Real North Carolina Barbecue

A barbecue pit depicted in A Southern Barbecue, 1887, by Horace Bradley  - from Wikipedia

Real North Carolina barbecue is a dying art.  Real North Carolina barbecue is either pork shoulders or a whole hog cooked very, very slowly over hardwood coals.  The coals come from real wood – predominately oak and hickory – which are burned down to glowing embers and shoveled under the pork.  It takes about 10 hours of this difficult physical labor to cook pork shoulders and up to twenty four hours to cook a whole hog.  The result is amazingly tender, smoky (but not over smoked), succulent, salty pork which may be complimented by vinegar based sauce.  Down East, the sauce is only vinegar and spices; the further west you travel, the more tomato paste or ketchup is added. 

Barbecue Pit at Lefler's Place in Pee Dee, NC - note the wood ready to be burned to coals on the right, before being shoveled into the pit on left

Pork shoulders or whole hogs cooked using a gas or electric heat source is just roast pork.  Roast pork can be very good, especially with the right sauce, but it ain’t barbecue!  In times past, North Carolina was full of real barbecue joints.  But, cooking real barbecue is very hard work and hickory is expensive.  Every year or so we lose another real barbecue restaurant; they either close down or convert to gas.  When they close, I mourn the loss. When they convert to gas, I get angry, stomp around the parking lot for a while, label it the work of the devil and vow never to return. 

Of course, there are plenty of folks who enjoy roast pork masquerading as barbecue just as much as the genuine article.  Some would argue that North Carolina barbecue is more popular today than ever and certain chain, fast food “barbecue” businesses (that shall remain nameless because I will not dignify them with the honor of a mention) do such a good business that it can be hard to find a table.  So, I guess this is really just my own opinion, and the success of the “whomp biscuit” is evidence that my opinion probably isn’t worth much.

 You know what a “whomp biscuit is”, don’t you?  Whomp biscuit was a term coined by the late Jerry Clower, who said that the saddest sound in the world is that of canned “biscuits” being “whomped” on the counter.  I have to agree with the most famous son of Yazoo Mississippi on that one.  I compare every biscuit I eat to those my great grandmother made.  She used real lard.  Lard and butter are gifts from God.  Scientists figured out how to squeeze oil from carrots (or celery or some such nonsense) to make margarine and vegetable oil.  I don’t understand it, it doesn’t taste as good as butter, lard or even olive oil and I won’t eat it.  Sure, “health professional” claim that such test-tube alternatives are better for you, but my great grandparents lived to be 96 and 99 – when was the last time you met someone who ate margarine and lived to be close to 100?  A better question may be who would want to live to be 100 if they had to give up butter, lard, real barbecue, greasy collard greens, red meat, chicken with the skin left on, etc, to do so?

Perhaps the saddest thing about the decline of real barbecue in North Carolina is that cooking barbecue is an indigenous art.  North Carolina can rightly claim to be the birthplace of barbecue in America.  Early colonists came to North Carolina and the southern costal areas of Virginia by way of the Caribbean, where they witnessed island folks roasting pigs in pits dug in the ground.  Historical accounts of pig pickin’s in NC and VA run throughout the development of the colonies and the birth of our nation, but the tradition really took hold in our state.  In fact, I lived in the LynchburgVA area for a few years and folks would drive hours down to Short Sugar’s in Reidsville for North Carolina barbecue.

All North Carolinians should be proud of our culinary heritage.  The descendents of the white colonists employed black slaves as “pit masters”.  Soon, certain black men became legendary barbecue cooks.  Some earned enough money cooking barbecue to buy their freedom.  After the Civil War, black owned barbecue and “soul food” restaurants began in the south and spread through the industrialized north, as black folks gained renown for cooking the same wonderful foods as white folks did in the rural south. 

Over the past few decades though, our culinary arts have been in decline.  Even as the Food Network celebrates southern food with special programs, fewer and fewer southerners are cooking in the fashion of their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.  The reasons are obvious – the general homogenization of culture due to television, the steady influx of northerners moving south, high divorce rates, working mothers not having the time to teach their daughters to cook, fast food, packaged and frozen food, etc.  When was the last time you fried chicken, or ate anyone’s home-fried chicken?  Most fried chicken these days comes from the Kentucky Fried Chicken.  KFC is great, but it can’t hold a candle to my grandmother’s fried chicken!  I can’t fry chicken like my grandmother, neither can anyone in my family – it is a lost art and our lives are emptier for it.

The whole hog style (universally popular Down East) of barbecue takes more time and effort than the pork shoulder style of North Carolina’s piedmont, and real barbecue has become harder to find east of Interstate 95. There are a few legendary joints that still cook real barbecue Down East, but most of the remaining real barbecue restaurants are in the piedmont. 

Please eat at independently owned, traditional southern restaurants and help keep our culture alive. And, if your parents and/or grandparents are still alive, learn their recopies and techniques and please, please pass them on to your children.  This is our proud southern heritage and it must not be lost!

Open pit, ready for pork! 

End note 1:  Credit should be given to Bob Garner for documenting the history of North Carolina barbecue in his books and programs and for also doing so much to keep the tradition alive.  Credit should also be given to The Lexington Collection for their efforts in promoting real barbecue

End note 2:  There is no shame in using good quality hardwood lump charcoal in place of live hardwood coals if you are cooking barbecue in your backyard.  Good lump charcoal (not briquettes) is simply hardwood burned down to coals and then extinguished.  You will still want to add some hickory wood for flavor.

End note 3:  I prefer piedmont style barbecue pork, but Down East sauce - that is my own bias.  I was born in the Blue Ridge Mountains, but my mother’s family was from Bladen County.  I spent fairly equal amounts of time growing up Down East as in the mountains, passing through the piedmont on every trip.  I’ll go ahead and recommend my favorite sauce: Scott’s.  Legend has it that the recipe for the sauce came to Rev. Scott (a black minister from the Goldsboro area) in a dream.  I can’t vouch for Scott’s barbecue, but the sauce is fantastic.  It is vinegary, peppery, spicy and never overpowers the meat; in fact, it highlights the flavors.  One may argue that a bit of ketchup or sugar will bring out the flavor of the smoke in the pork, but Scott’s is what I grew up on and what I prefer.  I also prefer Down East slaw.    Besides, sauce is what people focus on when the barbecue isn’t good enough to be the star!


  1. Is this the Scotts BBQ Sauce you mention in your endnotes?

    1. Yes, that is my favorite store brand. The ingredients are a little different than what I make at home, but it is mighty good!


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