I have discussed the cuisine of the old and new south and a number of traditional New Orleans dishes such as gumbo and jambalaya. Having made recent rips to eastern and western North Carolina, as well as South Carolina, I became interested in all the varieties of “cue” available in these regions. This post is an attempt to sort them out.
In North Carolina barbeque, unlike those in Texas, Kansas City, Memphis, etc, the sauce is not as important as the method of cooking. Only pigs are used and usually the whole pig. To keep up with the demand, North Carolina is the second largest producer of pigs in the US.
Here is a description of the cooking process taken from North Carolina Barbecue: a Primer by Terry Mancour, provided to me by Mal Watlington who grew up in the middle of prime NC barbecue country in Kinston, NC.
“The process begins in the wee hours of the morning, when one or two stalwart souls dress the hog carcass and light the fires. For the last hundred years pigs have been roasted over wood and charcoal fires, but for the last two decades more and more barbecuers have switched to cleaner burning propane flames, which some argue deprive the pork of its traditional smoky flavor.
For either method the roasting is almost always done in a "pig cooker", a fuel oil drum which has been sawed in half, welded to an axle and a trailer hitch, and otherwise altered for the purpose. These cookers can get quite elaborate, and almost as much breath is wasted on the merits of particular designs as on the proper way to roast and season the hog. The hog is laid upon the grill over the flame, doused with sauce, the lid is closed, and at that point invariably someone breaks out a bottle.
For the remainder of the day the roasting team stands around the big black steel tank and "watches the pig" – though little actual watching goes on. Every hour on the hour the lid is raised and the carcass is again liberally doused with sauce, inspected for progress, and then closed up again.”
This slow cooking allows for the meat to be pulled from the pig because it is so tender and no knives are required. My aunt, who grew up in Alabama in the 1920s, feels that state is the best place for barbeque but the process she describes is very similar to the above.
The difference between eastern and western North Carolina is primarily in the sauce but the east is also more likely to use the whole hog. In both cases the vinegar base is augmented by a variety of herbs and spices – some favorites are pepper, red pepper, cayenne pepper, onion powder, garlic, nutmeg, molasses, whiskey, and brown sugar. Eastern sauce does not use tomatoes. It is the oldest style and comes from the colonial days when people thought tomatoes were poison. In both cases, the sauce is thin and not overly sweet, unlike most commercial tomato-based barbecue sauces. No North Carolina roaster would use that sweet, ketchupy stuff. Mal adds another distinction between est and west, “Although it’s true that “no knives are required” to get the pork off the pig, it is typically served “sliced or chopped” in the west but “chopped (only)” in the east.”
According to Real Barbecue by Greg Johnson and Vance Statten, loaned to me by my friend Don Lesser - a food critic with the Amherst (MA) Gazette, the dividing line between eastern and western barbecue is approximately Raleigh. The center of western NC style is Lexington, NC. The top rated place is Lexington No. 1 (10 Highway 29 - 910-249-9814). The top place for eastern NC barbeque is Wilber’s Barbeque in Goldsboro, NC (919-778-5218).
South Carolina barbeque adds a mustard based sauce. The best one, according to Johnson and Statten is Sweatman’s Bar-B-Que on Route 453 near Columbia, SC. The South Carolina legislature requires places to post whether they use wood or something else and whether or not they use the whole pig.
Bluegatco, a web site on Southern living adds their List for South Carolina Barbeque:
Bessinger's - 1602 Savannah Highway - Charleston, SC - (843)556-1354
Southern Pig BBQ - Blythewood SC - (803)786-4301
Maurices BBQ - 11 locations in Columbia and Orangeburg SC - (803)796-0220
Jakie's Barbecue - 1513 Pamplico Hwy - Florence, SC - (843)629-1290
Sweatman's Bar-B-Que - RT 453 North - Holly Hill, SC - (843)563-7574
They add that the “Upstate region (around Greenville) tends to offer a more Western Carolina Style Barbeque. In the Low Country the sauce begins to rely less on Mustard and takes on the sweet & spicy flavors we find in Georgia and the Deep South.”
While I am happy with just the meat and perhaps a biscuit or some corn, tradition calls for lots of sides to go with the barbeque. The south has always been a massive consumer of vegetables, chicken and things sweet. Mal suggests that the typical vegetable sides are cole slaw and boiled new potatoes, and the bread complement is invariably hushpuppies (with just a hint of onion). The meat sides (yes, meat counts as a side) are Brunswick Stew (used to be squirrel based, now chicken) and a serious side of Fried Chicken. And, to quote Dolly Parton in “Steel Magnolias,” cue must be washed down with the “house wine of the South”- sweet (iced) tea. And, for dessert, the biggie is banana pudding, with mile high meringue and ‘nilla wafers in the crust.
For those in the Boston area, Mal recommends the Blue Ribbon, in Arlington and West Newton, as the most authentic he has tasted in the area. Others seem to agree.