Skip to comments.The Barbecue Editor Disputes a Tar Heel (TX vs NC)
Posted on 07/25/2013 10:15:15 AM PDT by Rebelbase
The following is a correspondence between Daniel Vaughn and John Shelton Reed. Reed lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and is the co-author, with his wife, Dale Volberg Reed, of Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue. Vaughn is the barbecue editor of Texas Monthly and the author of Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue.
So, we are to debate the relative merits of North Carolina and Texas barbecue. Let me begin by saluting a worthy opponent, defending a worthy, if mistaken, cause. This is a dispute worth having. I wouldnt waste my ammunition on Memphis or Kansas City. I know youve eaten our barbecue, and I have eaten yours. Our Texan son-in-law has escorted my wife and me to number of towns near Austin that start with L and a few that dont. Weve eaten wood-cooked meat in Austin itself, and in Houston and Dallas and Brownwood and elsewhere. Yall are right about many things. I admire your loyalty to tradition, no matter how misguided the loyalty or recent the tradition; in particular, I applaud your devotion to cooking with wood. (I prefer your barbecue to North Carolina barbecue cooked with gas or electricity, but, hell, I prefer Sloppy Joes to that.) Most Texans also understand that sauce, if used at all, should season the meat, not smother it; in both of our states, barbecues not about sauce. So I want it understood up front that I recognize Texans as barbecue brethrenerring brethren, but brethren neverthelessand when I criticize, it is more with sadness than with indignation.
Lets stipulate at the outset that well be discussing the traditional cooking styles of our respective states, not whats served at the pick-your-meat, pick-your-sauce, mix-and-match International House of Barbecue places that are increasingly common in our cities. True, theyre in North Carolina or Texas and theyre serving what they call barbecue, but its not North Carolina barbecue or Texas barbecue; its food from nowhere, for people from nowhere, who deserve nothing better. But we both know that there are different barbecue traditions within North Carolina and Texas, so we each need to specify what it is that were championing.
I have the easier job of it. Its true that there are two varieties of North Carolina barbecue, an eastern and a western (more properly, Piedmont) style. But any outsider will recognize immediately that the two styles are much more like each other than either is like what passes for barbecue anywhere else. Jim Auchmutey, who knows a thing or two about barbecue, said once that North Carolina should put The Vinegar State on its license plates. Hes a Georgian and exaggerates, but in both regions of North Carolina mops and sauces do consist mostly of vinegar, salt, and cayenne pepper, with perhaps some sugar, just a touch of ketchup in the Piedmont, and not much else. My fellow Tar Heels enjoy arguing endlessly about that tincture of ketchup, but North Carolina sauces are vinegar with stuff in it, not (as in Kansas City and on grocery-store shelves) ketchup with stuff in it. Similarly, whether one should cook whole hogs (eastern) or pork shoulders (Piedmont) is a matter of great moment within North Carolina, but for even the most fervent partisan the differences pale into insignificance when beef or muttonnot to mention sausageenters the picture. Many Tar Heels will allow that those other meats can be tasty, but we dont actually believe that they are barbecue, and we wish yall would call them something else to prevent confusion. So when I say North Carolina barbecuein fact, when I say barbecueI mean pork, cooked for a long time at a low temperature with heat and smoke from burning coals, and served with a peppery vinegar-based sauce. What are you talking about?
Awaiting your reply,
P. S. I wont mention Dickeys if you dont bring up Smithfields Chicken N Bar-B-Q.
If Smithfields Chicken N Bar-B-Q, with locations covering the state of North Carolina, is allowed to use the word barbecue to describe the 100 percent gas-cooked pork that they routinely sling through drive-through windows, then Im confused at your confusion about applying the term to beautifully smoked beef (or lamb or goat). That argument just doesnt hold vinegar.
