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Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue

Excerpted from Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue (University of North Carolina Press, November 2008)


The Piedmont Challenge

Throughout the nineteenth century, barbecue in the Piedmont didn’t differ much from the Eastern variety, although it seems that it may have been on offer less often: When the editor of the Statesville Landmark went east to an editorial convention in Durham in 1890, he was looking forward to a barbecue at Bennett Place (where Johnston had surrendered to Sherman twenty-five years before) and was disappointed when the event was rained out. He wrote: “The people in [that] part of the State understand the barbecue business better than we of the west do; they have them frequently during the summer and they are great festival occasions. I had very much wanted to attend one, with its feature of Brunswick stew and other trimmings.”

Still, there were barbecues west of Durham—his own paper had advertised or reported eight of them during the 1880s, including an 1888 Democratic rally and barbecue in Statesville, where the assembled citizens were served “1300 lbs of beef and 300 lbs of pork, to say nothing of bread, chickens, pies, cakes and all such.” The Landmark reported that “the crowd was noisy at times and some whiskey was consumed as a matter of course. There were two or three breaches of the peace and three or four arrests, but the general behavior during the day was quite creditable to Iredell [County].”

This story is unusual in that it mentioned what was eaten. Newspapers and diaries had a lot to say about the speeches at barbecues, but what food was on the long tables usually went without saying, probably because everybody knew what you got. But it appears the politicians who wanted the votes of the yeoman farmers and millworkers of the Piedmont tried to buy them with the same vinegar-and-pepper–sauced open-pit barbecued pork and (even quite late in the century) beef that they deployed in the East.

A rare nineteenth-century view from pit-side was provided in 1937 by Wesley Jones, then over ninety years old. Mr. Jones had grown up in South Carolina, not North, but the plantation in Union County where he was a slave was less than fifty miles due south of Shelby, North Carolina, in the heart of the part of South Carolina that today cooks “Lexington-style.” In the 1850s, Mr. Jones was the youthful pitmaster for big barbecues that were held regularly at Sardis Store, with fiddling and political speeches. He cooked “whole goats, whole hogs, sheep and de side of a cow.” He mopped the meat all night with a “sass” of  vinegar, black and red pepper, salt, butter, a little sage, coriander, basil, onion, and garlic—a process he called “anointing” it. “Some folks drop a little sugar in it,” he said, implying that this was a common sauce recipe for that time and place.

This is basically an Eastern sauce, with a few spices that wouldn’t be grounds for disqualification in Goldsboro or Wilson. Certainly it had no tomato in it. There’s no reason to suppose that barbecue in nineteenth-century Shelby or Salisbury or Lexington was any different.


The Lexington Heresy and the German Factor

About the time of World War I, however, a new and competing version of barbecue emerged in the hills of the Piedmont. When early barbecue entrepreneurs in the East started selling barbecue by the sandwich or the plate, they were working in an established tradition, purveying the same peppery-vinegary whole-hog pulled pork that people had already been eating at community and family barbecues. But the first barbecue stands in Lexington and Salisbury were cooking just parts of the hog—loins, hams, and especially shoulders. And they served their barbecue in slices, as well as chopped or pulled. In an even more radical departure from tradition, they were lacing the classic vinegar-and-pepper sauce with tomato ketchup.

Although these innovations had precedents in domestic cookery, they were something new in the North Carolina barbecue world, and they were viewed by many Easterners with much the same enthusiasm that the medieval Catholic Church had for the Protestant Reformation. North Carolinians have been arguing about this ever since.

But why these particular innovations?

The humble creators of the Eastern tradition are known to God alone, but the pioneers of Piedmont-style have names: John Blackwelder of Salisbury; George Ridenhour, Jess Swicegood, and Sid Weaver of Lexington; and, a little later, Warner Stamey of Lexington, Shelby, and finally Greensboro. It’s said that you are what you eat, but it’s equally true that you eat what you are—and in one respect these men were all the same thing:

John Blackwelder’s family had been in Mecklenburg, Cabarrus, and Rowan counties since soon after Gottlieb Schwartzwalder came from Germany to British North America before the Revolution.

George Ridenhour’s people came to Salisbury in 1779 from Pennsylvania, where the Reitnaurs first settled after coming from German-speaking Alsace in 1719.

Jess Swicegood’s family came to America from Germany in 1724 and also passed through Pennsylvania before settling in Davidson County in 1775 and Americanizing their name from Schweissgouth.

