Intro to Carolina-style Barbecue
February 20, 2013
When I say “barbecue,” what comes to mind? Is it the outdoor cooking apparatus that you have? Is it an outdoor social gathering where food is served? Or is it meat that has been cooked with wood “low and slow?” Technically all three are correct if you are using a dictionary as your primary resource. But to people in the Carolinas, the definition is very much only one of the above.
People always talk about Carolina style BBQ. But what exactly is Carolina style BBQ? I took an informal poll on Facebook of what comes to mind when someone says Carolina style BBQ. The answers were wide and varied, and I’ve included a small sampling below:
- Thin vinegar-based sauce
- Yellow Mustard Sauce
- Whole Hog
- Eastern or Western
- Red Slaw
The truth is that all of these encompass Carolina BBQ, but there is more to Carolina BBQ than just vinegar or mustard, whole hog or shoulder, and Eastern or Western. To outsiders, the Carolinas appear to be a truly confused sort; how can people in the Carolinas claim that their BBQ is superior to the rest of the country when they can’t even agree which type of BBQ is superior in their own state? But behind this great chasm is a rich tradition. To truly understand BBQ in the Carolinas is to understand not only the types of meat and sauce, but also the history and heritage.
For the purposes of this primer, I will be referring to barbecue in North Carolina. When you get down to
it, authentic North Carolina barbecue has the following characteristics:
- It is cooked for a long period of time at a low temperature over heat and smoke coming from a bed of hardwood or hardwood coals.
- It is pork.
- It is sometimes basted with and always served with a thin sauce that, at most, only slightly deviates from a recipe including vinegar, red pepper and (optionally) tomato. So looking at that definition, that’s pretty wide open. And this wide open definition is what allows for the differences in Eastern versus Western (or Piedmont – most North Carolinians exclude the mountain region from this comparison). Even though the differences in styles are minute, they nevertheless still form the basis for an intrastate feud that still rages on to this day. Below is a high-level breakdown of the variations between Eastern and Western/Piedmont styles:
I do want to make a special mention here of South Carolina. Like North Carolina, South Carolina prefers pork. The unique thing about South Carolina is that sauce preferences are split up into four distinct regions. In the Pee Dee region of the state, the primary sauce of choice is the Eastern Carolina style vinegar sauce. Counties that run parallel to the North Carolina state line primarily use the Western/Piedmont style sauce. This includes much of the Upstate region. A few counties bordering on the Georgia state line lean towards a ketchup-based sauce. And finally, the Midlands region of South Carolina and points south use a mustard-based sauce. The map below (courtesy of Craig “Meathead” Goldwyn of AmazingRibs.com) gives an excellent visual of the breakdown of sauce preferences by region.
(Image borrowed from AmazingRibs.com)
A Brief History of North Carolina Barbecue
Regardless of what most native North Carolinians think, barbecue did not originate in North Carolina. While some people claim that the word “barbecue” is derived from the French phrase “barbe à queue” (meaning “from head to tail”), this is generally considered false. Instead, most etymologists accept that the word came from the term “barabicu” used in the Caribbean/West Indies and entered most European languages as “barbacoa”. References to both the term and the cooking technique can be traced back to publications in the late 1600s.
The cooking techniques used in the Caribbean/West Indies were probably also used by natives in the tidewater Virginia and northeastern North Carolina areas. As a result, the term followed along trade routes and became established in the eastern part of North Carolina. The cooking techniques used there became the basis for Eastern North Carolina style barbecue.
While Eastern North Carolina style may not have an exact pinpoint for its origins, those of Western/Piedmont style can definitely be placed with a certain degree of accuracy. Around the time of World War I, men of German background and descent started barbecue joints along the rail line in Rowan and Davidson counties where they cooked only parts of the hog – loins, hams, and shoulders.
These pioneers – John Blackwelder, Jess Swicegood, George Ridenhour, Sid Weaver, and Warner Stamey – all contributed to the spreading of this style of cooking throughout the Piedmont region of North Carolina. Their influences so often intermingle with one another that instead of referring to their heritage as a family tree, it’s often called a briar patch.