Owner Steve Grady, 72, has been here since 1 a.m., laboring out back in the small white cinderblock pit house, where two whole pigs are blistering over a bed of oak and charcoal.
There are secrets to the arduous preparation and to how they achieve what Grady’s wife, Gerri, calls the “zing” in the barbecue sauce, a recipe handed down from Grady’s granddad. They won’t reveal those secrets, but they will divulge a psychic component to producing outstanding barbecue.
“It’s loving what you do,” Gerri Grady says.
From the wooded byways of North Carolina’s fertile tobacco country to the strip malls of its burgeoning suburbs, barbecue isn’t just something you heap on a soft white bun and serve with a side of slaw.
In these parts, slow-roasted pork smells of heritage, history and home. It ignites passions and sparks rivalries. And with the creation this year of a statewide barbecue trail, it’s attracting tourists, too.
The North Carolina Barbecue Historic Trail is the brainchild of Jim Early, an attorney by profession and barbecue nut by avocation. The author of The Best Tar Heel Barbecue: Manteo to Murphy crisscrossed 22,000 miles of North Carolina blacktop researching his book. He ate in 228 barbecue joints, 140 of which made it into print. But the trail pays homage to just 25 establishments that prepare ‘cue the old-fashioned way. They cook over open-pit fires, make their own sauce, offer sit-down dining, have been in business at least 15 years and, as Early puts it, “have the esteem of their community.”
Which is no mean feat in a state as barbecue crazy as this one.
Other locales have their own notions of what constitutes righteous barbecue. In Texas, it’s beef. In Memphis, it’s pork ribs. Kansas City goes for beef and pork. In North Carolina, which Early christens the “cradle of ‘cue,” barbecue is chopped or pulled pork.
Wherever you’re from, that’s your emotional barbecue touch-point,” says Elizabeth Karmel, a native of North Carolina and author of Taming the Flame. “People really believe their style of barbecue is the best. There are heated debates all the time.
Increasingly, even those without a strong geographic allegiance are getting into the act. Karmel’s monthly barbecue classes at The Institute of Culinary Education in New York have waiting lists of up to two years, she says, and the first of her three guided barbecue tours, to Tennessee, Texas and North Carolina, departs in September.
North Carolina’s barbecue trail is just one avenue via which to experience “culinary tourism,” a trend that appears poised for growth. Just 17% of American leisure travelers said they had engaged in food- and wine-related pursuits in the past three years, according to a study released in February by the Travel Industry Association. But 60% of respondents expressed an interest in culinary travel. North Carolina ranked fifth in the top 15 U.S. food-related destinations.
Taking cooking classes, attending food and wine festivals and seeking out farmers markets all come under the broad umbrella the TIA calls culinary travel. But culinary travel has cultural leanings, too. As a window into local culture, food-themed getaways can sate curiosity as well as hunger.
A jaunt along North Carolina’s barbecue trail, where the establishments are proudly idiosyncratic, satisfies both. The restaurants tend to be handed down from father to son (and occasionally, daughter). Décor generally tends to worn linoleum, garish Formica and adorable porcine caricatures. Menus don’t bend to the shifting winds of culinary trends. And they’re run by a confident bunch who concede there may be different ways of preparing barbecue, but theirs is the right way.
At B’s Barbecue and Grill in Greenville, customers are lining up outside the former gas station by 9 a.m. (“They eat barbecue for breakfast around here,” says cook Dexter Sherrod.) As the lunch hour approaches, a trail of white- and blue-collar workers inches out the door. The owners post a “Closed” sign when they run out of ‘cue — usually by 2 p.m. or so. But don’t try to call ahead, because B’s doesn’t have a phone.
Fifteen miles south in Ayden, the Skylight Inn beams bright — or at least the aluminum capitol-style dome attached to its roof does. The billboard out front proclaims this “The Bar-B-Q Capital of the World,” and to illustrate the point, the original owner, the late Pete Jones, added the dome to the single-story, 60-year-old restaurant. The menu went minimalist in the 1970s and has stayed that way: They serve barbecue with a side of slaw and a thick slab of cornbread. Period.
“It’s not about what you want. It’s how much of it,” says Jones’ grandson, Samuel Jones, 26.
Neck-deep in smoke inside the cookhouse, Jones grabs a stick to prod the coals. “There ain’t nothin’ fancy about it,” he says.
The equipment might not be elaborate, but with no temperature gauge to regulate the heat, pit barbecuing clearly is an art.
“It’s barbecuing in its purest form, usually learned at the knee of someone in the family,” says Early. “They look at the meat. They don’t squeeze it. They know how much hot coals to put and where, when (the pork) needs to be brought up or left alone. They know that pigs finished on peanuts and pigs finished on corn have different moisture contents, and how the fire reacts to that, and how the temperature or humidity can affect it. There are a lot of nuances to pit cooking.”
It takes a year or two for the barbecuers, or pit masters, to learn their craft, and once they do, they generally enjoy a long tenure. For instance, Sherrod, 41, has been working at B’s for 27 years, 20 of them as pit master. Roasting a pig, he says, “is like tending to a newborn.” The hours are just as erratic, too. Sherrod puts about a dozen pigs on the fire at 11 p.m. and finishes around 6 a.m., catching catnaps here and there.
Dean Allen, proprietor of Deano’s Barbecue in Mocksville, started in 1961 as a carhop at a barbecue joint he later took over, then opened his current restaurant nine years ago. In nearby Lexington, Rick Monk, manager of Lexington Barbecue, traces his lineage to barbecue royalty through his father, Wayne Monk, who, in turn, apprenticed in the 1950s under Warner Stamey, one of the pioneers of Lexington-style barbecue. The Stamey name lives on in two restaurants in Greensboro now operated by his grandson.
North Carolina’s pit masters are, for the most part, a collegial bunch, but they part ranks somewhere around Raleigh. Easterners cook the whole pig and sauce it with a vinegar-based, pepper mix. Western-style (also called Lexington-style) barbecue consists of shoulders or Boston butts (the top half of the shoulder), and the sauce (called “dip”) is a tangy vinegar-based mix with tomato paste, spices and brown sugar.
To hear it from both camps, preferences run deep.
Andy Stephenson, owner of Stephenson’s Bar-B-Q in Willow Springs, 20 miles south of Raleigh, won’t acknowledge ever tasting western-style ‘cue. “I’ve never eaten red barbecue. I’ve seen it, but that’s as far as I care to go,” he says.
Likewise, Mike Davis, kitchen manager at Stamey’s Old Fashioned Barbecue in Greensboro, says he’s never sampled eastern-style ‘cue, but knows people who have, “and they say it’s the nastiest stuff.”
To less finely tuned taste buds, there are more similarities than differences in the two styles. There’s also little variation in the menus. Tender pulled pork is the staple, accompanied by coleslaw and hush puppies or cornbread. Some pit masters swear by wood — hickory, oak or a mixture — as the only way to cook.
“If you want good barbecue, drive around the back of the building. If you don’t see a woodpile, keep on goin’,” advises Rick Monk.
Others, like Stephenson, say good-quality charcoal works equally well.
But most would agree with Monk when he declares that open-pit barbecuing is “the slowest, hardest way to cook. But it’s the best.”