As a kid growing up in Wisconsin, like most midwesterners, I was raised to think the pinnacle of pork cooked outside over open flames looked something like this:
A few years back, I uprooted Mrs. Schu and the kids, and we took up residence in the Old North State. As the one OFD staff member living in North Carolina, I was drafted into this week's football food slot. While I can't quite match Fishoutofwater's mastery of homemade goodies, or NDMSPaint's kitchen photography (and culinary) skills, I can take you on a tour of something I myself have enjoyed discovering in the Tar Heel State: great southern barbecue.
When you visit North Carolina, it doesn't take long to understand that barbecue is a serious matter in these parts. People are quick to point out that barbecue is a noun, not a verb. This isn't about slapping a cut of meat or patty on a gas grill and burning it. Barbecue in North Carolina is the result of a slow, deliberate, loving process of cooking pork with the heat and smoke from burning hardwood and/or hardwood coals.
To say North Carolinians are passionate about barbecue would be akin to saying Irish fans have an interest in football. There are entire societies dedicated to North Carolina barbecue, with a mission statement that reads:
"The mission of the North Carolina Barbecue Society (NCBS) is to preserve North Carolina's barbecue history and culture and to secure North Carolina's rightful place as the Barbecue Capital of the World. Our goal is to promote North Carolina as "the Cradle of 'Cue" and embrace all that is good about barbecue worldwide. As we strive to achieve these lofty goals we will be guided by the polar star that barbecue is all about good food, good friends and good times."
Regional spats over the nature of barbecue have been the matter of statehouse debate as State House and Senate bills were proposed to settle upon the "official" style of barbecue for the state. Regional preferences over the nature of sauce become deep-seeded rivalries within the state. No self-respecting barbecue fan from the eastern region of the state would be caught dead with any tomato based sauce touching their prized pork, while in the western portions of the state, the "Lexington" style of sauce, which more closely resembles what is commonly thought of as bbq-sauce around the country, is preferred. In the east, you'll find more people prefer the "whole hog" barbecue, inclusive of both white and dark meat. In the west, preferences run towards smoking the pork shoulder, which is darker, juicier meat. Personally, I treat this debate similar to picking one of the three Research Triangle schools to root for. By staying neutral between the Tar Heels, Blue Devils, and Wolf Pack, you're far more likely to find tickets and opportunities to take in a game. By staying neutral in the barbecue debates, you're far more likely to find a crazy delicious lunch or dinner. Why pick sides when it all tastes so great?
A little digging starts to give you an understanding of the roots of this passion for great barbecue. According to the NCBS, North Carolina is the second largest pork producing entity on the planet. With the climate more suited for raising hogs vs. cattle, early settlers and residents began perfecting means for cooking the whole hog. Influenced by Caribbean and African means of preparing the meat, barbecue pits became a staple of North Carolina culture, and as barbecue stands began to dot the landscape of the state, the role of the barbecue pit and the pit master became woven into the local culture. Barbecue is an incredibly social food in North Carolina. Early barbecue stands were common at fairs and town celebrations, and even today, pig pickin' remains a summertime gathering favorite in the Tar Heel state.
Whether you're in to the whole hog, or a choice cut. Whether you are strictly a vinegar and pepper connoisseur or enjoy a little tomato in your sauce, you can find great barbecue in North Carolina. With the Irish participating in the ACC, you might have occasion to head on down this way and enjoy our beautiful region. With Duke, NC State, and this week's opponent - UNC, all in close proximity, there are plenty of great barbecue options to go out and discover while you're here. Let me pick two of them to highlight for you on different ends of the spectrum.
The Pit in Raleigh
Situated in downtown Raleigh, The Pit is the prototypical, "gotta go there" restaurant for visitors to the area. Don't let the downtown atmosphere and nice settings fool you in to thinking you're getting some corporate facsimile of pit-smoked barbecue. The Pit is the real deal, and the food is fantastic. With real southern sides like fried pickles, slaw, and hush puppies, The Pit serves up an authentic southern meal, and does it with a great beer and cocktail list to boot.
Smokey's BBQ Shack
The fact that Smokey's has a website should probably disqualify it from this end of the spectrum, but don't fret, Smokey's is a very authentic experience. Located a few miles from my house, and just outside Research Triangle Park, Smokey's offers wobbly picnic tables, paper towels on sticks, and great barbecue served up by a fun and friendly counter staff. The owner is a big Tennessee Vol's fan but is quick to make fun of the rest of the SEC, and always has something good to say when I come in wearing Irish gear. In addition to some tasty meats from the pit, Smokey's also serves up great hush puppies, and sweet potato tater tots that make for the perfect accompaniments. Delicious sweet tea, along with bottles of local sodas and beers round out a great Smokey's meal. My son always goes for Cheerwine and I usually grab whatever CBC brew is in season.
So what say you, oh great commentariat of OFD? Do you have a passion for barbecue? Any styles or sauces you favor? I know I'm early on my NC barbecue exploration journey, so I'm sure I missed many other spots to try out - but hey, we all have our blind spots.