What Is North Carolina-Style BBQ?
Submitted By: H. Kent Craig
For as long as there's been civilization, for as long as people have raised domestic pigs as livestock, civilized human beings have also eaten those same-said domestically-raised pigs, usually by cooking them slowly over an open fire-pit of some sort. Then how and why did extremely-slow-cooked pork carcasses evolve over the past three hundred years into a carnivore delicacy to be found virtually nowhere else save within the geographic boundaries of the State Of North Carolina? That's a question I've been researching as well as pondering all my age of awareness life, and still remain basically clueless as to exactly why.
You would think that virtually any State, any location with a predominately rural culture, would have evolved by sheer haute gourmet tastefulness and preferences for the finest ways of cooking and preparing pork flesh a meat dish that would be very similar to NC-BBQ, but that's not the case. I've traveled and eaten pork and beef BBQ in a majority of these Fifty States, and no where outside of North Carolina do you find barbeque the way it's cooked and served in N.C.
NC-Style-BBQ General Knowledge
All NC-BBQ is very slow cooked pork carcasses, generally cooked for a minimum of 16-18 hours at a very low temperature for pork, often 250 degrees or slightly less, sometimes up to 300 degrees but never more than that. With the (very real) safety concerns about parasites in pork, it's important for the pork to be cooked completely through, obviously; if you ever see any pink meat in NC-BBQ, quit eating it right then, and raise hell. After cooking, the meat is pulled from the bones, and then pulled apart into bite-size chunks, and then usually chopped further with a large cleaving knife until a texture is reached that suits the chef. Almost never is "real" NC-BBQ ever served sliced, except at certain restaurants that cater a lot to non-NC-natives and the clientele demands such.
By slow cooking at low temperature, the meat is allowed to "age" without drying out. Almost never is any kind of sauce applied during cooking, save a tad of vinegar-based with a few spices only "sauce" which isn't meant as a flavoring agent, only as a hydration aid to prevent excess binding of the outside part of the meat. I've never cooked a hog in my life, NC-style or any other way, not for a pig-picking (more on the cultural grail of NC-style "pig-picking's" later) or any other reason, so I'm not going to claim to know let alone understand the culinary alchemy that takes place by staying up all night and maintaining the vigil of monitoring the carcass until the next day. All I know is that cooking NC-style pork BBQ is a great job for insomniac carnivores with enhanced tastebuds.
It's easier to be a Master Chef at the New York Academy Of Culinary Arts & Sciences, it's easier to be be a Professor Of Sanskrit at the Sorbone, it's easier to be a Master Steak Chef at Blackie's in DC, than it is to be a Master BBQ Chef Of Eastern-NC-BBQ. That's because Eastern-NC-Style BBQ is plain whole-hog pork meat, with just the tiniest bit of vinegar-based "sauce" which isn't a sauce at all, applied as a moistening agent. Eastern-Style BBQ is usually one of two grades; either excellent, or close to inedible. When you have a fine-chopped (almost to the point of being ground at times, without use of a mechanical grinder) plain meat dish, with just enough vinegar "sauce" to wake up your tastebuds and nothing else, the meat, the grade of the meat, how the pig is butchered and prepared, the pain-staking slow-cooking process, everything culminates to when it hit's your tongue with either an "ahhhhh" or a "yecchhh!".
Most times Eastern-Style is served with cole slaw, as a side dish if served on a plate, or atop the BBQ itself if served in a sandwich. Craig Claiborne, the former NY Times food critic and a converted fan of NC BBQ, often said an Eastern-Style BBQ sandwich, with the astringency stress of the (usually slightly hot pepper flavor but not much) vinegar sauce balanced with the cool blanche' of the cole slaw made such an Eastern-NC-Style sandwich a true delicacy, an epicurean delight.
