North Carolina

By Adam Platt
Sunday, September 24, 2000

Every addict has a particular threshold, and after two days of furious culinary travel, I reached mine near Chapel Hill, in the middle of the great barbecue state of North Carolina. Keith Allen is a second-generation barbecue man with an expert eye for the peculiar local malady I'll call pork overload. He squinted at me in silence as I raved about the delicate sauces I'd encountered and the mountains of chopped pork I'd consumed. "I hope you got lots of Mylanta with you," he said.

Allen & Son, on the outskirts of Chapel Hill, was my sixth stop on a four-day barbecue spree. It was my idea to travel from the Carolina eastern coastal plain, where flame-cooked pork has been a staple for three centuries, to the rolling piedmont country, where the state's famous "dry" vinegar sauce turns flavorful and sweet. This tour, local aficionados assured me, was the same as a tour of American barbecue itself. Where else, after all, could you find four pit-cooking operations of national reputation, within 40 minutes' drive of one another (in the Greenville/Goldsboro area of eastern North Carolina). In Lexington, where the residents claim there are more barbecue establishments per capita than anywhere else in the U.S.A., it is possible to order pork sandwiches chopped six different ways, without once leaving your car (many of the restaurants have curbside service). When I described to one barbecue man my itinerary, he rolled his eyes. "Hell, if you want a barbecue orgy, you've come to the right state," he said.

Of course, a North Carolina barbecue orgy is different from a Texas barbecue orgy, say, or a rib fest in Tennessee. Proper barbecue means chopped pork only ("If you want ribs, go to a rib place," one local told me), and possibly a taste of chicken. During the height of the fall season, connoisseurs travel between counties, comparing regional wood-smoked blends, like exotic brands of Chinese tea. The state's barbecue schisms are deep and well documented. North Carolinians debate the merits of pork cuts (westerners cook the shoulder, in the east they grill the whole pig), sauces (vinegar in the east vs. tomato-based in the west), even cole slaw (creamy in the east, sweet and red farther west). Eastern lowlanders chart their barbecue pedigrees like vintners in Bordeaux, and consider westerners to be arrivistes. Westerners view their rivals as old pig farmers, mired in ancient ways. Neither side eats much barbecue in the next county, let alone out of state, for fear of degrading their delicate palates.

"Some people will put ketchup on everything they eat," declared Pete Jones, the grand vizier of slow-cooked, old-style North Carolina barbecue, whose family had been serving chopped pork since before the Civil War. Jones served only pit-cooked pork and cole slaw, at the Skylight Inn, in Ayden, a small town bordered by cotton fields, halfway between I-95 and the sea. I'd arrived there, on the first day of my barbecue adventure, after five hours' driving on an empty stomach. The pork, which was served as a sandwich or on small paper "trays," was finely diced and interspersed with tasty cracklings of fat. It required no sauce, having already been seasoned with splashes of vinegar, salt and pepper, and a local hot sauce called "Texas Pete." The brick building on the outskirts of town was equally unadorned, although when National Geographic magazine named Jones's barbecue the best in the nation, back in 1979, he slapped a plywood rotunda on the roof. "This is known to be the barbecue capital of the world," said Jones, who owns the Skylight with his son and nephew. "I figured I had to put up a dome."

Jones was a bantam-size man of indeterminate age ("Hell, I think I'm about 72," he told me). His beat-up work boots and red Coca-Cola cap made him look more like a hardscrabble farmer than a barbecue chef. Over the years, he'd been visited by presidents (Reagan and Bush), senators and Japanese businessmen seeking to franchise his secrets. But there was still no cash register at the Skylight (bills were stacked on the counter top), and the generous portions ($6.50 for a pound of barbecue, plus trimmings) were doled out with a battered silver fork. Jones's hogs cooked for up to 14 hours in the brick pits out back, over a mixture of oak and hickory wood. He believed too much hickory would overwhelm the flavor of the meat, just like too much sauce, and he traced these Spartan methods back to his great-great-grandfather, Skilton Dennis, who roasted his first pigs for church gatherings in the 1830s. "Pit cooking is the hard way," said Jones. "The easiest way is gas or electricity; you put the pig on, turn a knob and that's it."

According to Bob Garner, who thoroughly recounts these methods in his book North Carolina Barbecue -- Flavored by Time, settlers in the tidewater lowlands of Virginia and North Carolina learned how to cook pork over coals from the Indians. The art spread from there throughout the South, with richer and more garish sauces being added along the way. Jones, who traces even his corn-bread recipe (cornmeal, salt and water, oven-baked and dripped in barbecue grease) back to his great-grandfather, views these newfangled developments with distrust. "It's the quality of the meat and the flavor cooked into it that makes for the best taste," Jones told me. "If it's pure barbecue, it's barbecue before the sauce goes onto it. No way of saying nothing but that!"

