A Cautiously Optimistic Prognosis for Traditional North Carolina Barbecue

Washington Post food critic Jim Shahin says he came to North Carolina expecting to prepare an autopsy for traditional wood-smoked NC barbecue. He begins with an example of NC barbecue at its best–Grady’s BBQ in Dudley:

Its barbecue is so good, it’s worth driving nearly three hours round-trip for a plate. That’s what Robbie Herring, 68, and his wife, Linda, 61, have done. These barbecue pilgrims drove here for mounds of creamy, full-flavored, skin-studded chopped pork, scented by oak embers and bathed in a zesty vinegar-pepper sauce. “Best in the state,” he says. “Our favorite,” she echoes.

Steve Grady wanders by their table and asks how everything is. The Herrings, mouths full, nod their enthusiastic approval. They’re worried, though. “Barbecue like this is a dying art,” says Robbie, a retired territorial manager at Miller Brewing. “I think my generation, and up, are the only ones who realize it.”

He’s referring to wood-cooked pork. And indeed, of the 434 restaurants listed on the Great NC BBQ Map sold around the state — and tacked to the paneled wall here — only an estimated 60 still cook whole hog or pork shoulder this way. Others have gone under or succumbed to the dark side: gas or electricity.

Steve and Gerri Grady established Grady’s in 1986 and built it into one of the state’s most respected barbecue restaurants, listed on the North Carolina Barbecue Society’s Historic Barbecue Trail. The brick pits in the smokehouse are cool when Steve takes me back, but the scent of smoke and slow-cooked whole hog perfumes the air. Steve will fire the pits up tonight around 11. He’ll shovel oak wood embers beneath the hogs. The animals will cook fat side up on steel rods about 16 inches above the cinders until they are flipped over, around 6:30 in the morning.

“Used to be a lot of barbecue places around here,” says Steve, 80, leaning against his long-handled shovel in the dim light. “Griffin’s, Scott’s, Holloway. ’Bout all of them are gone now.”

The same fate, he figures, awaits Grady’s. “I have four sons,” he says, “but they’re not in the business.”

Shahin goes on to explain why it would be a shame to lose this distictive culinary tradition:

Of the country’s four generally recognized barbecue capitals — Texas, Kansas City, Memphis and North Carolina — the last claims the deepest roots to American barbecue. Its history can be traced to the 1600s, when settlers adopted the American Indian method of slow-roasting foods above wood cinders. In 1607, Sir Walter Raleigh brought sows to Jamestown, and swine became a favored barbecue meat along the Mid-Atlantic coast, especially in Virginia. It migrated to North Carolina, took hold, and never let go.

Shahin visits several more venues where the tradition survives (or, in some cases, evolves)–including the Skylight Inn in Ayden, Buxton Hall in Asheville, the Pit in Raleigh, Green Button Farm outside Chapel Hill, and Lexington Barbecue–and he talks to Wyatt Dickson about his new restaurant in Durham that will be called Picnic and will serve traditional Lexington style fare. Taking it all into considertaion, Sahin concludes:

North Carolina barbecue is certainly at a crossroads, one that gets to the heart of questions about identity and authenticity, and the survival of pit-smoked pork establishments that eschew the everything-for-everybody approach once seemed unlikely. But Skylight Inn and Lexington Barbecue are on track to maybe prove that prediction wrong. And new places such as Picnic and Buxton Hall are helping spark a resurgence in creativity and respect for heritage that may help revive the scene. North Carolina barbecue might someday be removed from the endangered-species list, after all. I’ll hold off on that autopsy for now.

Jon Guze / Director of Legal Studies

Jon Guze is the Director of Legal Studies at the John Locke Foundation. Before joining the John Locke Foundation, Jon practiced law in Durham, North Carolina for over twent...

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