It’s hard not to conjure up Don Quixote when considering Joe Haynes. Like the famous fictional character who went into the Spanish countryside in a quest to right wrongs, Haynes has traveled the hills and valleys of Virginia to right the wrong he believes has been done to the state’s barbecue.
“Virginia doesn’t get its due,” says Haynes. “Virginia, not that long ago, was one of the nation’s great barbecue destinations.”
A mild-mannered technology consultant by day, Haynes, 54, is on a mission to save Virginia barbecue from obscurity. In 2016, he succeeded in getting the Virginia General Assembly to designate May through October as Virginia Barbecue Season. He runs a blog called Obsessive Compulsive Barbecue that’s heavy on Virginia tidbits. He’s trying to market three Virginia-style sauces that he developed. And in September, his book, “Virginia Barbecue: A History” (Arcadia Publishing), is due in stores.
In it, he argues that Southern barbecue grew out of Virginia barbecue, which developed not from the Caribbean, as is often contended, but from the Powhatan Indian technique of slow-cooking foods above smoldering coals. Some seasonings, such as vinegar and salt, came from European settlers, while Haynes credits African slaves with using more complex flavorings.
This version of history is guaranteed to start an argument in the ornery barbecue subculture, where you’ll find Mississippi, South Carolina and Haiti already claiming Southern barbecue’s origins. A Smithsonian magazine article in 2013 called barbecue “a Caribbean cooking style brought north by Spanish conquistadors, moved westward by settlers, and seasoned with the flavors of European cultures.” It goes on: “Eventually, the technique made its way to the colonies, traveling as far north as Virginia.”
Haynes argues the reverse. He says barbecue began in the Old Dominion — George Washington and James Madison attended and hosted barbecues — and spread south and west.
Even more provocative is his contention that such a thing as Virginia barbecue still exists. In his book, Haynes cites religious opposition to the rowdy public barbecues and the dispirited post-Civil War populace as contributing to the decline of “grand barbecues.” He quotes a writer in 1876: “Pity if so good an institution [Virginia barbecues] has gone down, as we fear it has in its original simplicity, among the other wrecks of the war.”
Nowadays, it seems hard to find clearly identified Virginia barbecue. Pierce’s Pitt Bar-B-Que in Williamsburg opened in 1971; on Garden & Gun magazine’s barbecue bucket list it calls itself Tennessee-style. The Silver Pig Barbeque in Lynchburg calls its offering “authentic Carolina barbecue.” The seven-outlet Virginia Barbecue chain serves an “Original Virginia BBQ Sandwich,” but also a “Classic NC BBQ Sandwich.”
Haynes asserts that the popular North Carolina style is the result of a culinary crime, noting in his book that, among other things, “When settlers first moved into what is today North Carolina, it was known at that time as Virginia’s Southern Plantation.”
In person, Haynes is more direct. “North Carolina kidnapped Virginia barbecue,” he tells me.
Traditional Virginia barbecue includes chopped and sliced smoked pork and beef (though, until recently, not brisket), but Haynes says it is primarily identified by four sauces. They are: the tangy vinegar, tomato-mustard blend sauce of the Tidewater area; the vinegar- and spice-based, Worcestershire -inflected sauce of central Virginia; the vinegar- and herb-based sauce of the Shenandoah Valley; and the sweet tomato-based (sometimes called mahogany) sauce of Northern Virginia. He adds that Virginia barbecue also includes wood-smoked Shenandoah-style barbecue chicken, basted with an herbaceous vinegar-based sauce and most often found at fundraising events.
The night before I meet Haynes, at his suggestion I take a drive to King’s Barbecue in Petersburg. Written in all-caps across two large windows is this: “Celebrating 70 years (1946-2016) of the best authentic Virginia BBQ.”
I grab a seat at the counter to watch the pitman, John Talley, at work, mincing and slicing a hot, black-crusted pork shoulder. The pork is unseasoned when it goes into the Southern Pride wood-enhanced oven and when it is served. On the side is a sienna-hued sauce: a ketchup-mustard blend, a classic example of a Tidewater sauce.
Afterward, I head to K&L Barbeque in nearby Hopewell, which a cop who stopped me for speeding had told me about. Like King’s, K&L doesn’t season the meat before cooking; unlike King’s, it sauces it upon serving. It, too, offers a mustard-ketchup-blend sauce. The sauce is a touch spicier and tawnier in color than King’s but basically the same.
