Wednesday, February 02, 2011
The news broke yesterday that the Democratic National Convention will be in Charlotte, North Carolina in 2012. This morning Tom Breen of the Associated Press called to see if I'd check in about our local barbecue for his AP BBQ story, since Michele Obama mentioned that she was excited about having barbecue in Charlotte. I'm not sure how Tom found me, but I'm always glad to talk about our local barbecue.
Charlotte really is not a barbecue city. It falls outside the western range which pretty well cuts off in my home town of Salisbury. People think of the foothills and mountains of NC when they hear west, but the barbecue world is divided a little different in our state. There's the western barbecue region which is Lexington style and then the eastern style which would run from roughly Raleigh over to the beach. Raleigh is kind of a mixed bag with some eastern and some western and some hybrids.
The difference in eastern and western barbecue is mainly that eastern barbecue is whole hog and a vinegar sauce with spices while western is shoulders (or Boston Butts - a portion of the shoulder) and a vinegar based sauce with a little "red." By red, I'm talking about ketchup or other types of tomato products. The western barbeuce sauce is still vinegar based and thin, but it is usually a tad thicker than the plainer eastern style mop sauce and has a darker color.
Both eastern and western style barbecue in North Carolina is chopped pork. I often hear people call it pulled pork, but it's not pulled. Pulling is easier than chopping. Pitmasters in North Carolina use knives, and it takes a lot of knife work to fine chop pork barbeuce.
For folks outside the area, North Carolina barbecue may be a surprise. As I mentioned, it is chopped pork. Typically it's served on a white bread bun or on barbecue bread (which is just thicker and sturdier white bread) with slaw on top. There's a nice zip with the meat and the cool crunch of the slaw.
Barbecue slaw in North Carolina is white or red. White has a mayonnaise base and is what most people think of when they think of slaw. The red slaw has some of the sauce mixed in so is tangier and does have a red color.
It is common for barbecue joints in North Carolina to serve a basket of hush puppies with the barbecue. Those are kind of like cornbread balls deep fried. Every barbecue joint seems to do those a little different.
Other common side dishes include fried okra, baked beans, mac and cheese, green beans with fat back, white potatoes with some sauce in there, and brunswick stew (although brunswick stew is more often seen at eastern style bbq restaurants).
Sweet tea is the most common beverage at barbecue restaurants, but Cheerwine (a soft drink that is just colored red like wine - hence the name) bottled out of Salisbury is also a classic along with barbecue. Cheerwine is especially good out of the bottles made with real cane sugar.
While there are many barbecue joints across North Carolina, there are only about thirty what we'd call authentic barbecue restaurants left. Those would be the wood burners. They chop (or buy) wood and slow smoke the barbecue usually on site though some also cook off site now.
Out of Charlotte, the Obamas would likely need to look to Salisbury, North Carolina where Richard's and Wink's both have fabulous wood smoked barbecue. I'm guessing they would need to have someone pick it up though, since I can't even imagine trying to bring in a President and his family to a small town barbecue restaurant. Then again that could be fun, and I'd be glad to pick up the tab for Barack, Michelle and the girls for a barbecue meal from my town from a real wood smoking joint.
There are a number of reasons why there are not a lot of our wood burners smoking barbecue the traditional way. Health codes in many areas now disallow fires on site at restaurants. Established barbecue joints were grandfathered in, but if they close down for some reason, that's the end of that.
Another reason that you can't find a lot of the wood burners now in North Carolina is because it's so labor intensive to wood smoke. Some bbq pitmasters smoke the meat all night, run the restaurant during the day, and even split their own wood to prepare for the next night. That, as you can imagine, takes a lot of dedication.
Many young people are not interested in following in those footsteps, and it takes a lot of heart to do wood smoked barbecue, since it's way more an art than a science.
For obvious reasons, good pitmasters are hard to find and keep. The ones who stick with it are worth their weight in gold.
I hope the Obamas will get to try some of our North Carolina real slow wood smoked barbecue. It is really a treat and not that easy to find these days. There is some very good gas or electric smoked barbecue across the state, but the wood smoked barbecue captures both the taste and the heart of North Carolina, and it's well worth the time to search out the real thing.