Five paragraphs (and one video) that explain North Carolina barbecue
I'm not talking about what's better: Eastern or Lexington-style, whole hog or pork shoulder. I'm more interested in what the state of barbecue in this state tells us about the state of ourselves.
I am a terrible cook, which means I am, mostly, a terrible food writer. My greatest triumph in culinary journalism came when I was assigned to cover the Blind Pig Supper Club, an Asheville-centric monthly dinner where you buy a ticket and then get whatever fever dream of a dish that several chefs dream up. Years ago, my wife and I hoofed it up to Spruce Pine for an eight-course meal that was being served at the late, great Knife & Fork. During each course, the chef came out and explained exactly what he did, why he did it, what it was supposed to taste like, the ingredients, the process, and the theory. Each course came with wine. I took a lot of notes. I drank a lot of wine. The story practically wrote itself.
Barbecue? I get barbecue. It’s simple. It’s meat and heat. I mean, it’s more than that, but the basic elements are easy to understand and largely consistent. Hence, I’ve written a decent amount of stuff about barbecue over the years, largely because my tiny food brain can process it in a way that it will never be able to understand, say, a James Beard award-winning menu at Cúrate.
That said, restaurants can vary wildly. Chai Pani is nothing like the Angus Barn, for example. Barbecue can vary too, but you’re dealing with mostly the same elements, spread out with a million different local dialects. There is not too much difference between Stamey’s and the Honeymonk (especially if you consider that they both were conceived outside the courthouse in Lexington). But each one comes with a slightly different history, story, reason for being, and little tweaks in the process that were born sometimes out of necessity and human scheduling and, at other times, experimentation and curiosity.
Again, I’m noor Kathleen Purvis. And when it comes to barbecue, I’m certainly not in the league of John Shelton Reed or Bob Garner (more on him in a little while). But over time, I’ve tried to use my visits to barbecue joints to try and get at a few underlying truths. Hence, I’ve pulled five paragraphs from my stories over the years that I think get at the heart of what North Carolina barbecue is all about. Spoiler alert: This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive list of the best barbecue places in the state—many people create those quite often. It’s also not delving into the always-contentious debate about whether eastern or Lexington-style is the best, although I think we can all agree that South Carolina’s mustard-based sauce sucks.
You Do You
The Venue: NC State BBQ Camp in Raleigh
The Story: North Carolina’s Agent ‘Cue (2023)
“When the Traeger first came out, I thought it was blasphemy,” [Dana] Hanson says of the popular wood pellet-fired grill and smoker that you can control with an app on your phone. That ease ran afoul of the toil that many people think has to be a component of good barbecue. Since then, Hanson says, he’s mellowed with age, and he’s seen the benefit that new and affordable equipment has had over the past decade.
“If you have a tool that matches your level of commitment, use it,” he says. “There’s a continuum. If I’m cooking during the week? I hit the switch and use the Traeger. If I’m cooking for more people, I use the Big Green Egg. If I’m doing a big catered event, I’ve got a grill that’s a trailer that burns firewood. I can do 16 briskets on it.”
The Context: I have a new story out in Our State magazine this month about North Carolina’s BBQ Camp. What’s that, you didn’t know it existed? Well it does, and it’s like Space Camp for adult men with large elaborate smokers. Every summer, dozens of people gather for two days to take an intensive dive into all things barbecue, courtesy of Dana Hanson, NC State’s self-proclaimed “meat guy.”
Barbecue now has a cult following because we’ve fetishized all food. It’s possible to have a puritanical streak about it. But when I talked to Hanson, he made it okay (at least for me) to do whatever I need to do to make it work. Process is important. But so is practicality.
Barbecue barely works
The Venue: B’s Barbecue in Greenville
The Story: A Day at B’s Barbecue (2016)
After watching this delicate dance of people and pork, hush puppies and hustle, several things start making sense: This barely works. Somehow, there’s just enough food to keep the place open through lunch. Somehow, the sisters keep up with the throng of people, even though there are just the three of them, with an occasional son or daughter pitching in. Somehow, the building does not collapse. The pork — hand-chopped, never ground — is legendary. The sauce — sour, peppery, with a lip-smacking bite — is perfect. The slaw is sublime. The hunger for that will never change, and as the word spreads, the Greenville regulars and the out-of-town dreamers make the line longer and longer. And somehow, this place survives for another day.