Your definition of barbecue (pork, cooked for a long time at a low temperature with heat and smoke from burning coals and served with a peppery vinegar-based sauce) provides for some common ground, but the self-serving limitation to a single protein seems to exist only because your fair state has failed to master the art of applying smoke to another animal. I know this first-hand, since Ive witnessed meager attempts at smoked brisket in Lexington, N.C., revered as a sort of barbecue capital in your parts, I believe. In the real capital of barbecue, Lockhart, Texas (so named by our state House in 1999), knowledge of beef is a given, but you would do well to examine the porcine artistry of those pitmasters as well. Instead of using that most forgiving of barbecue meats, the self-basting pork shoulder that my four-year-old daughter could overcook to the point that a North Carolinian would eat it, they smoke large racks of pork ribs and whole racks of bone-in loin. These cuts, seasoned only with salt, pepper, and smoke, are taken from the pits and served with the only liquid appropriate to go alongside barbecueBig Red. Ive noticed that in the Carolinas arguments over sauce seem to trump those about the actual hog. Trying to weasel sauce into the very definition of barbecue is a disservice to those pitmasters who dont require it to make their meat palatable, and furthermore is an insult to the hog. Expect the business end of bulls horn if you utter that definition in Texas.
P.S. I too have left Memphis and Kansas City out of this discussion. If their barbecue was better it may migrate beyond their respective city limits, but until that time they can only fight for the bronze medal in the barbecue Olympics. The respectable tradition in North Carolina has unquestionably secured your fine state the silver.
Im sorry that our correspondence is facing some sort of deadline. Id be happy to explain things for as long as it takes you to understand. Still, Ill do what I can in one letter. It will necessarily be a long one. A few minor points to address before turning to, ah, the meat of the matter: First, despite my P.S., you just had to mention Smithfields Chicken N Bar-B-Q, didnt you? Look, dont expect me to defend Smithfields. Youre right that theyre allowed to use the word barbecue. So is Tony Romas (headquarters: Dallas, Texas). Whos going to stop them? That doesnt mean that either outfit actually serves barbecue. Lets talk about places that do. As for Dickeys, Ill concede that their product is a better imitation of genuine Texas barbecue than Smithfields is of the authentic North Carolina stuff. This could be either a point in favor of Dickeys or a strike against Texas barbecue. Your call.
Second, you say you encountered some sorry attempts by North Carolinians to cook beef brisket. I have, too, and yes, if Im going to eat brisket Ill eat yours. What you ran into isnt a conscious reversion to the time when we did barbecue beef in these parts (see below); its just an attempt to make money from newly arrived out-of-staters with fixed misconceptions about barbecue. You know what Im talking about: I see that Red Hot & Blue has come to the Metroplex.
Third, you observe that brisket is harder to cook than pork shoulder. Thats true, but so what? Since when does degree-of-difficulty enter into the judging? This aint gymnastics. For the amateur, part of the appeal of cooking shoulder is that you can sit with it for a long time and think deep thoughts about other things. Hell, if its difficulty you want, barbecue chicken. Anyway, if we were going to discuss skill Id argue that whole-hog barbecue is the epitome of the pitmasters art.
Finally, you didnt answer my question about what Texas barbecue is, and maybe you cant. Texas has regional styles so diverse that you cant defend them all without defending everything. But I infer that what youre promoting is the Central Texas versioni.e., a variety of meats and meat products cooked with indirect heat and lots of wood smoke and served with sauce on the side, if at all. What you get in Lockhart and Luling and Elgin and Taylor. (If Im wrong, lets scrub this whole exchange and start over some other time.) Since we apparently agree on the need for wood-cooking (with some differences in technique that arent worth fighting about) there are really only two points at issue: (1) our consensus versus your indecision on the proper meat to cook and (2) our commitment to an appropriate use of sauce versus your laissez faire attitude on the subject. Excuse the pedantic tone of what follows, but I cant help it. Ive been a college professor for too long.
Lets start with the meat. Its true that, as a verb, barbecue refers to a technique that even in North Carolina has been used to cook many meats. As recently as the 1930′s we routinely barbecued not just hogs but sheep, possums, shad, sides of beefall sorts of stuff. We still barbecue chickens. But as a noun referring to something to eat, it was once understood everywhere that barbecue comes from hogs. In 1755, for example, Samuel Johnsons famous Dictionary defined it as a hog drest whole in the West Indian manner (more about that West Indian manner in a minute). There are many more examples, some even earlier. There are more hogs than people in North Carolina, but if we are porcivorous (in 1728 William Byrd II said we were) its not just for convenience. Our barbeculture is something like the dogma of the Orthodox Churchsettled, unchanging, secure in the truth, threatened only by modernity, not by rival faiths. Meanwhile, yall west of the Mississippi seem to have erred and strayed into the barbecue equivalent of speaking in tongues and taking up serpents. In fact, for all I know, you may take up serpents and barbecue them. Wouldnt surprise me. Look, surely its not my responsibility to defend what has been an understanding universal in Christendom. Its for Texans and Kansas Citians and Owensboroites to justify their departure from it. Martin Luther nailed some theses to the Wittenberg church door: he didnt just go do his own damn thing.
