“If I were advising Obama, I would tell him not to mention barbecue and stay away from it.”

So says John Shelton Reed. He’s talking about President Obama’s visit to the barbecue-centric (and important swing state) North Carolina, where Democrats will hold their national convention next week to officially nominate the incumbent for a second term.

Reed knows the South. He is a former president of the Southern Sociological Society and the Southern Association for Public Opinion Research, and he helped found the Center for the Study of the American South.

More to the point, though, Reed knows North Carolina barbecue culture. He lives in Chapel Hill — “right on the fault line,” he says, between the state’s eastern and western styles — and he literally wrote the book on the state’s ’cue, “Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue” (University of North Carolina Press, 2008).

John Shelton Reed offers President Obama some advice on navigating North Carolina’s barbecue minefield. (Paul Dagy)

Historically, ribs play little part in North Carolina barbecue. In the Tar Heel State, barbecue is synonymous with pulled or chopped whole hog or pork shoulder.

Reed believes that North Carolinians are so passionate about their slow-smoked pork, and how to eat it, that a little misstep could have big consequences. He’s called barbecue “the third rail of North Carolina politics.”

Indeed, the state’s 1984 gubernatorial candidate Rufus Edmisten blames his loss on calling barbecue, which he ate seemingly everywhere on the campaign trail, “that damnable stuff.”

More recently — and more relevant to this year’s election — Michelle Obama drew ridicule for saying, in a release announcing the convention, that the famously ’cue-challenged Charlotte had “great” barbecue. The Charlotte Observer editorial board sarcastically asked, “Who knew?” Even the city’s mayor didn’t rescue the First Lady, saying that while Charlotte had “good” barbecue, the “great” stuff was elsewhere.

In 2008, Obama won North Carolina by less than half a percentage point. A Washington Post map shows the state, with its 15 electoral votes, “leaning” Republican in this year’s campaign. Recognizing the centrality of barbecue to North Carolina, convention organizers held a contest and named its “Official Barbecue Sauces.”

But in a state where barbecue is so fundamental to its identity, the pitfalls are everywhere.

Ordering, for example, can be tricky, which is why Reed suggests that Obama not even bother. The eastern side of the state favors chopped whole hog with a vinegar-pepper sauce; it is typically topped with a mayonnaise-based coleslaw and served on a hamburger bun. The western style, also known as Piedmont and Lexington styles, runs toward pork shoulder and favors a bit of ketchup in its thin, vinegary sauce — or “dip,” as the locals tend to call it. It, too, is served on a bun and topped with coleslaw, but the slaw is usually made with some version of the dip, not with mayonnaise.

To make matters more treacherous, there is a lexicon. A knowledgeable patron orders the form, not the content. You don’t say, “I’ll have a barbecue pork sandwich,” for example. You simply order a “sandwich,” “tray” or “plate,” depending on your appetite and whether or not you want sides.

If the president decides to get into the weeds, more linguistic peril awaits. Should Obama want the crunchy exterior mixed into the meat, he’d have to ask for some “outside” or “brown.” He could also ask for a specific type of chop. “I like it chopped coarse,” says Reed, “but he wouldn’t hurt himself if he got it regular.”

The biggest problem? “If you go to a barbecue restaurant and say, ‘I want a barbecue sandwich and hold the coleslaw,’” Reed says. That, he counsels, would be devastating.

Reed notes that, on the 2008 campaign trail and again in 2010, Obama ate “at a Yankee rib place [Asheville’s 12 Bones] known for its blueberry-chipotle sauce [which Obama ordered]. That’s kind of where he’s at.”

This is why, Reed believes, Obama might be better off simply avoiding the whole minefield of North Carolina barbecue. In the end, though, Reed doesn’t think the president will.

“If he doesn’t go during the convention, I guarantee he’ll go during the campaign,” he says.

And when he does, Reed cautions, the president should step — and order — wisely. There is a swing state at stake.

Further reading:

* Smoke Signals: An open letter to Michelle Obama

* Tampa takes a democratic approach to BBQ

Send your tips, advice and news to me at jimshahin@aol.com. Follow me on Twitter @jimshahin.

Video courtesy of pattiykat .