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Barbecue, North Carolina style

Different regional flavors inspire lifelong devotees.

By David ConradsCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 18, 2009

EASTERN STYLE: Dennis Monk checks on pork cooking in the pit of Wilber's Barbecue in Goldsboro, N.C.

Jim R. Bounds/AP

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Spend enough time in certain parts of the United States and you get the distinct impression that barbecue is a lot like religion. While all barbecue involves the cooking of meat over a fire, this most primal form of cooking has fractured into a multitude of sects and splinter groups, and even the most ecumenical devotees tend to be loyal to one form of barbecue above all others.

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Then again, maybe barbecue is more like college football. Good or bad, folks tend to love the 'cue they grew up with, whether it's ribs in Kansas City, beef brisket in Texas, or a pulled pork sandwich topped with coleslaw in South Carolina.

"It's a local sport to argue about barbecue," says Dale Volberg Reed, a writer in Chapel Hill, N.C. "People grow up with loyalties to colleges. They grow up with loyalties to barbecue. And they have a hard time switching."

For Ms. Reed and her husband, John Shelton Reed, real barbecue is that which is practiced in North Carolina. They've written a book devoted to the subject, "Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue," written with William McKinney. While the part-cookbook-part-manual may not spark waves of apostasy in other centers of American "barbeculture," its many recipes, along with a wealth of history, lore, photographs, and illustrations, make it a worthy addition to the groaning shelf of works on barbecue – and an excellent guide to the Tar Heel state's distinctive interpretation of a great American cooking style.

What exactly is North Carolina barbecue? To begin, say the authors, it's not simply whatever happens to be served up within the state's borders and called barbecue. Nor is it ribs, brisket, lamb, sausage, or chicken.

"We do all those things," says John Reed, then adds with a laugh, "We just don't think of them as barbecue."

The real thing is pretty simple. It's pork, cooked slowly for a long time at a low temperature over a hardwood fire, served with a thin sauce, or "dip," made with vinegar, red pepper, salt, sometimes tomato, and not much else.

North Carolina barbecue is composed of two major sects. Practitioners in the east primarily cook whole hogs and use a vinegar-based sauce. Those in the central part of the state, the Piedmont region, have generally forsaken cooking the whole hog in favor of just the shoulder and have embraced adding some tomato to the sauce. These seemingly small differences have sparked a good deal of intrastate wrangling, but, as the authors point out, the two styles of cooking are more like each other than either is like what you'd find elsewhere in the country. Anyway, the feud is almost as good as the food.