Yalls restless pursuit of unnecessary innovation is equally evident when it comes to sauce. More history from the professor (sorry): You first encounter something that is undeniably real barbecue in the 1600′s, in the Caribbean, where Indians had been cooking fish and birds and reptiles low-and-slow with wood from time immemorial. When Europeans showed up with hogs (note: hogs) the locals realized that this is what the Lord meant to be barbecued, and soon they were into pig-pickings in a big way. And they didnt just cook a hog. At a 1698 feast described by a Dominican missionary, the meat was mopped with a mixture of lemon juice, salt, and chile peppers and served with a similar table sauce in two strengths, hot or mild. In time, this sauce came to the Carolinas (where the lemon juice was replaced by more easily obtained vinegar) and it spread inland. Barbecue historian Robert Moss shows that by the time of the Civil War this sauce was employed everywhere in the United States (yes, even Texas). This is the ur-sauce, the one from which all others descend, the perfection from which others have devolved. Most heretics have gone to thick, sweet, sticky sauces like those found in Kansas City and on grocery store shelves, doctored ketchup that lies on the surface of the meat and can disguise poor cooking. Yours is the more forgivable sin of making sauce optional, or even doing without it altogether. At least you showcase the meat, which is a good thing. But you miss the opportunity to season it, as people always have, with a sparing application of a penetrating, salty, peppery sauce. This classic, time-honored sauce survives essentially unchanged in eastern North Carolina and (as I explained in my first letter) with only trivial alterations in the North Carolina Piedmont.
Here again, I think its up to someone who wants to mess with it to explain why. If it aint broke, dont fix it. In short (and it really is in shortI could go on), North Carolina barbecue stands in a tradition of four hundred years. The history of our barbecue is the history of barbecue itself. That history is interwoven with the history of political campaigns, church homecomings, drive-in restaurants, harvest celebrations, and the Fourth of July. Its what America is all about. You shouldnt disrespect it because its your heritage too. Return to the fold, Daniel. It is not too late to repent. Thanks for the opportunity to spar with you. I only regret that you get the last word.
The last thing Ill say about both of our states poorest approximations of barbecue (Smithfields and Dickeys) is that only one of them provides a menu of smoked meats that people in other states actually want. Texas barbecue is now the preferred style to adopt around the country (outside of the already identified barbecue capitals), which we understand as a testament to its superiority. When New York decided it wanted to be taken seriously as a barbecue town it did not turn to chopped pork and hush puppies but was instead liberated by brisket and beef ribs. The fact that smoked beef is making inroads in North Carolina is just an inevitable sign that Texas barbecue has no trouble capturing distinguishing taste buds once given the opportunity. On the other hand I dont see anyone clamoring for a whole hog joint in Austin. That shouldnt be much a surprise given the fine quality of dentistry in Texas. We dont require our food to be partially chewed before serving. Whole hog, the way its served in North Carolina, showcases the skill of cleaver-wielding meat choppers more than pitmasters. Is there really any need for a pitmaster whose job is to provide meat of impeccable moisture, tenderness, and smoke when the cleaver provides all the tenderness and the moisture comes by the industrial-sized vat of vinegar? Your argument in favor of chopped pork doesnt have any teeth because you dont need any.
As you mention, the tradition of whole-hog cooking as done in the Carolinas is part our countrys shared heritage just like wagon trains and cloth diapers. I guess if the wheels on our mobile smokers were still made of stone the barbecue would taste more authentic, but embracing innovation and diversity in barbecue is what led to Texass superiority. When the cattle arrived on the continent (right around the time that hogs showed up, mind you) they migrated in search of grazing land, eventually ending up in Texas. Yall were stuck with the hogs, happily ingesting your urban excrement. A sauces ability to withstand a lack of refrigeration does not define perfection just as sauce does not define barbecue, except for the barbecue that needs a masking agent to be rendered edible.
