Interview with Keith Allen, owner of Allen & Son Barbecue Restaurant in Chapel Hill, on the occasion of its closing
This past month, the renowned Chapel Hill restaurant, Allen & Son Barbecue, quietly closed its doors for the final time. It’s owner, Keith Allen, was interviewed in depth by John Shelton Reed, Dale Volberg Reed and William McKinney, in their book, Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue.
For those of us who will forever miss this landmark eatery, we re-run the interview here.
On the Fault Line: Allen & Son, Chapel Hill
“I keep cooking with wood because I’m chasing that flavor.”
Keith Allen has served fine barbecue to a couple of generations of UNC students and locals at Allen & Son, on Highway 86 north of Chapel Hill. (There’s another Allen & Son on 15-501 toward Pittsboro, but someone else runs it and they no longer cook with wood.) The hunting and fishing trophies that decorate the walls are almost as memorable as the barbecue, smoked over hickory wood that Mr. Allen splits himself. Given his location right near the Eastern-Piedmont divide, it’s fitting that Mr. Allen serves Piedmont-style shoulders with an Eastern-style sauce. In 2007 the Southern Foodways Alliance honored him with its Tabasco Guardian of the Tradition Award.
I started cooking barbecue because I needed money. I was hungry and I needed work and I know how to do the job and somebody was going to pay me to do it. So in order to eat beans I split wood. I’m hoping my daughter will be smarter and don’t have to do that — do whatever you could do — in order to make a living. So many times in the late fifties and sixties that was the major concern. Around here there were still one-horse farms and board houses — there was just not a lot of money around. Jobs were just jobs; you just did what you could do every day to make things work that week. And you usually had a garden, and put food in the freezer and lived out of that freezer in the wintertime. A lady called me one time and asked me if I had a recycling program. I said I’ve had a program like that ever since I’ve been alive. We didn’t throw anything away. My grandmother would take the wrapper out of a cornflake box and use it to line her cake pans with.
In the mid-fifties my family had a little hotdog joint and gas station with two tables, and the owner of the building introduced barbecue there. [They cooked] just a shoulder or two and had a block and they’d pull that one shoulder out and they’d beat it up and make a sandwich – that’s the way it was done at that time. And every sandwich was different because they’d chop up different portions and then somebody’d just ladle some sauce on it and throw it on a bun and throw some slaw on it and hand it to you and you’re out the door.
I must have been twelve or thirteen, and that was the first time I’d ever seen barbecue actually done. My father went down to what is now our [Pittsboro] location and bought the business out and went into work down there and I started cooking. I don’t remember how, actually. Maybe I didn’t learn; maybe I just started doing it and it just happened.
We started here [at the location north of Chapel Hill] in 1970 or ’71. Before we were here, a fellow had a barbecue place here and I came out on my lunch hour (I was a butcher at the A&P) and I set down and we ordered something and I made the comment to my friend, I said it looks like the guy could do better than this. And my friend told me, he said, well, if you think you’re so smart you buy it — you do it. Well, I did. The next Saturday I bought it and I did it. And that’s how I got started. My father was doing more [business] than I was, so I had a chance to watch and observe and learn everything. He passed away when he was fifty-one, fifty-two.
In a typical day, I start the fire around two thirty, three in the morning. Normally I put the wood in the fire box the day before. Then I just light it and while that’s getting started I put the shoulders on it, and I fire it every thirty minutes for nine hours. I turn [the meat] over one time. The pit is going to quit cooking about noon and I’m going put that fire out and then split wood and get it ready to go. On Saturdays we serve three meals and we open at seven, but every other day we just open at ten and work till nine. We’ll burn about a cord of wood each day. This hickory wood we’re using came from Chatham County. Women in town will call me and want me to pick it up. I get it out of the yard and they don’t have to pay anyone to haul it off. I get the wood and it doesn’t fill up the landfill. It works out good for everybody.
Hickory wood is a little stringy and that’s the reason nobody wants it. They make railroad ties out of it, but as far as a building wood, it’s not good for anything. It splits up and cracks. What it does have is a unique smell and a quality of keeping its BTUs. It will make a chunk of coals that will stay there all day and may be there in the morning still burning if you don’t put it out really good. So that’s the reason we want it. White oak is lighter weight and doesn’t snarl up quite as bad, [but it] doesn’t hold that coal very good and it burns to ashes completely about twice as fast, so that’s the reason we use hickory mostly. Hickory is just the wood that works, because it’s more BTUs than probably anything else, not to mention that it’s got that flavor. I don’t know how you’re going to duplicate that. Everybody has changed to maple and oak and dogwood and apple wood and all that kind of thing — people are going to get real upset if you go out and cut their apple trees down and burn them, you know.