Sid Weaver’s antecedents are a little more elusive, although many North Carolina Weavers started as Webers, and his ancestor Andrew was listed as “Andras” in the 1860 census.

The North Carolina Stameys, Warner included, are all descended from a Peter Stemme who came from Germany in 1734 and made his way down the valley of Virginia to what is now Lincoln County in 1767.

Can you spot the common element? Of course you can. When you add maternal lines, these family trees are as full of Germans as a Munich beer hall at Oktoberfest. Compare those family names to the big names in Eastern barbecue, good British ones like King, Parker, Jones, Ellis, Shirley, and Melton, no matter whether they’re affixed to white families or black ones. (Did we point out that Piedmont barbecue is a business conducted mostly by white folks?)

It’s not exactly news that Piedmont North Carolina has had a substantial German presence since the “Dutch” started coming down the Great Wagon Road from Pennsylvania in the 1700s. This is still evident in the names found in telephone books and in the Lutheran and Reformed churches on the landscape. But until historian Gary Freeze (originally Friess?) at Catawba College got interested in it, Germans’ role in shaping Tar Heel cuisine—liver mush aside—had been largely neglected. (Freeze notes that the early Lexington barbecue men got their shoulders from Conrad and Hinkle—Conrath and Henckel?—old-style grocers still operating in downtown Lexington who raise the pigs themselves.)

The German influence in North Carolina has been more subtle than that of the German butchers in Texas who made sausage and beef brisket major parts of the Lone Star story, or that of South Carolina’s upcountry Germans who introduced and sell to this day their state’s peculiar mustard-based sauce. (Lake E. High Jr. of the South Carolina Barbeque Association points out the continuing importance of families with names like Bessinger, Shealy, Hite, Sweatman, Sikes, Price, Lever, Meyer, Kiser, Zeigler, and Dooley—originally Dula, as in Tom, of Wilkes County and the Kingston Trio song.) But in North Carolina, the German factor is obvious once you start looking for it.

In all of German-speaking Europe, pork was the meat of the peasant classes, and in the New World their descendants remained attached to it. When Germans and their hog-droving Scotch-Irish contemporaries arrived in the 1700s, they fit right in to porcivorous North Carolina. To this day, German cookery has a particular fondness for smoked pork, sometimes marinated in vinegar flavored with various spices; the Pennsylvania Dutch cousins of North Carolina Germans, for example, cook a dish called saurer Seibrode, basically a pork version of Sauerbraten. True, the smoked pork of German cuisine is salted or brined, smoked in a smokehouse, and soaked in water before being cooked, but the point is that vinegar-and-smoke–flavored pork was not an alien taste for German newcomers in North Carolina. All that was lacking were the cayenne peppers.

Here’s the clincher. William Ways Weaver, who writes about the history of German and Pennsylvania Dutch cooking, points out that the shoulder of the hog was a particularly esteemed cut, indeed a “ritual consumption item” at hog-killing time, and Schäufele (smoked shoulder, served sliced) has something of a cult following in Germany today.

So what could be more natural than to smoke and cook pork at the same time by adopting the barbecue technique familiar from political and community events? And why barbecue the inferior parts of the hog when you could buy only the best part from your local butcher? Shoulders’ fattiness meant that they didn’t dry out and they absorbed even more of the delicious smoke flavor. That it was easier to transport them, to turn them, and to cook them evenly was a bonus. If you had a bad day at the stand, you had less left over. And if some folks wanted their meat sliced like pork roast instead of pulled or chopped like old-fashioned barbecue—well, why not? Germans have always had a reputation for practicality and thriftiness.

Moreover, by 1900 the whole Piedmont was coming into its own. From Raleigh west and south to Charlotte, mills and factories were springing up, towns were becoming small cities, and the sort of go-getting, can-do, New South attitudes that a son of the Piedmont named W. J. Cash mocked in The Mind of the South (1940) were increasingly widespread. By contrast, as the Piedmont saw it, the East remained predominantly agricultural, conservative, opposed to progress. Maybe that went for its barbecue, too.

Why change? Because Piedmont pitmasters thought it was an improvement and didn’t see any reason not to make it.


Let’s Talk about Tomatoes

Then there’s that tomato in Piedmont sauce, or dip, as it’s called. Where did that come from? We suspect the story is similar.

