Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly said that Sir Walter Raleigh brought sows to Jamestown in 1607. Pigs did arrive with settlers, but Raleigh was not involved with the colony. Also, the previous version made reference to a ketchup “dip” in the Piedmont style of barbecue, but ketchup is just one ingredient, and the dip is not based on the condiment. This version has been corrected.
As you come around a bend in the eastern North Carolina countryside, Grady’s BBQ seems to float on the near horizon, its whitewashed cinder-block building appearing out of the fields on the outskirts of Dudley like a mirage.
Inside, Grady’s is as minimalist as on the outside: paneled walls, framed family photos, orange laminate booths, seating for maybe 25.
Its barbecue is so good, it’s worth driving nearly three hours round-trip for a plate. That’s what Robbie Herring, 68, and his wife, Linda, 61, have done. These barbecue pilgrims drove here for mounds of creamy, full-flavored, skin-studded chopped pork, scented by oak embers and bathed in a zesty vinegar-pepper sauce. “Best in the state,” he says. “Our favorite,” she echoes.
Steve Grady wanders by their table and asks how everything is. The Herrings, mouths full, nod their enthusiastic approval. They’re worried, though. “Barbecue like this is a dying art,” says Robbie, a retired territorial manager at Miller Brewing. “I think my generation, and up, are the only ones who realize it.”
He’s referring to wood-cooked pork. And indeed, of the 434 restaurants listed on the Great NC BBQ Map sold around the state — and tacked to the paneled wall here — only an estimated 60 still cook whole hog or pork shoulder this way. Others have gone under or succumbed to the dark side: gas or electricity.
Steve and Gerri Grady established Grady’s in 1986 and built it into one of the state’s most respected barbecue restaurants, listed on the North Carolina Barbecue Society’s Historic Barbecue Trail. The brick pits in the smokehouse are cool when Steve takes me back, but the scent of smoke and slow-cooked whole hog perfumes the air. Steve will fire the pits up tonight around 11. He’ll shovel oak wood embers beneath the hogs. The animals will cook fat side up on steel rods about 16 inches above the cinders until they are flipped over, around 6:30 in the morning.
“Used to be a lot of barbecue places around here,” says Steve, 80, leaning against his long-handled shovel in the dim light. “Griffin’s, Scott’s, Holloway. ’Bout all of them are gone now.”
The same fate, he figures, awaits Grady’s. “I have four sons,” he says, “but they’re not in the business.”
As author and Southern-culture scholar John Shelton Reed writes on the Southern Foodways Alliance’s Southern BBQ Trail Web site, “The classic North Carolina wood-cooked-barbecue joint has become an endangered species.”
That’s because wood cooking is more expensive than gas. Besides the wood itself, there’s the cost of paying a pitman to stay up all night to feed the fire, keep it steady — and make sure it doesn’t burn the place down.
But something besides the barbecue is also threatened: the very identity of North Carolina barbecue. Even if they cook over wood, some new places’ inclusion of ribs (not traditional in old-line barbecue joints) and brisket (from Texas, whose barbecue North Carolinians profess to despise) has created what Reed dubs the International House of Barbecue. Even if they cook over wood, will new places serve a generic version of mediocre barbecue? Some North Carolinians also rue barbecue’s gentrification, which in some cases has turned it from a working man’s food to a pricey night out. Disappearing are the mom-and-pop places, where prices are cheap and the patrons reflect the breadth of a town’s population. If traditional barbecue dies, part of North Carolina dies with it.
I had come to North Carolina to prepare for an autopsy.
“Barbecue is the soul of North Carolina,” a retired schoolteacher named Linda Jones tells me. We are at Wilber’s Barbecue, a wood-cooking institution established more than half a century ago in Goldsboro, about 10 winding miles from Dudley. And I am devouring a heap of moist, sepia-toned whole hog, faintly smoky, chopped coarsely and flavored with a vinegar-pepper sauce.
There are two styles of barbecue in the state. Eastern style is whole hog spiked with a thin vinegar-pepper sauce. Its coleslaw, an essential side dish and sandwich topping, is creamy. Piedmont style uses pork shoulder, douses it with an eastern-style sauce with ketchup added called “dip,” and serves “red slaw,” a coleslaw suffused with that dip, on the side or on a sandwich. Whether whole hog or shoulder, the meat is cooked slowly over coals from hardwood (usually oak, but sometimes hickory) incinerated in a burn barrel by a pitman who shovels the embers 16 to 20 inches beneath the meat.
Of the country’s four generally recognized barbecue capitals — Texas, Kansas City, Memphis and North Carolina — the last claims the deepest roots to American barbecue. Its history can be traced to the 1600s, when settlers adopted the American Indian method of slow-roasting foods above wood cinders. Settlers brought sows to Virginia, and swine became a favored barbecue meat along the Mid-Atlantic coast, especially in Virginia. It migrated to North Carolina, took hold, and never let go.
“Pork has a long history in North Carolina,” says Kelly Zering, associate professor of agricultural economics at North Carolina State University. “It’s always been part of the rural economy and, more recently, part of the small-farm economy.”