The Context: In some ways, your oldest and most traditional North Carolina barbecue joints have adopted the same philosophy as your favorite college basketball team every March: Survive and advance. B’s is maybe the most extreme example of that. It has no phone. It’s looks like it’s falling apart. It’s not in a particularly lovely part of town (My reporting for this story took a particularly ominous turn in the middle of the night). They cook over charcoal, not wood. And yet, it is beloved and a part of the fabric of Greenville thanks to its simplicity and its longevity.
And yet. The three sisters who scramble every day to make it told me, in 2015, that they thought B’s had ten years left. When something major happened, one that would require a big outlay of cash, the restaurant would be closed and everybody would just move on. The family members who are still running beloved institutions have to act like insurance adjusters. If an old car gets into a minor fender bender, sometimes it makes sense to total it. That happens quite a bit with longtime restaurants, most recently with Gus’s Sir Beef in Charlotte, which was done in by a leaky roof.
Nobody ever gets rich in the barbecue business, it seems. It’s a living. It’s hard work. The margins are small. The food is as good as it always is. But the same thing can’t last forever.
Scaling up, then scaling down
The Venue: Little Pigs in Asheville
The Story: Little Pigs BBQ (2014)
Little Pigs BBQ was actually just one of more than a hundred Little Pigs Barbecue of America franchises. “Those guys were good business guys but they didn’t know food,” Joe [Swicegood] says. Back in the ’60s, the concept of fast food was just coming into its own. McDonald’s got its start in the ’40s as a barbecue restaurant, but switched over to burgers because the slow process of making barbecue was hard to replicate on a national scale. Little Pigs Barbecue of America only turned a profit for one year, 1963, and by 1967, the franchise was bankrupt. Barbecue was too hard to homogenize.
The Context: Little Pigs is sort of like the last surviving Blockbuster Video of barbecue. Long ago, when franchising and fast food were novel ideas, people thought they could crank out barbecue at scale. After all, barbecue was originally about scale: It was (and is) a cheap way to feed a lot of people. But the issue (as McDonald’s and others found out) is that cooking good barbecue takes a long time, usually requires a lot of space (more on that in a moment), and can generate a lot of smoke. It is far quicker and easier to heat up some frozen burgers than it is to cook pork shoulders for eight hours.
Hence, when Little Pigs the corporation went under, that provided an opening for Little Pigs the restaurant to keep going. Joe and Peggy Swicegood just started tweaking things slightly. They paid attention to what their customers wanted. Today, 60 years after it opened, it’s still going.
A Barbecue Watch vs. a Barbecue Warning
The Venue: Midwood Smokehouse in Charlotte
The Story: Midwood Smokehouse (2013)
The best barbecue is cheap. It takes wood to fire the smoker, and woodpiles take more space. By law, you can’t prepare barbecue in the same place you smoke it. That takes more space. In Charlotte, land isn’t plentiful. You’ll pay more for it and get less. That makes food cost more. So you’ll find the best deal on good barbecue in out-of-the-way places, where life costs less and the acreage is easier to come by. The type of barbecue joint you see in Shelby, Lexington, or Down East, the little wood-frame restaurant that’s been smoking pork with the family recipe for decades, just never materialized here. “They exist where they exist for a reason,” says Kathleen Purvis, The Charlotte Observer’s [then] food editor, “and that reason does not exist in Charlotte.”
The Context: Usually a tornado warning is preceded by a tornado watch. A warning means an actual tornado has been spotted in person or on radar. A watch means that the conditions are ripe for a tornado to form.