When and wherever Eastern-Style NC BBQ served, in addition to cole slaw, two things are also invariably served with it, those being sweetened ice tea so strong as to where a cup or pitcher full of melting ice won't dilute it much, and "hushpuppies". "Hushpuppies", again, seem to be a peculiarly North Carolinia' culinary invention, though, equally again, even though I've never found them for sale at any restaurant outside of North Carolina, one would have to think that fried cornbread balls, which are all that hushpuppies are, would be almost universal in taste appeal and popularity. Hushpuppies are merely cornbread-dough-batter elongated "nuggets" about the size of a small cheese stick, deep-fried very quickly in a super-hot greasebath, which gives them a flavorful golden-brown crust with a yellow and equally flavorful soft middle, and are as or more addicting than great BBQ by themselves. Even if a restaurant has acceptable-to-OK BBQ, if they have great hushpuppies and superbly-brewed iced tea, they'll do a decent business. An open speculation and question: as easy to fix, cheap to make, and as tasty as fresh-made hushpuppies are, I don't understand why a national restaurant chain, say Burger King or similar, hasn't picked up in them and made them an alternative side dish?...the Country would go crazy over them, over hushpuppies, if they did.
Western-NC Style, AKA "Lexington"~Style
Western-NC-Style (also know as "Lexington"-style, after the city whose core group of highly-rated Western-NC-Style BBQ restaurants perfected and popularized the genre) BBQ differs from Eastern-Style in two distinct ways: 1) it's always made from pork shoulders only, ala' Memphis-style, and not from whole-hog carcass, and 2) unlike Eastern-Style which uses vinegar and the barest traces of hot pepper and miniscule amounts of flavorings if any in a "wetting agent" a sous chef would have a hissy about if you called it a "sauce", Western-NC/Lexington-Style definitely uses a real sauce, of which heavy doses of ketchup are added to the vinegar base universally, and often a small amount of sugar is added as well.
You'll often think you taste God-knows-what in Lexington/Western-Style sauces, because Western-Style chefs have been known to put pretty much anything you can think of edible in their own special sauces, from white lightin' (the alcohol of which is burned off during the cooking of) to turtle-meat-stock-soup (turtle meat is generally too rare and expensive for this use though), to any number of combinations of going to the spice rack and dumping stuff in the vinegar-and-tomato-catsup base to see what comes up tasty.
Other than using pork shoulders, which gives the "base meat" less fat and more texture in the eating of than whole-hog BBQ, the way I generally explain the difference between the two styles to non-natives is this: Eastern-Style has no "help", it's just perfectly cooked meat sitting there by itself. It's got to be perfect meat prepared exactly, or it'll gag you. Western-NC-Style, on the other hand, is like Texas-style beef BBQ; you can take very average or even slightly under-average meat cooked just so-so, and with a great sauce a la' Lexington/Western-NC-Style, disguise the poor meat under/inside the taste-bud-tingling sauce.
Don't get me wrong, I enjoy both styles equally, hell, I enjoy all great BBQ equally, whether it's pork, beef, or Cape Buffalo. And Western-Style, when the meat is great and it's cooked great and it's served blended with a great sauce, is every bit the equal of the best Eastern-Style. It's simply harder to cook Eastern-Style to a superb degree of palate pleasing because it's either great, or at least very good, or it ain't.
When you eat at most Lexington/Western-Style restaurants, you usually (but not always) can get hushpuppies, though at Western-Style ones they tend to add fresh onions and other similar ingredients (which I personally don't like in the batter), while Eastern-Style ones are usually plain. You are also usually served some sort of home-made, hand-cut from fresh potatoes french fries at Western-Style joints, whereas most Eastern-Style ones usually give "storebought" french fries. Both kinds often fried in the same deep-fat-fryers as the hushpuppies are, which gives them a unique (but pleasant) aftertaste. Eastern-Style restaurants a lot of times will have a signature, traditional Southern dessert, such as banana pudding, while many Western ones won't, depending. The strong, sweet ice tea should be the same west of the 1-85 & NC Highway 220 junction (as good a dividing line as anything else) as at any place east of it, weak tea equally disappointing customers no matter where within the border of The Tar Heel State they're eating at.
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