Contrary to persistent legends, some Anglo-Americans were growing and eating “love apples” in the 1700s. Food historian “Hoppin’ John” Taylor reports, for instance, that the Charleston planter and patriot Henry Laurens was raising them for his table by 1764 at the latest. The British had been doing it even longer, and the French and Italians longer still. But tomatoes’ real acceptance dates from around 1820. In 1824 Jefferson’s son-in-law, Thomas Mann Randolph, spoke to the Albemarle Agricultural Society about how everyone was eating tomatoes for their health, although almost nobody had eaten them ten years earlier. In that same year, Jefferson’s cousin, Mary Randolph , put a recipe for “tomata catsup” in her Virginia Housewife (not the first cookbook to include such a recipe, although maybe the first Southern one).

Since the classic Eastern vinegar-and-pepper sauce wasn’t really nailed down until about this time, its creators could have put tomatoes in it if they’d wanted to. But they didn’t. And there’s no evidence that much of anyone east of Texas fooled with tomatoes in barbecue sauce until after commercially bottled ketchup became widely available in the late 1800s. To the horror of East Carolina traditionalists, however, once store-bought ketchup was available, those Germanic barbarians in the Piedmont starting adding it to the classic vinegar-and-pepper sauce, adulterating God’s intended condiment, turning their backs on a cherished tradition of the Old South.

Why did they do it?

A quick history of the product: In 1837 Jonas Yerkes started selling bottles of ketchup made from leftover tomato skins and cores from canning, tomatoes too green to can, vinegar, and sugar—recognizably the same stuff that Richard Nixon put on cottage cheese. But the breakthrough came when the H. J. Heinz pickle people showed their version (unchanged since, by the way) at the great 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. (This is the same exposition that introduced kudzu to the United States—make of that what you will.) By 1900 there were over 100 ketchup bottlers in the country.

You may have noticed that Yerkes and Heinz are German names, but our Piedmont Germans didn’t bring this taste with them from Germany, or even Pennsylvania. They were in North Carolina before most people were eating tomatoes, and well before their compatriots started bottling this red goop. We suspect they thought barbecue tasted better with a soupçon of Heinz because the classic Eastern sauce had no sugar in it and adding ketchup brought it closer to the sweet-sour taste so common in German cookery.

Anyway, it’s a thought.


The Smoke Never Clears

By the time of World War II, the distinctions between Eastern and Piedmont-style barbecue were well established and widely understood within the state. The defenders of Eastern orthodoxy took pride in doing it the old way, Piedmont folks were equally proud of their new and improved product, and each region claimed its ’cue was better.

They still do. Many have learned the hard way that partisans can be fiercely loyal to their local traditions. “You ought to see what happens when we write about barbecue,” says Kathleen Purvis of the Charlotte Observer. “That’s when I want to crawl in a trench and pull sheet metal over my head.” Rosemary Roberts, her journalistic sister at the Greensboro News and Record, agrees: “Write about the succulent glories of Tar Heel barbecue at one’s peril. It’s much safer to take on the National Rifle Association.”

Fans of Eastern-style can be withering about the barbecue of their upstart upland cousins. Usually they attack Piedmont barbecue for its heretical sauce. As an Easterner who opened a “North Carolina Barbecue” establishment in Maryland put it on a warning sign: “we don’t hold with tomatoes.” “I’ve never eaten red barbecue,” Andy Stephenson of Stephenson’s Bar-B-Q in Willow Spring told USA Today. “I’ve seen it, but that’s as far as I care to go.” When the Wilmington Star devoted an editorial to sauce, it stated flatly that “Proper Barbecue [is] basted with God’s Own Sauce, whose ingredients include cider vinegar, red and black pepper, salt and maybe another thing or two. But no tomatoes! That would make it the loathsome Lexington style.” Dennis Rogers of the Raleigh News and Observer concurs, pointing out that “the Piedmont stuff is made with John Kerry’s wife’s ketchup vs. God’s own apple cider vinegar, salt and pepper Down East,” and adding that “somebody who would put ketchup on barbecue and give it to a child is capable of pretty much anything.” Jack Betts of the Charlotte Observer sounded like a peacemaker when he remarked, “I like the eastern sauce myself, but don’t regard the western style as blasphemy worthy of a fist fight”—but then he added, “A good western sauce can rescue a poorly-cooked pig.”

As for those shoulders, Carroll Leggett dismisses what he sees as their dreary “textural sameness,” deploring the absence of “ribs, tenderloin, and crispy skin”—“special parts to vie for” (even with the implication that there are . . . other parts). Ayden’s Pete Jones always maintained, “We smoke the whole pig—if you don’t use the whole pig, it’s not barbecue.” And Ed Mitchell of Wilson proudly proclaims himself “a whole hog cookin’ man, from the rooter to the tooter.” If you “cut ’em up,” he asserts, “you’ve deviated from the real deal.”