In the same way, what we think of as traditional North Carolina barbecue comes from conditions that keep vanishing: A place where the real estate is cheap and the space is plentiful. Again, most barbecue joints are operating on thin margins. Any city that has an affordable housing crisis is probably not going to open a barbecue stand. Now, that doesn’t mean places like Picnic, Sam Jones BBQ, and Midwood Smokehouse can’t be created and thrive. But it does mean you’re not getting a new Grady’s, Wilber’s, or Parker’s, probably.
Anyhow, Kathleen Purvis explained to me long ago why Charlotte’s barbecue tradition didn’t blow up like Lexington’s did. It explained one aspect of the rural-urban divide in this state in a way that is applicable to so many other things. Like, say, roller rinks.
Your definition may vary
The Venue: Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge in Shelby
The Story: Staying True at Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge (2016)
Even regulars can get it wrong. Natalie Ramsey, Debbie’s daughter, says older customers come in every once in a while and tell her that something tastes different. Natalie will ask them: Have you changed your medication lately? That’s usually it. Prescriptions can mess with the taste buds. Natalie has to calm those customers down. Because if there’s one overarching fear at Bridges, it’s this: “They’ll think we’re changing,” she says, “and we’re not.”
Do you know what freaks people out? About barbecue? About life in general? Change. When something’s just a little bit different about something that people have become comfortable with, you get angst, worry, and sometimes anger. Hence, the folks at Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge (which, I know, there’s also Alston Bridges BBQ in Shelby, a town with a ton of related and unrelated people named Bridges in it) are quick to point out: We do things the way we’ve always done them here. Sometimes it’s not us. It’s you.
Of course, now that Red Bridges and many places have turned from mere lunch spots into destinations, people also bring their own ideas with them. Hence, here’s a runner-up paragraph from the same story:
Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge in Shelby cooks pork shoulders, not the whole hog. Hence, no ribs. Bridges has no plans to start serving ribs. And yet every day, someone calls, asking for ribs. You can’t blame them. If your barbecue place has ribs, wouldn’t you figure every other joint has them, too?
Some people have complained to Bridges employees because they can’t taste the gas. Others get mad because their meat isn’t pink like it’s supposed to be. This is the exact opposite of an incident from last November when a woman called the cops on Clyde Cooper’s Barbecue in Raleigh because her pork was pink. “Every barbecue I’ve had is all the way done, you don’t see pink at all,” the woman told the News & Observer. “I asked if they could cook it some more, that I’m not eating any pink barbecue. They said it’s supposed to be pink, but I’ve never had it that way.”
It’s okay to like what you like. It’s also okay to not like things. The problems always seem to arise when you can’t understand why other people wouldn’t do things the way that you think they should be done.
The Important Part Is Just To Enjoy Yourself
The Venue: All of them, maybe?
The Man: Bob Garner (1947?-)
The Context: Bob Garner has been on television in this state for a very long time doing the exact same thing: Going to barbecue joints and finding himself in a state of euphoria. He has written books. He has given talks. But nothing compares to him taking a bite of food and visibly enjoying himself on camera. A long time ago, in the pre TikTok era, someone had the bright idea to make a short but incredibly detailed supercut of Garner saying “mmm” to literally everything he was eating. It’s a 95-second Garnergasm.
It’s funny, yes. But I also love it so very much, because Bob Garner loves it so very much. He’s not always eating barbecue either! This man has never gone on TV to say that he doesn’t like something, and for that, I admire the hell out of him. I know we live in an over-documented age of context collapse, hate reads, and perilous misunderstandings. But maybe there’s still room to find joy in things, if you keep an open mind.
Knife & Fork! See, we're not so different after all. I've still got the menu from my 2008 (2009?) birthday meal there, when--in the restaurant's pre-prix fixe days--my friends and I ordered the whole menu. Back then, the priciest item was prime rib with turnip-potato gratin and mixed greens. 19 bucks.
"...although I think we can all agree that South Carolina’s mustard-based sauce sucks."
Yes, yes we can. Mustard based bbq is the only kind I truly dislike. And while my favorites will always be the sweeter KC and spicier TX styles, I've come to appreciate the NC style pork bbq quite a bit since moving down here. I know I've read at least one of these stories already, but I'm looking forward to reading the rest.