North Carolina BBQ

North Carolina State Icon

By John Shelton Reed

When George Washington “went in to Alexandria to a Barbecue and stayed all Night,” as he wrote in his diary for May 27, 1769, he won eight shillings playing cards and probably ate meat from a whole hog, cooked for hours over hardwood coals, then chopped or “pulled.”  By the early nineteenth century at the latest, a sauce of vinegar and cayenne pepper (originally West Indian) was being sprinkled on the finished product.  This ur-barbecue can be found to this day in eastern North Carolina and the adjoining regions of South Carolina and Virginia, virtually unchanged.

From this matrix barbecue spread to the rest of the South, and beyond, but it was transformed in the process.  In the Carolinas west of the fall-line it was taken up by pork-loving Scotch-Irish and Germans, and the influence of the latter is seen in the preference for pork shoulders Schäufele is the name of this common German dish), sometimes served sliced as well as chopped, and the invariable side-dish or topping of coleslaw (which has now spread back to the east).  West of Raleigh the simple vinegar-and-pepper sauces of the east usually get an infusion of tomato catsup, and often one or more of an idiosyncratic variety of “secret ingredients” as well, but piedmont sauces are still thinner and more vinegary than what is found in states to the south and west or, for that matter, in grocery stores.  (Although eastern and piedmont North Carolinians agree that the mustard-based sauce of central South Carolina — the German influence again — is an abomination, traces of mustard can sometimes be found in the piedmont.)

In both east and piedmont, sauced barbecue with slaw on top can almost always be obtained as a sandwich on a hamburger bun.  If ordered as a tray or plate, however, barbecue is usually served these days with hushpuppies (elsewhere usually only found with fried fish), although some old-fashioned places still offer at least the alternative of cornpone (in the east) or white bread or rolls (in the piedmont).  There are also east-west differences in sidedishes:  Brunswick stew and/or boiled potatoes, for example, are more often found in the east.

Barbecue is now high on the extensive list of cultural markers dividing the coastal plain from the piedmont.  The upcountry tradition lacks the antiquity of George Washington’s version, but it too has a presidential imprimatur:  the Reagan administration engaged the catering services of Wayne Monk of Lexington for the 1983 Economic Summit in Williamsburg.

Never “home cooking” (it is simply too much trouble), until the early twentieth century barbecue was largely reserved for special occasions like harvests, fundraisers, and political rallies. It still serves these functions, but after the First World War a number of men who had been cooking for such events began to sell their barbecue from tents and stands in places like courthouse squares and outside tobacco auctions.  Soon the automobile made possible the specialized, sit-down barbecue restaurant (North Carolina’s first – Bob Melton’s in Rocky Mount – opened in 1924), and by mid-century, scores of unpretentious eating places offered  their communities’ version of barbecue when desired, or at least on weekends.  Although most establishments were white-owned, in eastern North Carolina most of the cooking was still done by African-Americans, and a handful of blacks opened their own places.  The appetite for good barbecue transcended the color line, however, as blacks and whites ate take-out from each other’s restaurants.

In retrospect, it seems that this marked the high point of North Carolina barbecue culture.  Newcomers to the state continue to contribute to the barbecultural mix – in Carrboro, for example, the Don Jose Tienda advertises “Barbacoa y Carnitas / BBQ” for its growing Mexican clientele; outposts of the late Lee Atwater’s Red, Hot and Blue chain serve Memphis-style dry-rubbed ribs; a Durham place called the Q-Shack smokes Texas-style beef brisket and sausage; and The Barbecue Joint in Chapel Hill serves a post-modern “Redneck Reuben” (cedar-smoked pastrami on grilled Jewish rye) – but the classic North Carolina wood-cooked-barbecue joint has become an endangered species.  As proprietors willing to rise at 3:00 a.m. to split hickory logs have retired, or simply tired, more and more have turned to cooking with gas or electricity, or closed.  The recent efflorescence of weekend barbecue competitions does mean that more people are cooking their own barbecue now than ever before, but competitions often follow Kansas City or Memphis conventions that involve ribs and thick-ish sauces rather than North Carolina’s indigenous barbecue.

As the great Victorian jurist Sir James Fitzjames Stephen wrote, “The waters are out and no human force can turn them back,” but he added that “I do not see why as we go with the stream we need sing Hallelujah to the river god.”  We feel that way about barbecue, and hope that an educated and discerning clientele can be found to patronize those places that preserve the old ways.

