Holy Smoke

The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue

by John Shelton Reed, Dale Volberg Reed, and William McKinney

UNC, 328 pp., $30

During college, I worked two summers in the Piedmont of North Carolina, in Asheboro and nearby towns. I also worked up in Stokes County, north of Winston Salem. It was during those summers that I first became acquainted with the state's barbecue. It was different from that of my home state, Texas, but I found it to be outstanding.

I renewed my interest in this particular food a few years later when I took my first newspaper job, in the relative metropolis of Greensboro. Often a bunch of us, having sent the day's edition to the printer, would gather to go to lunch, and someone would suggest getting some 'cue--meaning, of course, barbecue--and off we'd go, to this place or that. Stamey's, still one of the best in the Old North State, was a frequent choice.

I ate a lot of 'cue back then, and have ordered lots of it during visits to the state since, mostly from Short Sugar's in Reidsville, my wife's hometown, where they still have curbside service. Unfortunately for my evidently abiding hunger for 'cue, I've worked for a quarter-century in the nation's capital, which fancies itself the world's most important city but where there is, to its deepening discredit, no real Tar Heel barbecue.

For those yet to take a bite, North Carolina barbecue is not just any kind of barbecue that happens to be served in North Carolina. It is a distinctive food--indeed, one of the country's greatest regional dishes. It is made from one and only one kind of meat, which is pork. And the way it is made is critical.

As explained in Holy Smoke, a comprehensive and entertaining exploration of the Tar Heel barbecue tradition, the whole hog or a shoulder (or a Boston Butt, to get really particular about it) is cooked for a very long time (usually overnight) at a low temperature (about the same as for boiling water). The heat and smoke come from a fire of hardwoods and coals. The pork is "sometimes basted and always served with a thin sauce" that is "at most only a slight variation on a traditional recipe including vinegar, red pepper, and maybe (or maybe not) tomato."

It depends on where you are in the state whether tomato is likely to be in that sauce or not. In eastern North Carolina, where Tar Heel barbecue originated, it is likely, and in the Piedmont (where I lived), it's not. There are strong opinions among 'cue lovers as to which sauce is better. Holy Smoke doesn't take sides but observes that pit masters throughout the state agree "that it's how you cook it, not what you put on it, that makes good barbecue."

The pit masters are right. They know that you have to position the meat above the pit or in the cooker in such a way that during those long hours of cooking it is constantly dripping fat upon the coals. An ugly sight for some, this drippety-drip-drip, but "grease hitting those coals," says one of the masters interviewed here (Wilber Shirley of Wilber's in Goldsboro, in eastern North Carolina), "makes the smoked flavor that you won't get any other way. You can't spray it on there, paint it on there, put it on there--that's the natural way to cook it to get the smoke taste." And that taste, he adds, is "what people in this area grew up accustomed to."

You can see why this book is titled Holy Smoke, since what makes for good barbecue is the smoke and thus the taste that comes from right cooking.

Holy Smoke is subtitled The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue, and that is not false advertising. It is a big book, well illustrated, and with a handsome jacket the color of pork that features a smiling pig, the book's hero. Holy Smoke is full of everything you might want to know about Tar Heel 'cue, and probably more.

The authors offer a "prehistory" of North Carolina barbecue that includes Homer on butchering and locates the first English uses of the word in the 17th century. Meats in addition to pork were barbecued in this prehistory, but pork triumphed in North Carolina, it seems, because so many people raised hogs.

Holy Smoke quotes the 18th-century Virginia aristocrat William Byrd II on how, during his visits to the state, he found it populated by a "porcivorous" people whose "only business is raising of hogs, which is managed with the least trouble, and affords the diet they are most fond of." Even today there are more hogs than people in North Carolina, which is second only to Iowa in hog production. Perhaps the good news, for those watching their cholesterol, is that today's pigs are leaner than they used to be.

Holy Smoke is nothing if not respectful of the centrality of the pig in North Carolina barbecue. The book includes many sidebars on pigs and many drawings and photographs of pigs, some taken while in the pit, one even while being killed and, thus, in the first stage of becoming barbecue. Fittingly, the book includes a how-to chapter on barbecuing. And yes, you can do a whole hog at home.

Holy Smoke provides recipes on just about everything that goes with barbecue: sauces (both Eastern and Piedmont); slaw ("an almost universal side dish to barbecue"); cornbread and hushpuppies; greens; okra; baked beans (which have "no southern pedigree at all"); potato salad; macaroni and cheese (the first known recipe for which was published in 1390, in England); and dessert after dessert--cobblers, banana pudding, bread pudding, pies (including fried), and cakes.

Beer and wine, by the way, are usually not sold at barbecue places. Neither goes well with the smoke-flavored meat, and anyway the ethos of a barbecue place tends to be "family." Lots of places are closed on Sunday. To be sure, soft drinks are available, but the most common liquid refreshment is tea, meaning sweet tea, really sweet tea. The authors define this tea by citing the food critic Alan Richman--"Sweetened ice tea in North Carolina isn't a beverage. It's an intravenous glucose drip"--and say there's a reason for this: "The vinegar base of most North Carolina sauces cries out for something sweet to complement it." The recipe included in Holy Smoke calls for upwards of two cups of sugar and eight cups of water.

Holy Smoke ends with worry about the future of North Carolina barbecue. More and more barbecue places have quit using wood and are cooking with gas or electricity: What these places are serving is to real barbecue "what Velveeta is to cheese." Then, too, there are places that are no longer barbecue places because they tart up the meat with fancy sauces and ribs and even substitute other meats, like duck, for pork! "Be suspicious," write the authors, "of barbecue places with valet parking."

As you can see, John Shelton Reed and his coauthors make a spirited defense of their state's barbecue tradition. I'm happy to applaud their effort, and happy, too, to recommend their book. Read it while eating some 'cue--some real 'cue.

Terry Eastland is the publisher of THE WEEKLY STANDARD. His most recent book is Freedom of Expression in the Supreme Court: The Defining Cases.

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