Piedmont partisans respond in kind. Jerry Bledsoe writes, “In the East, you get all these little things in your mouth and wonder what the hell they are. They’re ground up pork skin. That’s the only way they have to give the meat any flavor.” Peter Batke wonders about “people who would stuff a whole roast pig into a grinding machine snout first and douse the resulting detritus with pepper-speckled vinegar.” Wayne Monk of Lexington Barbecue has observed, “As for ‘whole hog,’ there are some parts of the hog that I would just as soon not eat.” And after Charles Kuralt criticized the shoulders at Statesville’s Carolina Bar-B-Q as “too-refined, without the necessary grease and gristle” from whole-hog cooking, the management posted a notice next to the cash register that said “extra fat and gristle available on request.”


A Brief Aside on Mountain Barbecue

There’s one more complication. When a North Carolina conversation turns to barbecue, the Appalachian counties tend to get ignored. Indeed, when people speak of “Western” barbecue, they usually mean the Piedmont variety. (We’ve tried to avoid that usage.) This is because the state’s far West hasn’t had much of a barbecue tradition until recently. In Jim Early’s Best Tar Heel Barbecue, Manteo to Murphy, half of the fifteen establishments in the Mountain region whose founding dates are given were established after 1993; only two were in business before 1980, and none is older than the 1960s. Elsewhere in the state, half of the places Early discusses date from before 1970, and 40 percent were cooking barbecue when Ike was in the White House.

This doesn’t mean there’s not good barbecued meat to be found west of Hickory—there’s more of it all the time—but it does mean that when people started opening barbecue places in the West, they weren’t bound by tradition and often looked out of state for their models (especially since many cater to tourists whose idea of barbecue does not include North Carolina’s thin vinegar-and-pepper sauces, or even necessarily pork). So what you’ll find in barbecue restaurants in the mountains is often like what’s cooked at the Blue Ridge BBQ Festival: that is, something more closely akin to the ’cue of Tennessee, Alabama, Texas, or Kansas City than to anything served in Lexington or Goldsboro. Along with the pulled pork, you’ll usually find ribs, not as one of the tastier results of whole-hog cooking but bought and cooked separately. (The Eastern and Piedmont attitude was summed up by one Piedmonter who told the Washington Post, “If you want ribs, go to a rib place.”) You’ll often find barbecued beef as well. And there’ll probably be a choice of sauces, usually including a heavy, sweet, tomato-based sauce, similar to the bottled “barbecue sauce” introduced in the 1950s by Kraft Foods, since widely imitated (and improved), and now found on grocery store shelves and grilled burgers throughout the country.

Herb’s Pit BBQ is a case in point. Fifteen miles beyond Murphy, nestled up against the Tennessee and Georgia borders, Herb’s is undoubtedly the westernmost barbecue restaurant in the state. One of the oldest places in the mountains (founded in 1982), Herb’s serves some good smoked meat, and they cook it with charcoal, which is rare everywhere these days. But their tasty pulled pork comes from loins and collars, not shoulders, and they serve ribs and beef as well. It’s telling that the license plates on the wall are from Florida and New York.

In the hills, you’re also likely to encounter strange, noncanonical side dishes, like the garlic bread that comes with the barbecue platter at Fat Buddies in Franklin. And you’re more likely to find names like “Fat Buddies”—most Piedmont and Eastern restaurants bear their owners’ names.

Bob Garner writes disapprovingly in his classic North Carolina Barbecue: Flavored by Time, “You may find something called barbecue in some of the tourist destinations in the Smokies, but like the typical feathered, plains-Indian headdress worn and sold in Cherokee, it isn’t authentic to this state, but is an import from the West.” That’s harsh, if accurate, and in time maybe all this innovation will settle down into a tradition in its own right, as Lexington-style did almost a century ago. Maybe a hundred years from now there will be three competing, mutually scornful barbecue regions in North Carolina.

Meanwhile, on the bright side, it does mean you can get pretty good Memphis-, Texas-, and Kansas City–style barbecue without having to leave the state.