I keep cooking with wood because I’m chasing that flavor. I want it to be really good. If I’m going to do something — I don’t care what it is, you know — if I want to park the car I want to park it straight. Wood is the best flavor I’ve seen. [But] after a while it gets where you can’t stay in here. I don’t think I’ve ever got accustomed to all of the smoke. I try to avoid it as much as possible. I try to avoid cigarettes, too.
We get our pigs from Nahunta Pork Center in Goldsboro and that’s all they do is pork. The guys down there really do a nice job. They’ve got good quality and everything about it is consistent. It’s all fresh and nothing frozen and so I use them only. I can get a lot cheaper stuff, but I can’t get better stuff. There’s probably about 400 pounds that goes to the kitchen every day. This morning we have thirty-two shoulders on the pit and we try to put the coals under the pit pretty evenly, going from right to left and spreading them out evenly under the shoulders. Each shoulder weighs about sixteen pounds and it will cook down to somewhere between nine and eleven.
We used to do ribs off and on, but we keep them on hand steady all the time now. Supply and demand. I usually place the ribs right on top of the meat there in the pit. They’re just going to sit in there and smoke is going to cook them, indirect heat. You want them to be tender. If you put direct heat to ribs, you’re going to wind up with a burnt and tough product. One good secret about ribs: if you sit down and the guy next to you has got ribs and he’s got the butcher knife out and he’s trying to whack those into two, don’t order ribs. There is nothing worse than a tough rib.
When we cook whole hogs [for pig pickings], we usually cook about 150 pounds total weight. It’s a big pig. If you’ve got an underdeveloped, a child pig, you’ve got a lot of gristle which is not matured out and you will wind up with that in your barbecue. A lot of people say “I want a 100-pound pig,” and that’s great, and it cooks a little quicker, but you’ve still got the chance of having all that gristle in there.
Our vinegar-based sauce is my dad’s sauce and it was working, and I don’t change things that work. I got other things to worry about than something that’s working out. The vinegar sauce is just like everybody else’s vinegar sauce — hot and spicy. I tell everybody that and they look at it and they say, “Oh, that’s not hot.” They don’t know until they do when it catches up to them. I did have one lady call who was looking for a ketchup-based sauce for barbecue, which we had to send her somewhere else. We don’t have that.
We have everything from hotdogs to seafood to fresh french fries to pecan pie. We make the ice cream and the desserts every day. It’s a homemade ice-cream; it’s not a creamy ice cream – it’s like you would make in the backyard with one of those crank machines. Usually my wife comes in and does the ice cream. It’s a family recipe we use, like what you would have on Sunday afternoon at the farm.
The cobbler recipe is my grandmother’s recipe. It’s my mother’s recipe for the pastry. I make the pastry up in big balls all at once. I have a recipe that makes a huge amount at a time and it freezes really well, and it’s got a lot of elasticity to it so you can work it really well.
My wife comes in at eight and she’s the first after me. The other employees actually show up about eleven and just in time for the lunch. I do all the prep anyway, so I don’t really need them to be here in my way and I don’t need to be in their way. They do the french fry cooking and the deep fat frying and all that kind of stuff. They don’t let me on the line anymore. They tell me I’m too slow.
You got to work [at cleaning] every day, all the time, every minute. You got to wipe behind yourself and then you got to have somebody wipe behind you. So I pretty much got somebody dedicated to cleaning up as you go along and then you got to kind of be neat and then at the same time you’ve got to be aware of what you left behind and you got to make sure you get all the things that nobody looks at. You really do care what builds up in the corners and cracks; if you don’t keep that clean, long-term you’re going to have a mess.
Once I get home, I go to bed as soon as I can. Normally it’s about eight or nine. Sometimes I’ll go sooner and sometimes I’ll go later. I always try to work from sun-up to sundown and in June and July I have to work a long day.
It takes time to build up a name but I think it takes time to build anything that you do and try to do right. We’ve been out here thirty-two years and we’ve got a lot of publicity over the last ten or twenty years, but all those building years when you were starving to death and you had no money and you were just banging it out and trying to do whatever you could do to get by — you think, geez, I ain’t never going to live long enough to make money. But I managed to eat all along.
