Saturday, March 03, 2012

North Carolina Barbecue - East and West - The Real Scoop

North Carolina Barbecue Chopped Pork Sandwich Plate

Politics. Religion. Barbecue. You can stir up a hornet’s nest if you bring up any of these topics in North Carolina. We take these things serious and to heart.

What Is North Carolina BBQ?

North Carolina BBQ is chopped (not pulled) pork on a bun in contrast to most barbecues across the country which would be beef or other meats served as a main course like ribs or brisket. Barbeque in North Carolina is, of course, more complicated than that, but that’s a good starting point.

In North Carolina – We Do NOT Barbecue

Like folks from Kansas, North Carolinians do not barbecue. We eat barbecue. Barbecue is a noun and not a verb. Putting food on the grill is called grilling. You do not barbecue hot dogs, burgers, or steak in North Carolina. You grill those. In fact, you do not barbecue anything. That’s just wrong.

Barbecue is what you put on the plate and not what you do in the yard. It’s an artisan food that locals take very personally and proud and rightfully so. We’re not talking ten minutes on the grill and off. Real North Carolina barbecue takes hours with someone getting up during the night to double check.

Someone Is Watching This Meat and For Many Hours

When you're talking North Carolina barbecue, the smoking time it ten, twelve, fourteen hours. That's why you're not going to find many of these real deal barbecue joints and why you can't get NC style barbecue all over the country. The pitmaster is going to be a really dedicated guy (or in very rare cases - a girl) who can keep the barbecue fires burning and day after day for a restaurant.

Low and Slow Over Smoke

It’s not real barbecue in North Carolina, unless the pork is cooked at low temperatures for many hours and over a wood fire. If you go behind a BBQ joint and don’t see a wood pile, then it’s not really NC barbecue. If there are spider webs on the woodpile, then you’ve been snookered. Ideally, you’ll see smoke coming out of the smoke house, although meat is not cooked around the clock. Still, you should smell that distinct wood smoke in the air.

It Takes a Lot of Wood To Keep Up a NC Wood Burner BBQ Joint

You can get some decent barbecue over gas with wood chips which is how things are going with the government regulations and wood smoking looking like a dying art, but the few wood burners left have been grandfathered in, and let’s all hope they pass the torch. It would really be a shame to lose our food heritage here in the Carolinas.

North Carolina Barbecue – East and West

In eastern North Carolina, the smoked meat is whole hog. In other words, they cook the entire pig. In the piedmont where most barbecue is called Lexington-style, shoulders are cooked down (and sometimes Boston Butts). That’s called eating high on the hog – or the better pig meat, although many will argue that the mixture with more fat and skin is better.

Western or Piedmont North Carolina Smoked BBQ Shoulder

My area is western NC shoulders. This beautiful shoulder was made by the local Lion's Club which is a yearly fundraiser. Mostly we buy shoulders, but when home smoking, we might go with a butt. That's just the top part of the shoulder. It's the same meat, but it's a smaller cut. The butt is not the real butt of the pig - that is the ham. When my boys were little, they grossed out when I said I was smoking butt, so the next time I told them it was shoulder. They loved it as long as I called it shoulder. Go figure. Now, they are older and don't care what I call it. It's all good.

Geography – A Few Miles – They Make a Difference

Speaking of eastern and western North Carolina, it really is a matter of miles. Don’t confuse western NC in terms of barbecue with the mountains where you get goodness-knows-what called barbecue. When people from North Carolina talk about eastern and western on BBQ, they are not including the western half of the state. They mean the beach area and the piedmont (or center part). The dividing line is basically Raleigh. You have the beach land band and then the west band of barbecue.

The Secret is in the Barbecue Sauce

The biggest bone of contention in North Carolina is when it comes to the barbeque sauce. Again, it’s along geographic lines. Eastern NC has vinegar sauce while the piedmont has vinegar based sauce with various levels of tomato or ketchup added. Any hint of tomato is scorned by easterners, but NC western BBQers add a little “red.”

Eastern Style BBQ Sauce at Wilber's

In either case, you have a very thin barbecue sauce very unlike Kansas barbecue sauce which is ketchup based. Both areas of North Carolina add a kick with pepper seeds, so the BBQ sauce is generally spicier than what you see bottled in the store. You look at vinegar and hot pepper seeds, and you have a nice jolt.

What’s the Best NC BBQ?

Residents of North Carolina are quite vocal about defending the local barbecue styles. It’s kind of like football. You root for your team – no matter what.

For those outside the area, it may all be Greek or so different that the subtleties are lost. There’s great barbecue both on the eastern beach side of the state and in the middle. There are also imitations, and those are not so wonderful. Just follow the smoke and see for yourself. If you find real barbecue in North Carolina, eastern or western, then you’ve found a gem and will be hooked for life.


Barbeyaki said...

I really appreciate and respect your comparison between barbecuing and grilling. Grilling is truly an art form that takes much patience and care.
Thanks for your inspiration.

Christopher Franko said...

all this food looks so amazingly tasty. ima have to check out Eastern North Carolina.