Pit masters: Book chronicles history of N.C. barbecue
By Susan Shinn
Truth be told, the biggest issue in North Carolina is not deciding between Democrat and Republican.
It’s deciding whether Piedmont or Eastern-style barbecue is best.
And that’s a dispute, my friends, that no election will ever resolve.
It’s a fine problem to have. North Carolina will always be pro-pork. We love our barbecue in the Old North State.
To help explain the origins of this fabulous food, John Shelton Reed, Dale Volberg Reed and William McKinney have written “Holy Smoke ó The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue.”
The authors tout the book as the definitive guide to the people, recipes and lore surrounding North Carolina barbecue.
Now right up front, they’ll tell you they’re not from North Carolina. The Reeds hail from Tennessee and McKinney is from South Carolina. (Let’s not even get into that whole mustard-based deal.)
But their devotion to barbecue is unrivaled. As evidenced in this book, these people eat, sleep and probably dream of pork.
(It’s kinda like when Yankees tell you, “I’m not from the South but I got here as soon as I could.”)
The book is divided into three sections: The Lore, The Food and The People.
The Lore section tells you everything you always wanted to know or ever wondered about the history of barbecue in North Carolina.
And that’s where our own Gary Freeze comes in.
Freeze, who teaches history at Catawba College, is mentioned here because of the theory he’s developed.
Since Germans settled in the Piedmont, Freeze says, their type of barbecue has a Pennsylvania Dutch and German origin.
The Eastern part of the state was more English ó thus a different style of barbecue emerged there.
But why does barbecue still matter so much here? Why are people still passionate about it?
“North Carolina has remained very traditional in his cultural attitudes,” Freeze says. “It became industrialized, but it never modernized until recently. Most states grew urban before industrialization. North Carolina is the exact opposite.
“My argument is, people still keep their minds in the 19th century.”
And that’s when cooking a pig was the centerpiece of community gatherings.
“We have simply remained a rural people more than elsewhere,” Freeze says.
The division between East and West plays out between politics and culture, Freeze says. “To choose Lexington-style barbecue is to identify yourself as a western North Carolinian.”
Whichever you choose, it’s good eating. Most people may not realize they want to reach out and taste the past ó they just know they have a hankering for a small tray and sweet tea come lunchtime.
In The Food segment, the authors talk about every barbecue accompaniment you can imagine ó sauces and dips, slaw, cornbread, hushpuppies, brunswick stew, desserts, even what to drink.While the most accepted drink is sweet tea, Pepsi (for Eastern-style) and Cheerwine (for the Piedmont) are also mentioned.
Beer has never much been served with barbecue, mostly because N.C. barbecue restaurants are family establishments.
We can’t mention beverages without mentioning Childress Vineyards in Lexington, which comes out every fall with its Fine Swine Wine as part of the annual Lexington Barbecue Festival. The 25th annual event is set to take place Saturday in Lexington.
See, I told you we were serious about barbecue.
Folks who are really serious about barbecue cook it at home.
The authors go into detailed instructions on how you can cook a pig at home.
This is an undertaking that I can’t even fathom or begin to want to do myself.
Not Graham Corriher. A couple of weeks ago, the China Grove native put on the Second-Annual Beautiful People Eat Pork Pig Pickin’.
Now you would think that a young man who grew up in the southern part of the county would have learned to barbecue from his father or uncles.
“Last year I went to visit some friends in New York,” Corriher says. “We went to a barbecue fundraiser.”
The people who put on the fundraiser were connected with the Food Network and barbecued a pig the way they’d learned to do it in Argentina.
(I swear, I am not making this up.)
“I was just fascinated,” Corriher says. “I was just amazed at how delicious it was. I decided to try it on my own. I called Frank Corriher and found out the smallest pig I could get was 115 pounds. I thought I’d give it a shot.”
He adds, “It turned out really well, so I’ve kinda made it an annual thing.”
Corriher cooks the pig on a contraption dad John and cousin Chris came up with.
Corriher acknowledges that it looks like a medieval torture device.
“I sort of do it for the spectacle of it,” he says. “Everybody has their best method. This is really more for the fun and fellowship. We had a blast.”
The final section of the book is about The People, which is where the book shines.The authors interviewed some of the greats in North Carolina barbecue. If you go back in the histories of the pitmasters, you realize, one way or another, they’re all connected.
“All us barbecue guys are inbred,” says Chip Stamey, owner of Stamey’s in Greensboro.
There are interviews with Ed Mitchell in Wilson, Keith Allen in Chapel Hill, Debbie Bridges in Shelby and of course Wayne Monk in Lexington.
The men ó and one woman ó tell their part of the barbecue story in their own words. It’s charming, and they give much insight of how North Carolina barbecue came to be ó and how it’ll still be going strong years from now, thanks to the tireless devotion of these hardworking families.
Hill Harper may be the most well-rounded person I’ve ever met. A magna cum laude graduate of Brown University ó... read more