Anyway, heres how I suspect things will go from here: Sooner or later, youll swing through Texas and well hit all the best joints. Each bite of perfect brisket will test your faith. You will return to North Carolina and attempt to return consumption of the hog with gusto, yet each mouthful will be but an act of futile protest against your growing lust for beef. Before long, you will succumb. Privately, you will load that backyard smoker of yours with brisket upon brisket. You will eat it alone and in silence, having emerged from the wilderness at last, just as Jesus did: a man who withstood a prolonged fast and was rewarded (in your case with a belly full of beef). Hog was before, beef is now. Embrace it.
Dissing on NC BBQ ping.
No one BBQ is greater than another.
All (collectively) BBQ is great.
I swear I am not making that up.
Post of the week !!!
NC barbeque is disgusting. They shred it then it sits around getting soggy. It reminds me of the skit on SNL where the waiters pre chew your food. I guess it should be called “pre-chewed” barbeque! Yuck.
A good sauce can complement any BBQ, but it’s the Rub that is the heart and soul.
One exception is the North Carolina Vinegar Sauce. Hideous and unpalatable not fit for pigs.
Brisket is hard to beat. There are some real good rib joints in Arkansas though. Gotta agree that NC BBQ is just a soggy overrated mess though.
They don’t grow BBQ in Texas. It’s that smoked beef stuff.
BBQs are animals. It is not, a way of cooking meat.
They are pink, porcine looking creatures that walk about on two legs with a top hat, a walking stick and sometimes a Tux.
While smiling a lot, they can be rather fierce, specially if they have been eating lots of peppers, vinegar, mustard, or other hot spices.
If you should fear confrontation from a BBQ, one should have a fork and plate ready, with a loaf of bread, Brunswick Stew or rice hash, and a large Sweetened Iced Tea. Armed thus, the BBQ will vanish pretty quick.
Daniel made a fatal flaw in his second retort: real NC BBQ is pulled and not chopped. Chopped pork is just that — cut up pieces of pork and not bbq. BBQ done right should fall apart once removed from the wood smoker without a knife anywhere in sight.
Let the BBQ debate continue..... I’m think I will get a nice shoulder for the weekend!
Well, I can testify that finest BBQ of all is pecan smoked brisket of the Texas persuasion.
As far NC BBQ goes, I would question the practice of slathering one’s meat with “Summers Breeze”. However
if that is what you need to make your BBQ palatable then so be it. Just don’t call it BBQ. ‘Cause it ain’t.
Texas Monthly is most often seen in the lobby of the Doctor's office. No sane Texan would subscribe to that liberal rag. Their roots are not in Texas, unless UT represents the culture of the state, which it doesn't. Reading Texas Monthly is almost like reading Slate.
Also Big Bob Gibson's is a favorite.
Texas has two flavors of BBQ. In the east you have a good sweet BBQ that is moist and mouth-watering. In the west and central you have that dry rub crap that is usually half burned. The sauce is too vinegary compared to the sweet eastern variety.
I haven’t found good BBQ since I moved here a few years back. Smoky Mo’s chain in Austin is about as good as I have found. Yes, I have been to Lockhart, Burnet, Llano, and all points on my quest.
NC has to use soft and mushy pork for barbecue because North Carolinians have no teeth.
got that right....and all over NC you see restaurants with signs out front, or somewhere...
"WE SPECIALIZE in BBQ, Fried Chicken,Pork Chops, Seafood, Fried Seafood, Steaks, Pizza, Salads, Doughnuts"...
good grief, give me a break, what don't they "specialize" in?... darn that brisket looks good, when you see that red ring..yep
“Texans barbecue something called beef on some kind of weed called mesquite”, is my motto.
I lived in Texas (Houston) for years, and was never able to get something that even approximated the slice of heaven that you can obtain only from Archibald’s in Northport, Alabama.
Open pit is the only way to go as far as cooking your pork, or in a pinch, chicken.
Oh, and ROLL TIDE
Yes, it's a magazine whose following appears to be the lefty elitists who came to TX to escape the messes they created elsewhere. For those who haven't seen it, it's a cross between those glossy shopping and eating guides you find in hotels and People magazine.
They recently had a best and worst legislators list wherein they named the execrable RINO Joe Straus as among the best along with the malignant Wendy Davis, abortion extremist extraordinaire.
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