scottish settlers moving down south from Pennsylvania along the King’s highway through Virginia and the Carolinas. Some of us went west carving out homesteads in the Appalachian foothills southeast of what would become Asheville. Others settled the region that would become Charlotte. My branch of the tree decided on the fertile Cape Fear river basin inland from the port of Wilmington to build their plantations and farms. We’ve been there ever since.
Eastern North Carolina is a hot humid place for most of the year. People do anything they can to stay cool and for two hundred years that meant cooking outdoors as much as possible. I think many of the grilling and barbecuing traditions we take for granted today began as a simple way to keep the house cool when cooking dinner. It was also cost-effective in a land carpeted with timber.
What would become barbecue was also a social thing. Families and communities would come together to eat and mingle, gathering around roasted hogs, tearing off chunks of steaming buttery meat at leisure, while sharing news and stories with neighbors and friends. These gatherings are still common today in many parts of North Carolina and the south. Barbecue is meant to be shared.
Pork was a very common meat source in the colonial age. Swine was cheap and plentiful compared to cattle. Easy to maintain and hearty, pigs were a common sight on early farms and homesteads. No part of the hog was wasted. Even today its common to find pickled pigs feet, fried sow’s ear, fatback, and crackling, at convenient stores and delis all across the south. Personally I feel the best pork in the United States still comes from the tidewater regions of Virginia and North Carolina. Ever heard of Smithfield?
Today the most popular pork barbecue is ribs, and butt. Cured ham is also popular across the south and the country as a whole but it’s not really barbecue, but its roots remain a southern thing. Pork butt or shoulder is a thing of beauty when done correctly. Correctly meaning not slathered in sauce. The same could be said of ribs. Don’t get me wrong, we love our sauce in the south. North Carolina has its own distinct vinegar sauces, but these are meant for adding after cooking to accentuate the rich fatty flavor of pork, not cover it up.
I learned at an early age that good barbecue, the kind you drive an hour across the county for, is about two things: the right wood and a good rub. In North Carolina, the right wood is usually hickory and oak. Rubs are simple mixes of salt, pepper, garlic, and maybe paprika for color. Everything else is just window dressing. Good barbecue needs no sauce. I’ll say that again for all my mid-west friends, GOOD BARBECUE NEEDS NO SAUCE!
The best barbecue I’ve ever eaten used a rub with just 3 ingredients, salt, pepper, and a little ground cayenne. It was slow smoked over white oak and hickory for 8 hours. A faint sweetness, a little heat from the pepper and cayenne that tickled the edge of your lips and back of your throat, and a crusty black bark that was pure BBQ candy! I still aim to replicate that pork I tasted all those years ago.
In my 30’s I found Texas style barbecue and built my own obsession with brisket and sausage. I appreciate the dedication to simplicity and wood smoke in Texas. That’s why Franklin Barbecue is my mecca. When we move there later this year Austin will be our goal, and I can’t wait to hit the central Texas Barbecue circle. I’ve been to KC and had the ribs. I’ve tried chicken and white sauce in Alabama and Brunswick stew in Virginia, but I still go back to my Carolina pork every time. Brisket may be king but at $80 a slab, I’ll take my $20 pork butt anytime.
Oh barbecue How I love thee. I spend my cold winter months stuck here in the snowy wasteland of Northern Illinois dreaming of summer, wood smoke, and dripping fat. It’s been hard living up here these past few years. While there might be some standout BBQ joints in the southern part of the state, here close to the Wisconsin border, it’s a BBQ desert. It seems the prevailing attitude towards barbecue is dry pork smothered in thick sauce and tasteless brisket served 3 days after it was smoked (on gas with wood chips, BLASPHEMY!) Time and time again I stroll into local shops, hopeful and optimistic. I’m told “ours is the best!” each time I’m disappointed and left heartbroken and in despair. I weep for these teeming masses stuck here with no idea of the richness and beauty of real barbecue. Pray for us America.