I SPENT THE SECOND DAY of my journey driving around the tumbledown farm country between Greenville and Goldsboro, putting Jones's dictums to the test. B's Barbecue and Grill, near Greenville, was located at a country crossroads, and even at 9:30 a.m. local barbecue addicts were rolling up in their pickups for a quick fix. B's offered a bountiful chopped-pork sandwich, but the chicken, which was baked for two hours over hot coals, then bathed in warm vinegar sauce, was the real delicacy. Properly barbecued chicken is an ephemeral thing. Heavy sauce can drown the meat's delicate flavor, and too much cooking will quickly dry it out. But at B's the crispy skin was drained of grease, and the moist, pinkish meat fell easily from the bone. I paid $3.95 for half a bird, plus corn bread, cole slaw and a cup of sweet iced tea, and ate my breakfast on a picnic table, under the shade of a spreading oak tree.

Soon the owner, William McLawhorn, joined me, and when I asked for his secret, he gave a little smile. "Cook 'em slow and keep watching 'em," he said. "That's about all there is to it." McLawhorn was a round-bellied man, with a soft-spoken manner and a delicately clipped white mustache. He'd farmed tobacco and corn before entering the barbecue business, and in 22 years of operation had raised his prices only three times. There was still no telephone at B's because his daughters, who worked the counter, said they didn't need one. Everyone from construction road crews to state politicians frequented the ramshackle diner, and when the day's product was sold (up to 400 chickens per day), the family often closed up and went home. "If we can't serve fresh," said McLawhorn, "we don't serve at all."

The patrons at B's discussed their barbecue with the happy fervor of a gospel choir. "Barbecue reminds us of our origins, our childhoods, our particular local culture," said Judge Russell Duke, a Superior Court judge in Greenville, who said he ate at least two plates of barbecue a week. If he missed a feeding he became "a little grouchy," and on returning from trips overseas, he usually went straight to B's to get reoriented. Historically, he said, barbecue was a "little man's dish," which flourished more in working-class North Carolina than in the genteel plantation aristocracies of Virginia and South Carolina. The judge assured me he was also a fan of the Skylight Inn, and of Wilber's and of Scott's Famous Barbecue, both down the road in Goldsboro. "When you're talking about barbecue it becomes very personal," he said. "So we politicians tend to keep quiet and eat our food."

I spent the rest of the day glad-handing eastern barbecue folk in a politico-style lather. I ate a plate of gizzards at Wilber's, on Route 70, then sampled the pork ribs at Scott's in north Goldsboro, where barbecue has been a family concern since 1917. Wilberdean Shirley of Wilber's, whose barbecue reputation has made him a political kingpin in the area, described the essential difference between good barbecue and bad. "Good barbecue won't keep you awake at night," he said. "Bad barbecue will." The key was pit cooking, he said, which made the meat leaner by draining its grease, while stove-cooked hogs tended to broil in their own fat. The chopped barbecue at Wilber's had a peppery tang to it, and you could taste the wood smoke in the back of your nose. The pork ribs at Scott's Famous Barbecue, on North William Street, were equally fine, and when I ordered a tray of lean chunk pork to go with them, the waitress cried, "Go for it baby, it ain't gonna kill ya!"

Scott's was a spacious, sunlit space, with a line of aqua-colored booths against the wall, and a spotless Formica floor. The Scotts cooked with gas, and were most famous for their sauce, which was patented and sold by mail to every state in the union. Martel Scott owned an accounting degree from Howard University, and when I told him about Wilber's gas cooking theories, he offered a precise rebuttal. Martel's father switched to gas in the '60s (his grandfather, a minister, had begun selling barbecue from his home in 1917) to meet city fire ordinances. He worked with manufacturers to develop a top-cooking oven, which allowed for proper drainage of the hog fat. The result, according to Martel, was a cleaner, more controlled system. "Our meat still cooks 'til it falls off the bone," he said. "Wilber's a gentleman, but he's only been at it since 1962. He's a rookie compared to a lot of other places."

I DROVE WEST in a barbecue haze, toward Chapel Hill, where Keith Allen did his best to steer clear of these regional squabbles. "I'm on neutral ground," he said diplomatically. "I never try to beat the hometown boys." Sitting in the middle of the state, the proprietor of Allen & Son cooked western-style pork shoulders, but his cole slaw was of the creamy, eastern variety. His eastern vinegar sauce contained a hint of western sweetness, but his real eccentricity was his devotion to hickory. Allen cooked with hickory wood only, collecting fallen trees from church lawns and neighborhood forests. His office, behind the restaurant, looked into the pits, which is where I found him, before lunch time, wreathed in blue smoke. He rose daily at 3:30 a.m. to start the fire and smoothed the coals under the racks of pork shoulders every 20 minutes for the next nine hours or so. "I can cook a rib-eye steak in 15 minutes," he said. "It'll take half a day to cook you a barbecue sandwich."

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