Nobody really wants to put in the kind of day of work that we do here. You don’t see everybody picking up hammers and wedges and going to work in the mornings. But the interest in quality food has changed over the past five years, so things may turn around in that aspect. Somebody may decide that, you know, the quality is worth keeping. I think people are going from fast foods to convenient foods to quality foods and good foods that will actually be good for them rather than just be quick for them. They tried to class barbecue as a fast food, but it’s not a fast food. You can’t rubber-stamp barbecue and have good quality. You can put it out there but that don’t mean it’s good. The people that come here to eat, I know they’re interested in the quality of what they’re getting because they have to come out of their way to drive here. I’m not exactly the handiest guy in town as far as locations go. I’m not on the corner you walk by. You don’t just happen by here.
I think people are comfortable here. I think a worker can get out of his pickup truck, he’s been sweating all day, and he comes in here and gets a glass of tea and a sandwich, and he knows the food is going to be good and the prices are going to be fair. And he’s going to get it relatively quick. And he can relax. That’s how I think the majority of our business has always come about. The lunch-hour crowd are workers [who] can have a good break in the middle of the day that they can kick their shoes back and relax and they’re not on carpet; they’re not worried about whether or not they track up the floor. I mean, we’ve got red mud in here — we don’t care. We clean it up and we go on for the afternoon crowd. We sweep and mop every day after lunch. Food has got to be good — ain’t no question — but I think people need to enjoy themselves while they’re eating rather than that collar snapped around you and the tie cramped up, you’re having to choke everything because you’re uncomfortable, and you’re sitting there trying to pretend that you’re something that you’re really not. And I think it’s important that those guys can get that pitcher of iced tea and get all they want, and we give free refills on tea and coffee. You surely don’t want a twelve-ounce cup sitting in front of you when you take one swallow and it’s gone and you can’t get the waitress’s attention long enough to get something again and you’ve got to go back to work and you’ve got twelve ounces of fluid in you and you really needed forty-eight.
Lunch hour on Saturday, that’s when everybody from everywhere comes. They may come from Wilson, they may come from Asheville, they may come from Virginia — just to eat lunch. It’s amazing to think that somebody would drive that far to eat. I wouldn’t walk around the corner to eat, but it’s nice to know that people would think of that as being something interesting to do.
Then the dinner crowd — usually on Saturdays when college is in it’s a lot of college students and husbands and wives going out, and early afternoon you have families. So it’s a diverse crowd on Saturday. During the week it’s usually the workers during the lunch hour and then families at night.
If you go to a lot of barbecue places you’ll see a little knit community — you’ll see Sally in there eating every day, and she’ll be eating it because Frank has been cooking barbecue all day and his wife has been making the banana pudding. The community here [Chapel Hill] is a transient community, and every five years half of our community leaves town and we have a brand new group. I think it takes them two or three years before they know about us.
As far as catering, we go all over. We go to Baltimore, we did a wedding at the Outer Banks. . . . We ship barbecue all over the country, too. We’ve got some going out to San Francisco today. We really don’t know folks there. We knew them from here and they [went] there, so the transient community actually does help, long-term. I cook it today, freeze it tonight, and ship it tomorrow, UPS guaranteed by ten thirty the next day.
I think I’d be stupid to be trying to cook something other than Southern food — butter beans and corn and cornbread and pigs, the things I grew up on and know– trying to go out and be a chef and try to be something from France when I have not a clue what those guys would consider good and bad. Most chefs are taught to make things attractive, and attractive is great as long as there’s substance there, underneath them leaves and all that kind of stuff. When you get all that junk off and you go to eating and it’s really good, the chef has done his job. But there’s a difference between really good and really pretty. Of course, that has a lot to do with women, too.
I never go eat barbecue anywhere. I cook every single day. I have for years. When I get through cooking and I get through chopping and I get through seasoning and I taste that barbecue — that’s about all the barbecue I ever eat. People always ask, do you know [the barbecue at] so and so? Well, I don’t. I don’t go places and eat barbecue. I guess if you wash cars for a living you wouldn’t go wash a car on a weekend. I usually eat salads — anything that’s cold, anything that I don’t have to cook.
The paperback edition of Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue is available now in both print and ebook editions.
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