The state is the nation’s No. 2 pig producer, after Iowa. Last year, hogs generated about $2 billion in revenue. Zering says that small tobacco farmers often raised pigs for sustenance. “So barbecue was one of the foods that really distinguished North Carolina from the rest of the country,” he says.
The landscape is changing, though. The state’s growth rate of 18.5 percent from 2000 to 2010 was the sixth fastest in the nation, occurring primarily in urban centers such as Charlotte and the Research Triangle of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. Newcomers’ preferences are transforming the barbecue culture from rural to urban, from pork to anything-goes.
At many modern barbecue restaurants, pulled pork is just one of several meats. Sides go far beyond coleslaw, hush puppies, french fries and Brunswick stew, and cocktails are commonplace, a contemporary retort to the dry counties of old that prevented barbecue joints from serving beer, let alone liquor. The transition takes many forms, though. Some new places embrace tradition and cook in wood-only pits, don’t serve beef and make sides that draw from the North Carolina larder.
A scion of one of the most revered barbecue families in the state is trying to have it both ways. Sam Jones, 34, is the grandson of Pete Jones, who in 1947 opened the Skylight Inn in Ayden, a hamlet in eastern North Carolina. Renowned for its chopped whole hog, the Skylight, recipient of a James Beard American Classics award, is a must-stop on a barbecue tour. Its roof resembles the Capitol dome (capital of ’cue, get it?), and Pete, who died in 2006, erected a billboard that reads: “If it’s not cooked with wood it’s not bar-b-q.”
A new full-time pitman, 27-year-old Daniel Williams from Reedville, Va., was hired about a year ago to replace 72-year-old James Howell, a veteran of some 30 years, who continues part time. Williams’s hiring represents one way North Carolina barbecue has changed. Family members who once would have taken over pit duties often leave for easier, better-paying jobs: teaching, accounting, law. And it is hard to find other young people who grew up knowing how to barbecue. Williams didn’t. He took notes while Sam explained how it’s done.
The spirit of Pete Jones still influences the way things are run. The Skylight is co-owned by Pete’s son, Bruce, and nephew, Jeff. Sam, who isn’t an owner, oversees the operations. They still buy whole hogs from a local farmer and put them meat side down above oak cinders overnight. The bronzed pork is still pulled from the bones and hacked to a mince by a guy wielding two cleavers that blur through the meat with a thud, thud, thud, turning the thick wood cutting board concave. The pile of combined chopped ham, shoulder, loin and crispy skin is still brightened with a drizzle of Texas Pete hot sauce, vinegar, salt and pepper. The menu is still Spartan: no sides, other than a sweet coleslaw and a dense square of skillet corn bread from a family recipe that goes back nearly 200 years.
A celebrity in barbecue circles, Sam cooks at high-end food festivals and charity events. His success has led him to go out on his own. Sam Jones BBQ is scheduled to open in late October, about 10 miles up the road in Winterville. “It’s new and old at the same time,” he says, “from its appearance to the principles that brought it to fruition.”
The new digs are intended to evoke an old tobacco barn. There will be wood-burning pits, this time about 10 feet from the front door rather than behind the restaurant. Just like his daddy and his daddy’s daddy, Sam will turn out whole hog. But he’ll also serve pork ribs, a variety of sides, perhaps beer — and maybe even a burger.
“A lot of old restaurants are going out of business every day,” Sam says, “and they don’t realize it: You have to stay relevant.”
The epitome of the anything-goes place is 12 Bones Smokehouse in Asheville, in a part of the state without much barbecue history. This hipster joint (in)famously serves pork ribs slathered with blueberry-chipotle sauce, which President Obama has ordered all three times he has visited. You want beef brisket? Smoked portobello mushroom and fried-green-tomato sandwich on wheat berry bread? Have at it. You can also get pulled pork — cooked in a gas oven enhanced by wood.
Another modern place is the Pit, which opened in Raleigh in 2007. Compared to joints in the eastern part of the state, the Pit might as well be on Mars. Where others are rustic and spare, the Pit gleams: big-screen TVs. A spacious bar area. Table service. On the menu: quinoa salad, barbecued tofu, baby back ribs, brisket. At the same time, there’s free-range whole hog — smoked in a pit, not an oven.
The Raleigh location is so successful that owners opened a second outlet in Durham. That’s where I meet Bob Garner, who has written several books on barbecue and has been employed by the Pit as a spokesman. “People moving here have their own traditions or no traditions,” says Garner. “They don’t give a fig for our barbecue here. I don’t blame them. They want what they’re used to.”
Some purists, meanwhile, are on a mission to support the traditional places. John Shelton Reed and Dan Levine, who goes by Porky LeSwine on his influential blog, BBQJew, co-founded the Web site True Cue to “certify” barbecue restaurants for all-wood cooking; they have certified 48 so far. Levine says he believes the fundamental identity of Carolina barbecue is being lost, but there is hope: “Barbecue tourism has people out searching for authenticity,” he says.
Such authenticity can be found in Lexington, about 100 miles west of the Triangle. Epicenter of the Piedmont style, Lexington and its immediate environs boast 15 barbecue restaurants, down by four over the past few years. Of those that remain, 11 still pit-cook.
