- Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue The Definitive Guide to the People, Recipes, and Lore
"History Highlights," an online offering of the North Carolina Museum of History, posts two events for the year 1924. One is the founding of Duke University in Durham. The other is the opening of Bob Melton's Barbecue in Rocky Mount.
"It's not clear why Duke gets equal billing," write John Shelton Reed, Dale Volberg Reed, and William McKinney in their book Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue: The Definitive Guide to the People, Recipes, and Lore. The Reeds, both native Tennesseans, and McKinney, a South Carolinian now living in northern Virginia, have crafted a book that ranges from the roasted meats of Homer's Iliad to yellow page ads in the restaurant sections of North Carolina telephone directories, all in an ambitious attempt to tell the story of the Tar Heel State's passion for pit-cooked pork.
Residents of Chapel Hill since 1969, the Reeds describe themselves, in the religious imagery that so often enlivens their book, as "converts, and like many converts, we can be more Catholic than the Pope." The eminent academic qualifications of the authors are on display in a detailed recounting of barbecue etymology, but befitting its subject Holy Smoke's style is easy and conversational rather than scholarly.
The book is organized into three sections: barbecue history, barbecue cookery, and barbecue people, and the authors' very real affection for their subject is unmistakable in Holy Smoke's many engaging scenes. The Reeds "waltz" a soon-to-be barbecued whole hog across their backyard. A pig is brined in the bathtub. At a barbecue in pre–Civil War North Carolina, Halifax County citizens, fueled by strong drink, resolve to ask Emperor Napoleon III of France to form a defensive [End Page 82] alliance with their state. The owner of a cloth mill holds a barbecue in 1933 to dissuade his employees from joining a union. Gourmet magazine describes the light fixtures in Shelby's Bridges Barbecue Lodge as "chandeliers."
The authors trace North Carolinians' storied veneration of the pig to a 166 promotional pamphlet intended to attract British immigrants to North America. Some sixty years later, Virginia planter William Byrd II described the region's inhabitants as "porcivorous." True North Carolina barbecue, the authors explain, is pork "cooked for a long time at a low temperature with heat and smoke from a fire of hardwood and/or hardwood coals." Whole hog, pork shoulder, and even ham qualify. Beef brisket and pork ribs, although mandatory entries in cook-offs such as those sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society, are certainly cooked in North Carolina, but they are not "From Here" (authors' capitalization).
On those precepts there is general agreement among the state's barbecue pit-masters, but the Great Divide, the split between Eastern and Piedmont styles, is most evident when considering sauce, and Holy Smoke provides a detailed, dispassionate discourse on the subject. Relying on research by the late food historian Karen Hess, the authors theorize that Eastern North Carolinians' love of vinegar and pepper sauce can be traced back to the Caribbean slave trade. Citrus juice, especially lemon, was used to "mop" meat while cooking and to flavor it at table in the islands. With lemon juice in short supply in the Carolinas and Virginia, however, vinegar came into wide use.
The Piedmont style of barbecuing—using pork shoulder instead of the Eastern whole-hog approach—emerged, according to the authors, around World War I. Reed, Reed, and McKinney point out that the creators of the Piedmont style were almost universally of German heritage. Warner Stamey, for example, a teacher of many future barbecuers around Shelby, Lexington, and Greensboro, descended from Peter Stemme, who came from Germany in 1734 and settled in what is now Lincoln County, North Carolina, in 1767 . The addition of tomato ketchup...