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Eating high on the hog in Charlotte

What is Carolina BBQ?


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In North Carolina, "barbecue" is a noun, not a verb.

What Carolinians do on a Weber is "grill." Barbecue, on the other hand, is the food that binds the society together no matter where you are from, how much money you have, or what you look like. Barbecue is social and laden with memories; a whole lifetime wrapped up on a bun.

Extolling the virtues of any particular style of barbecue is sure to draw fire from opposing fans. One restaurateur told me that those discussions contain so much hot air they could warm up the entire state. Kansas City, Mo. and Memphis, Tenn. have their styles of barbecue; so does Tidewater, Va., and Texas. But most North Carolinians believe the bragging rights to the best 'cue lies with the boundaries of the Old North State. We just can't agree on which part of the state: Eastern or Western.

What is Carolina barbecue? For those uninitiated to its finer points, Bob Garner, author and star of a PBS series on North Carolina barbecue, wrote in his North Carolina Barbecue: Flavored by Time that barbecue here is clearly superior: "It's the only kind of barbecue in which the meat itself is the centerpiece rather than the smoke, the pepper or the sauce. North Carolina pork, barbecued to perfection, has a natural rich, sweet taste that is delicately flavored by smoked -- not overcome by something dragged from a burning house."

Garner explained in a recent interview with Creative Loafing that North Carolina barbecue is divided along old colonial lines. On the Eastern side of the state were the settlements of the original English colonists. Hogs were fed either scraps from the table or left to forage in the wild and the taste of the meat was probably gamey. These hogs were splayed and roasted by the colonists. The idea of covering these roasting pits probably started in Neolithic times as a way to protect food from predators when the food is cooked overnight, as barbecue is. Barbacoa is Spanish for roasting meat in a pit.

Garner says hot, salty, vinegar-based sauces would have been common table condiments to the early English settlers and this original barbecue sauce would have "balanced the gaminess" of the meat. It has also been assumed by other food historians that oysters from the coastal areas may have been used to flavor these original barbecue sauces in a similar way that fish sauce, another condiment known to sailors at the time of the settlement of the New World, was used in Asia.

Thus on the Eastern side of the state, the English residents roasted whole pigs, chopped up the meat of the whole pig mixing white and dark meat (even gristle) and flavored that meat with the salty vinegar sauce. During the mid-1700's, German settlers were arriving in the center part of the state in the Piedmont area from the northern American colonies. These German settlers would have been more inclined to cook pork shoulders rather than whole pigs as shoulders, and hams are common in German cooking. Additionally, these settlers would have preferred a sweet-and-sour sauce, as is also common in German cuisine.

In Western- or Lexington-styled barbecue, the tomato is a defining element of the sauce -- or dip as it is also known. When the Germans settled in North Carolina, the tomato, indigenous to the New World, was just starting to be eaten. Before then, tomatoes were thought to be poisonous. Garner says these original German settlers would have made their sauce with apple cider vinegar, tomatoes, and sugar to achieve a taste similar to that German sweet-and-sour sauce.

This is the difference we find today. On the Eastern side of the state resides barbecue eateries cooking the whole pig and flavoring the meat with a vinegary sauce. Lexington-styled barbecue, which is found throughout the Piedmont, uses pork shoulders and a thin, sweeter tomato-and-vinegar sauce.

The arrival of the thick, often-sweet, ketchup-type barbecue sauce occurred much later with the sale of commercial ketchups. These barbecue sauces are not part of what is considered to be traditional North Carolina barbecue.

Barbecue in the mountains is a more recent story. Many, including Garner, do not believe there is a "mountain-styled" barbecue. Instead Garner says, "Barbecue arrived with the tourists." The original colonists of the mountains probably smoked their meat for the longer, colder winters. Indeed, the taste of most mountain barbecue found today at eateries like The Woodlands Barbecue Restaurant in Blowing Rock has a distinctly smoky flavor.

Here in Charlotte, the state's most populous city that happens to be located on the western edges of the Lexington-styled barbecue region, has garnered the unfortunate reputation of lacking in good barbecue places.

Historically, Charlotte was a farming community without the need for restaurants (folks ate on the farm). But barbecue was the food that brought people together at gatherings. After all, one pig feeds a lot of people. Barbecue became the main dish at social events and fundraisers. This year Mallard Creek Presbyterian Church in north Charlotte will host its 79th Annual Barbecue, always held on the fourth Thursday in October. Originally, this fundraiser was started as a small event for the men of the church, but proved a successful way to help finance the church at the start of the Great Depression. At their first event in 1929, three pigs and a goat were cooked. This year, the church expects to sell 14,000 pounds of barbecue.


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