In October, the town will host the 32nd annual Lexington Barbecue Festival, a one-day event that attracts 200,000 visitors. “Barbecue is absolutely important to our city,” says Robin Bivens, executive director of the Lexington Tourism Authority. “I’d say 70 percent of the visitors try the barbecue, and as many as 60 percent come just for the barbecue.”
Lexington Barbecue, a homey, well-kept family restaurant, is a good example of a traditional place that draws tourists and is poised to keep thriving. Established in 1962, it uses wood, just as it always has. Its chopped pork shoulder is sensational, as are the hush puppies, crunchy on the outside and light and rich on the inside.
The manager, Nathan Monk, grandson of original owner Wayne Monk, takes me to the kitchen to see how they cook pork shoulders, which is what they’re known for out here. In the kitchen, the pitman is chopping up shoulders, the exteriors crusty and copper-colored, the interiors spilling rivulets of juice. Monk describes the labor-intensive cooking process, from the pitman carefully tending the fire to chopping to a texture that’s just right. The dining room is always full, and family members such as Monk are prepared to take the reins. “We haven’t changed anything, and unless the health department makes us, we never will,” he says.
Under a blue Sunday morning sky, Wyatt Dickson, 34, tends the smoker his parents gave him for his 21st birthday. On Green Button Farm, just outside Chapel Hill, he opens the lid to check on the whole hog he has been cooking since the day before. “Comin’ along,” he says. Dickson is excited. He’s catering an old-fashioned pig picking for 100 guests later today.
Dickson grew up in Fayetteville, where he ate barbecue primarily at community events and in back yards and later cooked whole hogs for frat parties and other events while attending the University of North Carolina. “It wasn’t until much later that I even realized barbecue was a restaurant thing,” he says. “The community part of it is a big deal to me.”
He ultimately ditched a law career and went into catering, using only pasture-raised pigs. “The best compliment I get,” Dickson says, “is from an old-timer who says it tastes just like he remembers from his youth.”
Later this year, he will open a modern barbecue restaurant in Durham called Picnic with two partners, chef Ben Adams and Green Button Farm owner Ryan Butler, who will supply the swine. When he got into pig farming three years ago, Butler had about 40 swine on the farm. Nowadays, there are more than 150. He has a CSA and sells to restaurants. As with other businesses, such as Heritage Farms Cheshire Pork in Goldsboro, the growth of Green Button demonstrates the growing appetite for heritage pigs. “The meat is more robust,” Dickson says. “More flavor. It won’t be pasty or mushy.”
Picnic, which the partners call “Next Generation ’Cue,” will mix traditional and modern. Heritage hogs will be cooked over an all-wood fire, but probes will help monitor the cooking process. Sides will include the traditional Brunswick stew but also “NC Crab Beignets.” Noteworthy: no brisket. “The goal is to take the great things about North Carolina barbecue and put it in a modern context,” Adams says.
It is late afternoon, and the pig picking is pretty much over. “Nobody knows how to pick a pig anymore,” Dickson says. “To me, a pig picking is the soul of barbecue. The soul of barbecue is not in a restaurant. I think North Carolina barbecue, if not dying, is in a stasis. I would like to be part of reigniting the flame, so to speak.”
Dickson has a soul mate in 35-year-old James Beard Award nominee Elliott Moss. In late August, in Asheville, the chef and a partner opened the long-anticipated Buxton Hall. He cooks local pasture-raised whole hogs over wood embers for about 12 hours in custom-made pits in the 120-seat restaurant’s open kitchen. He dresses the hogs with vinegar-pepper sauce. As at Picnic, there is no brisket on the menu.
Moss grew up in Florence, S.C., where the barbecue was similar to the eastern North Carolina style. “I’m not doing it for the trend,” he says. “I’m doing it for 20 years from now. It is a tradition for me and my family and Asheville. I remember how it used to taste, and it just tastes different now. I want the taste I had as a youth.”
Tradition, though, is a matter of interpretation. Barbecue wasn’t always whole hog and pork shoulders in North Carolina and beef brisket in Texas. It wasn’t always cooked in brick pits or offset smokers. It was oxen and fish and other proteins, cooked on a platform of green twigs and branches over a trench in the ground. It wasn’t always restaurant food. It was, first and most lasting, community food, shared with friends, neighbors and relatives at civic gatherings and special events.
Wood, whether smoldering logs or burned-down embers, remains the constant. But to believe that barbecue, that seemingly most changeless of cuisines, can’t change is to deny history.
North Carolina barbecue is certainly at a crossroads, one that gets to the heart of questions about identity and authenticity, and the survival of pit-smoked pork establishments that eschew the everything-for-everybody approach once seemed unlikely. But Skylight Inn and Lexington Barbecue are on track to maybe prove that prediction wrong. And new places such as Picnic and Buxton Hall are helping spark a resurgence in creativity and respect for heritage that may help revive the scene. North Carolina barbecue might someday be removed from the endangered-species list, after all. I’ll hold off on that autopsy for now.