A Yankee Vegetarian Considers North Carolina Barbecue

I grew up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC, the eldest child of parents who’s idea of gastronomic adventure was going out to the local Hot Shoppes Cafeteria (you southerners just think the K&W and you’ll get the idea). It wasn’t until I was eighteen, when I grew my hair long, pierced my ear, and became a vegetarian that I (a) started cooking for myself and (b) realized there was an entire world of spices and flavors out there of which I had been wholly and totally ignorant.

While I continue to cultivate a relationship with Thai, Chinese, Japanese, and Indian cuisines and hot peppers, my gustatory awakening happened far too late for me to be ‘properly’ introduced to North Carolina barbecue.

So, why am I writing about it here?

We’ve just uploaded a new site in support of a book that is on our Fall list: Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue by John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed. As part of the work for that site I’ve edited an audio interview with the Reeds and have gone through some amateur-shot DVD footage of conversations with people who cook North Carolina barbecue for a living (known amongst the faithful as “Pitmasters”). In all of these I have listened to people talk reverently about the history of barbecue, cooking and smoking theory, barbecue as a part of the fiber of the community, and how barbecue helped to work through race relations problems in the 1960s and ’70s.

Anything with that serious a following and that rich a history and culture (not to mention having some really fine, fine desserts), is, in my opinion, worth giving some thoughtful consideration to.

Finally, as a fan of the Japanese edition of Iron Chef I am very familiar with the Brillat-Savarin quote that started each episode shown in the US on FoodTV:

“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.”

That’s why, when going through a Uncorrected Proof of Holy Smoke my eye caught the following quote, also by Brillat-Savarin:

“‘One becomes a cook, but one is born a pitmaster.'”

So, I respect the heritage and history that is an inseparable part of North Carolina barbecue.

I just won’t eat any of it. 🙂

— Tom

p.s. Interested in an early preview of that Holy Smoke site? If so, click on through to http://ncbbqbook.net and take a look!