– John Shelton Reed

John Shelton Reed is a retired sociologist and a member of the SFA, the Fellowship of Southern Writers, and the North Carolina Barbecue Society. You can find more of his work here.

This introduction was adapted from Holy Smoke: The Tar Heel Barbecue Tradition, by John Shelton Reed, Dale Volberg Reed, and Will McKinney to be published by the University of North Carolina Press, forthcoming 2008. Used with permission.

John Shelton Reed


B's Barbecue - Judy Drach (middle) - North Carolina - Southern BBQ Trail

B’s Barbecue

Judy Drach grew up on her parents’ farm in Greenville, NC, until they lost everything. The family bought a local country store in the late 1970s and began running B’s Barbecue, named in honor of her father, William “Bill” McLawhorn. Bill ran the restaurant until his death in 2007, when Judy and her two sisters, Tammy and Donna, took over the business.

Barbecue Center - Sonny Conrad - North Carolina - Southern BBQ Trail

Barbecue Center

In Lexington, North Carolina, barbecue eaters don’t squirt sauce, they dip. At the Barbecue Center, as elsewhere around here, it’s a simple seasoning done right: vinegar-heavy, with ketchup, sugar, salt, and pepper. Throughout town, the self-proclaimed “Barbecue Capital of the World,” dip is kept heated in glass coffee pots, used as a bath for dunking hushpuppies, and mixed into the local “red slaw,” named for both its color and as a challenge to the white, mayonnaise-y stuff.

Bum's Restaurant - Latham "Bum" & Larry Dennis - North Carolina - Southern BBQ Trail

Bum’s Restaurant

According to lore, the Dennis family follows a tradition set half a million years ago when man first roasted a wild animal over wood. Most of humanity quit smoking pigs and other creatures over burning embers, but “we just didn’t never stop,” says Larry Dennis, manager and pitmaster at Bum’s Restaurant in Ayden. His father, the namesake “Bum,” opened his place back in 1963, thus placing himself in the innumerable company of Dennis barbecue masters.

Bunn's Barbecue - Randy Russell - North Carolina - Southern BBQ Trail

Bunn’s Barbecue

6 storms caused the Cashie River in tiny downtown Windsor to overflow its banks, in effect, inundating historic Bunn’s Barbecue, open since 1938, each time. As Bunn’s co-owner Randy Russell tells it, “We know all about flooding.”

Clyde Cooper's Barbecue - Randy and Debbie Holt - North Carolina - Southern BBQ Trail

Clyde Cooper’s Barbecue

Preservation. It’s on the menu at Clyde Cooper’s Barbecue in downtown Raleigh. Preservation, along with chopped, sliced, and coarse ‘cue; ribs, fried chicken, and Brunswick stew; and more varieties of fried pork skins than there are toes on a pig’s foot.

Cook's Barbecue - Brandon Cook - North Carolina - Southern BBQ Trail

Cook’s Barbecue

In 1969, Doug Cook built his barbecue stand by hand, in a cul-de-sac plot down the road from home. There wasn’t much to Cook’s Barbecue at first: a pit/kitchen, a wooden chopping block, and drive-up window. When customers wanted a place to sit and eat their chopped barbecue plates, Doug Cook felled trees from the surrounding oak grove, and built himself a dining room.

Gerri Grady - Grady's BBQ

Grady’s Barbecue

Stephen and Gerri Grady married in 1986, the same year they established their eponymous barbecue house. The newlyweds purchased the pithouse from Mr. Grady’s brother, who lasted only one day in business (he found the hardwood smoke overwhelming). Grady says he always knew how to cook a pig; by the time he was “big enough to walk,” he was helping his grandfather, the neighborhood pitmaster for hire.

Jack Cobb and Son Barbecue Place - Rudy Cobb - North Carolina - Southern BBQ Trail

Jack Cobb & Son Barbecue Place

Its name is the stuff that could have been dreamed up by a Hollywood script department: Jack Cobb & Son Barbecue Place. It’s a joint where even the owner, Rudy Cobb, can’t pin down exactly how old the establishment is. Could be sixty years, might just be seventy.