 The Carolina Culture Wars

So, throw in those mountaineers with their thick, sweet sauces—not to mention South Carolinians with that scary mustard stuff—and you can see why food writers Jim Auchmutey and Susan Puckett once called the Carolinas “the Balkans of barbecue.” In fact, after Dennis Rogers asked his readers a series of questions—“Hush puppies or corn sticks? Yellow slaw or red? Brunswick stew or not on the side? Will it be Wilber’s mashed potato salad or the chunky kind? Boiled potatoes (with or without paprika) or—yecch!—French fries? The pungent, sinus-clearing tang of the East, the middling red of Lexington or the gooey stuff that comes out of the mountains?”—he concluded, “There is no such thing as North Carolina barbecue, you see.”

These arguments sometimes baffle outsiders. Georgian Bobby “Bobby Q” Cresap marvels, “You’re talking about a little tomato being the basic difference between the two [Eastern and Piedmont], and they act like it’s the Civil War.” When Craig Claiborne, longtime food editor of the New York Times, paid our state a visit, he found the differences between Eastern and Piedmont “slight and subtle, the main one being the sauce ingredients. And even there, the absence of a tomato tang in the down east sauce didn’t make a whole lot of difference—vinegar is the key factor in both of them. Shoulder vs. whole hog? Here again, not much to differentiate; in both cases the meat is cooked long enough to be fork tender.”

Claiborne was a Mississippian and modest enough to allow that the differences might be “obvious and pronounced [to] an experienced North Carolina barbecue addict.” But even Bob Garner, who fits that description, observes that Piedmont barbecue is more like the Eastern variety than either is like what’s called barbecue in Memphis, Austin, Kansas City, or Columbia. And Garner asks a good question: How can we expect outsiders to understand that we have the best barbecue in the country when we can’t even agree among ourselves what good barbecue is? This sounds like a classic example of what Sigmund Freud called “the narcissism of small differences.”

Jim Early of the North Carolina Barbecue Society once proposed a truce. “We’ve been shooting ourselves in the foot with this eastern-western thing,” he argued. “No other states fight within the state. Let’s stop that. Let’s fight somebody else if we have to fight. Let’s unite as kin.” But when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked Jerry Bledsoe about Early’s proposal, Bledsoe declined to hold his fire. “If this guy’s trying to end the feud, I’m totally opposed,” he said. “The feud is as good as the food.”

Why can’t we all just get along?

One reason may be that the barbecue battle lines are old ones. Leave the mountains aside—everybody knows they’ve always been different—and focus on the main event: the rivalry between the East and the Piedmont. That low-level conflict has been going on since the 1700s. Over time the division has been cultural, economic, political, and demographic. The two regions were settled at different times by different peoples (two of them—English Episcopalians and Scotch-Irish Presbyterians—old adversaries). In antebellum times, different landscapes and resources meant that the fall line divided larger, wealthier, slaveholding farms in the East from smaller hardscrabble yeoman farms upcountry. The East had, and still has, a greater African American presence. And so forth. At the University of North Carolina, this division was reproduced in miniature almost as soon as the university was founded. UNC students formed the Philanthropic Society in 1795 and the Dialectic Society soon after, literary and social clubs that quickly became regional, the latter for students from west of Chapel Hill, the former for those from the East. (Their fierce competition lasted for over a century, and their colors, white and blue, respectively, became the university’s colors.)

This sort of intrastate division is not unusual: think of northern and southern California or Louisiana, or upstate New York and The City. Virginia’s and South Carolina’s divisions are quite similar to North Carolina’s, having come about for many of the same reasons. But only in North Carolina, it seems, do different styles of barbecue correlate with these ancient fault lines. Only in North Carolina has barbecue come to symbolize the split and to serve as a badge of identity.

It is barely possible that folks in the Piedmont started cooking pork shoulders with a ketchup-inflected sauce just to be different.


“Lexington Barbecue” Dip

  • 3 quarts white vinegar
  • 1 quart water
  • 5 1/3 cups ketchup
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon crushed red pepper
  • 4 teaspoons cayenne
  • 4 teaspoons black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons salt

Combine the ingredients in a saucepan and simmer for 15 minutes. Bring to a boil, then let cool.


Piedmont Slaw with Mayonnaise

Serves 8–10

  • 1 head cabbage, chopped
  • 2 cups mayonnaise or whipped salad dressing
  • 2 tablespoons vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons ketchup
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Lexington-style dip to taste

Mix the mayonnaise, vinegar, ketchup, sugar, salt, and dip. Toss lightly with the cabbage and refrigerate.


From Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue, by John Shelton Reed, Dale Volberg Reed, and William McKinney. Copyright © 2008 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.