I should know better than to write on this subject but I don't. I'm not an expert on BBQ but I have eaten it all my life and I can't imagine what life would be like if I couldn't occasionally get my hands on some good ole North Carolina BBQ. The closest I have ever come to being totally without it was when I lived for two years in the middle 60's in Nashville, Tenn. Now, don't let me confuse you. Every place I have lived advertises BBQ but what they call BBQ is not what we call BBQ in N.C.
I prefer eastern N.C. BBQ because that's what I was raised on. I never will forget when I was stationed in Florida while in the service, I ordered a BBQ sandwich and when the order came, I informed the waitress she had brought me the wrong order. She said "You ordered a BBQ sandwich". I acknowledged that I had done this but I tried to explain that what she had brought me was not a BBQ sandwich. She indignantly informed me that it certainly was and that was the moment I learned that BBQ was not the same all over the U.S. I honestly didn't know there was anything unique about the BBQ in N.C. until then. The sandwich I was served had sliced pork (which I had never seen called BBQ) and had a red (tomato) sauce on the meat. There was no slaw. I ate the sandwich, but I was not happy about it, and I promised myself I would never order another BBQ sandwich outside N.C. until I knew more about what it would be like.
Now, they have some fine food in Nashville, Tenn. but their BBQ is no more like eastern N.C. BBQ than the BBQ I had gotten in Florida. You see, Tennessee BBQ is cooked and served with a tomato based sauce because by the time the original settlers of this country had gotten as far west as Tennessee, they had learned that the tomato was not poison, a fact that early settlers of N.C. didn't know. By the time the settlers got to Texas, not only was the sauce tomato based but they decided that BBQed beef was better than pork and thereby eastern N.C. BBQ was firmly locked in as a regional method of preparing BBQ.
You may think that everyone on the planet loves N.C. BBQ, but that is not the case. I chuckled at the story in the Raleigh News and Observer about the reception they held for the new owners of the newspaper. The people for whom the reception was being held were primarily from California and the holdover staff thought it would be nice to introduce their new bosses and associates to N.C. BBQ. It didn't go over so big. The Californians didn't really know what it was and they didn't want to be ungrateful, so they sort of played with the BBQ. By moving it around on the plate they hoped to give the impression they were eating it and thereby pleasing their hosts. Didn't work because at the end of the reception, somebody had to clean up and it was obvious by the amounts left on the plates that the N.C. BBQ was not the hit of the party.
We North Carolinians love to brag about our BBQ and we want everybody we met who is not familiar with it to like it. I don't feel that way anymore. I want to keep our method of preparing BBQ almost a secret. I say almost, because I don't mind it if an outsider discovers N.C. BBQ and likes it, but I won't raise a finger to introduce it to those not familiar with it. On a couple of occasions, North Carolinians have tried to transport the N.C. type of BBQ to New York City, both times with no success. The last person to try it said the problem was that he couldn't find good help and absolutely couldn't get help who knew anything about BBQ. He dropped by the location one day and found the help putting the BBQ on bagels. He said that was the final straw and shortly thereafter closed the business. I don't blame him one bit. Let the New Yorkers do without. It's their loss, not ours.
I am probably going to have to write this article in several installments because there is so much to say. I want to tell you about the BBQ Odysseys my friends and I take from Richmond to N.C. where we drive from one BBQ place to another, sampling the offerings of each place we visit. We don't really compare because that takes part of the fun out of it. Occasionally, there is a loser and I'm sure each of us has our favorite, but the competition thing takes some of the fun out of it. I don't want anyone else telling me what is good BBQ and I bet you don't either. If I can't determine what is good and what is not so good, then I need some serious help. Just about all of it is good.
I also want to review for you a lengthy article in the November issue of Gentleman's Quarterly about eastern N.C. BBQ. Lest I offend my Tar Heel brothers and sisters from western N.C., I would like to say that I like Lexington style BBQ very much. Some of the best BBQ I have had was in Lexington and if you want to know the truth the difference in taste between eastern and western is not that marked. But here we go. I'm sure there are those who would like to shoot me for suggesting such a thing.