With a rough introduction to Virginia barbecue, the next morning I pick up Haynes at his home in Fredericksburg, and we head to the Barbeque Exchange in Gordonsville, northeast of Charlottesville.
During our road-trip conversation, I learn that Haynes was to barbecue born. His father raised steers and hogs, and built a brick pit and a smokehouse in the backyard. Haynes grew up hunting deer, squirrels and doves.
At 17, after a teenage rebellion that involved eating Big Macs instead of barbecue, he took a job at Allman’s Barbecue in Fredericksburg, which opened in 1954.
Haynes was a grandfather when the full obsession took hold. He had begun looking into Virginia traditions as a hobby, reading old diaries, newspapers and letters. “Next thing you know,” he says, “I had 450, 500 pages of notes.”
But his book didn’t really start taking shape until his mother died. “I realized I hadn’t talked to her enough about her and her family,” Haynes says. “My mother’s family was Powhatan Indian.” As he studied the foods and traditions of the tribe, he began to see the extent of their influence on the settlers. That led him to the thesis of the book.
Haynes is a friendly guy whose book, with 42 pages of citations, is as deeply researched as any barbecue book I’ve read. When he talks, Haynes personifies his book, going deep into a given subject, from the Powhatan connection to slavery’s influence. You can practically see the references circling his balding head.
As soon as we park at the Barbeque Exchange, established in 2010, I can smell the smoke from the all-wood smokers out back of the restaurant. Inside, with big wood tables covered with white paper, the rustic dining room has an indoor-picnic feel.
Owner Craig Hartman joins us for lunch. An assortment of house-made pickles precedes a gargantuan meal: pork shanks, spareribs, andouille, pork brisket, chicken and slow-smoked pork, both sliced and coarsely chopped. Oh, and a few slabs of smoked tofu. “College kids,” Hartman explains.
I ask what style he considers his barbecue.
“We called it Carolina style, because before Joe came along we didn’t know,” he says.
“I wrote it [the book] for people like you,” Haynes says, “for people who want to cook real Virginia barbecue but didn’t have ammunition to argue that there is a Virginia barbecue history.”
I hate to be a killjoy, but at this point it’s still unclear to me what is Virginian about this barbecue.
Haynes points me to the Hog Fire sauce. It is made from vinegar, mustard, ketchup and spices, roughly similar to the one at King’s. (Later, he’ll tell me in an email that the chicken was based on Shenandoah-style smoked birds.)
Perhaps Hartman observes my expression of uncertainty, because he quickly adds: “I think we are still building our culture. We don’t have an identity.”
“We have one,” Haynes says. “We just let it pass.”
“We’re trying to rebuild it,” Hartman says.
“A revival,” Haynes says. “I always refer to it as a revival.”
Our next stop is Ace Biscuit & Barbecue, in Charlottesville, which opened in 2012 in a former soul-food restaurant. Owner Brian Ashworth shows off his all-wood smokers, one lined with hunks of beef brisket basting in foil, the other packed with pork shoulders.
The meat can be ordered by the pound, but the draw is the biscuit sandwiches. The Ol’ Dirty Biscuit comes with fried chicken, sausage gravy, dill pickles and smoked pimento cheese. The Brisket Biscuit is beef brisket, caramelized onions, barbecue sauce, cheddar cheese and an egg, fried or scrambled. The menu strikes me as more nouveau-’cue than historical. But Haynes zeros in on the Virginia red sauce, one of several offered.
It has tomato, root beer, fresh ginger, brown sugar, Worcestershire. It’s loosely based on his grandmother’s recipe, says Ashworth. “It’s just something I grew up with,” he says.
“You say it’s just something you came up with, but I could trace the ingredients in that sauce all the way back,” Haynes says. “The ginger, for example. And the Worcestershire. . . .”
He’s off on another discourse.
Perhaps Haynes can convince the world that Virginia barbecue is the once and future king. Perhaps his quest is quixotic. Either way, it’s worth taking a drive around the Virginia countryside to tilt at a few barbecue stands before deciding for yourself.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly described the location of Ace Biscuit & Barbecue. It is in Charlottesville.