Mitchell's Ribs, Bar-B-Q and Chicken - Ed Mitchell - North Carolina - Southern BBQ Trail

Mitchell’s Ribs, Bar-B-Q & Chicken

Ed Mitchell made his reputation cooking whole hog barbecue in his hometown of Wilson, NC. As a boy, he attended pig pickin’s on his grandparent’s farm, but he came to the business of barbecue fairly late. Ed attended college, served in Vietnam, and worked for Ford Motor Company. When his father became ill, Ed moved back to Wilson to help his mother run the family store, Mitchell’s Groceries.

Moore's Old Tyme Barbeque - Tommy Moore - North Carolina - Southern BBQ Trail

Moore’s Olde Tyme Barbeque

History abounds at Moore’s Olde Tyme Barbeque. John Leonidas (LJ or John) Moore’s pit house, operating in various incarnations over 7 decades, might be most famous as a footnote in the subsequent states’ rights fight over the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Morris Barbeque - William Morris Jr. - North Carolina - Southern BBQ Trail

Morris Barbeque

To find Hookerton’s only barbecue joint, follow 1st Street southeast as it leads out of diminutive downtown Hookerton. The name of the cotton field-lined road you’re now driving along is named for the half-century-old-plus smokehouse down a mile on the left. Yes, that’s right, Morris Barbeque is of such local import that the town went and named a highway after it.

Nahunta Pork Center - Larry Pierce - North Carolina - Southern BBQ Trail

Nahunta Pork Center

Bacon, sausages, and country cured hams. Souse, chitterlings, and hogs’ heads. Buckets and buckets of lard. Nahunta Pork Center, located outside rural Pikeville, uses “everything but the hair” and claims the title of “America’s largest pork display.”

Parker's Barbecue - Donald Williams and Kevin Lamm - North Carolina - Southern BBQ Trail

Parker’s Barbecue

If barbecue is big business in North Carolina, Parker’s Barbecue is a veritable warehouse of whole-hogism. Located in the eastern city of Wilson, Parker’s serves over 150 smoked pigs and 8,000 fried chickens to 20,000 customers each week. Catering to crowds is part of the Parker’s mythos; on one brilliant afternoon in 1954, founders Ralph Parker, Graham Parker, and Henry Parker Brewer fed 17,000 chopped barbecue plates in one day. Despite the crowds here, little details maintain that small-joint feel.

Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge - Natalie Ramsey and Debbie Bridges Webb and Chase Webb - North Carolina - Southern BBQ Trail

Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge

Natalie Ramsey and Chase Webb, sister and brother, operate Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge, one of North Carolina’s oldest barbecue houses. Guided by their mother, Lodge-owner Debbie Bridges-Webb, Natalie oversees the front of the house, with its plush blue-vinyl booths; Chase sits up all night watching the pork shoulders roast-tender over hickory coals.

Short Sugar's Pit Bar-B-Q - David Wilson and John David Wilson - North Carolina - Southern BBQ Trail

Short Sugar’s Pit Bar-B-Q

North Carolina barbecue pit owners and masters that we’ve talked to follow the same business model: consistently cook the same product the same way everyday. This change-nothing attitude is readily apparent at Short Sugar’s Pit Bar-B-Q, where time appears to crawl at the same pace as their pork shoulders’ slow hickory-smoking. Located in downtown Reidsville, Short Sugar’s looks nearly the same as when it opened in 1949. Sit at the lunch counter and you soon come to terms with the goodness of this antiquarianism.

Skylight Inn - Samuel Jones - North Carolina - Southern BBQ Trail

Skylight Inn

At age four, Samuel Jones told a newspaper reporter that, when he grows up, he wanted to be a trash man and the Prince of Barbecue. Sam’s grandfather, Pete Jones, the designated “King of Barbecue,” opened the Skylight Inn in 1947. Then only seventeen, Pete set out on his own after learning the trade from his extended family, the Dennis clan, whom history shows to be the first in North Carolina to serve pit barbecue to the public.

Stamey's Barbecue - Chip Stamey - North Carolina - Southern BBQ TRail

Stamey’s Barbecue

Chip Stamey, a third-generation owner of Stamey’s Barbecue in Greensboro, North Carolina, is the grandson of famed Piedmont barbecue pathfinder and promoter Warner Stamey. Chip Stamey left a non-‘cue career to take over his grandfather’s business. Chip’s one rule is to keep everything the same.