The Barbecue Editor Disputes a Tar Heel
Daniel Vaughn and John Shelton Reed on pork, sauce, and the superiority of Texas âcue
The following is a correspondence between Daniel Vaughn and John Shelton Reed. Reed lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and is the co-author, with his wife, Dale Volberg Reed, of Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue. Vaughn is the barbecue editor of Texas Monthly and the author of Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue.
So, we are to debate the relative merits of North Carolina and Texas barbecue. Let me begin by saluting a worthy opponent, defending a worthy, if mistaken, cause. This is a dispute worth having. I wouldn’t waste my ammunition on Memphis or Kansas City. I know you’ve eaten our barbecue, and I have eaten yours. Our Texan son-in-law has escorted my wife and me to number of towns near Austin that start with L and a few that don’t. We’ve eaten wood-cooked meat in Austin itself, and in Houston and Dallas and Brownwood and elsewhere. Y’all are right about many things. I admire your loyalty to tradition, no matter how misguided the loyalty or recent the tradition; in particular, I applaud your devotion to cooking with wood. (I prefer your barbecue to “North Carolina barbecue” cooked with gas or electricity, but, hell, I prefer Sloppy Joes to that.) Most Texans also understand that sauce, if used at all, should season the meat, not smother it; in both of our states, barbecue’s not about sauce. So I want it understood up front that I recognize Texans as barbecue brethren—erring brethren, but brethren nevertheless—and when I criticize, it is more with sadness than with indignation.
Let’s stipulate at the outset that we’ll be discussing the traditional cooking styles of our respective states, not what’s served at the pick-your-meat, pick-your-sauce, mix-and-match International House of Barbecue places that are increasingly common in our cities. True, they’re in North Carolina or Texas and they’re serving what they call barbecue, but it’s not North Carolina barbecue or Texas barbecue; it’s food from nowhere, for people from nowhere, who deserve nothing better. But we both know that there are different barbecue traditions within North Carolina and Texas, so we each need to specify what it is that we’re championing.
I have the easier job of it. It’s true that there are two varieties of North Carolina barbecue, an eastern and a western (more properly, “Piedmont”) style. But any outsider will recognize immediately that the two styles are much more like each other than either is like what passes for barbecue anywhere else. Jim Auchmutey, who knows a thing or two about barbecue, said once that North Carolina should put “The Vinegar State” on its license plates. He’s a Georgian and exaggerates, but in both regions of North Carolina mops and sauces do consist mostly of vinegar, salt, and cayenne pepper, with perhaps some sugar, just a touch of ketchup in the Piedmont, and not much else. My fellow Tar Heels enjoy arguing endlessly about that tincture of ketchup, but North Carolina sauces are vinegar with stuff in it, not (as in Kansas City and on grocery-store shelves) ketchup with stuff in it. Similarly, whether one should cook whole hogs (eastern) or pork shoulders (Piedmont) is a matter of great moment within North Carolina, but for even the most fervent partisan the differences pale into insignificance when beef or mutton—not to mention sausage—enters the picture. Many Tar Heels will allow that those other meats can be tasty, but we don’t actually believe that they are barbecue, and we wish y’all would call them something else to prevent confusion. So when I say “North Carolina barbecue”—in fact, when I say “barbecue”—I mean pork, cooked for a long time at a low temperature with heat and smoke from burning coals, and served with a peppery vinegar-based sauce. What are you talking about?
Awaiting your reply,
P. S. I won’t mention Dickey’s if you don’t bring up Smithfield’s Chicken ’N Bar-B-Q.
If Smithfield’s Chicken ’N Bar-B-Q, with locations covering the state of North Carolina, is allowed to use the word “barbecue” to describe the 100 percent gas-cooked pork that they routinely sling through drive-through windows, then I’m confused at your confusion about applying the term to beautifully smoked beef (or lamb or goat). That argument just doesn’t hold vinegar.
Your definition of barbecue (pork, cooked for a long time at a low temperature with heat and smoke from burning coals and served with a peppery vinegar-based sauce) provides for some common ground, but the self-serving limitation to a single protein seems to exist only because your fair state has failed to master the art of applying smoke to another animal. I know this first-hand, since I’ve witnessed meager attempts at smoked brisket in Lexington, N.C., revered as a sort of barbecue capital in your parts, I believe. In the real capital of barbecue, Lockhart, Texas (so named by our state House in 1999), knowledge of beef is a given, but you would do well to examine the porcine artistry of those pitmasters as well. Instead of using that most forgiving of barbecue meats, the self-basting pork shoulder that my four-year-old daughter could overcook to the point that a North Carolinian would eat it, they smoke large racks of pork ribs and whole racks of bone-in loin. These cuts, seasoned only with salt, pepper, and smoke, are taken from the pits and served with the only liquid appropriate to go alongside barbecue—Big Red. I’ve noticed that in the Carolinas arguments over sauce seem to trump those about the actual hog. Trying to weasel sauce into the very definition of barbecue is a disservice to those pitmasters who don’t require it to make their meat palatable, and furthermore is an insult to the hog. Expect the business end of bull’s horn if you utter that definition in Texas.
P.S. I too have left Memphis and Kansas City out of this discussion. If their barbecue was better it may migrate beyond their respective city limits, but until that time they can only fight for the bronze medal in the barbecue Olympics. The respectable tradition in North Carolina has unquestionably secured your fine state the silver.
I’m sorry that our correspondence is facing some sort of deadline. I’d be happy to explain things for as long as it takes you to understand. Still, I’ll do what I can in one letter. It will necessarily be a long one. A few minor points to address before turning to, ah, the meat of the matter: First, despite my P.S., you just had to mention Smithfield’s Chicken ’N Bar-B-Q, didn’t you? Look, don’t expect me to defend Smithfield’s. You’re right that they’re “allowed to use the word barbecue.” So is Tony Roma’s (headquarters: Dallas, Texas). Who’s going to stop them? That doesn’t mean that either outfit actually serves barbecue. Let’s talk about places that do. As for Dickey’s, I’ll concede that their product is a better imitation of genuine Texas barbecue than Smithfield’s is of the authentic North Carolina stuff. This could be either a point in favor of Dickey’s or a strike against Texas barbecue. Your call.
Second, you say you encountered some sorry attempts by North Carolinians to cook beef brisket. I have, too, and yes, if I’m going to eat brisket I’ll eat yours. What you ran into isn’t a conscious reversion to the time when we did barbecue beef in these parts (see below); it’s just an attempt to make money from newly arrived out-of-staters with fixed misconceptions about barbecue. You know what I’m talking about: I see that Red Hot & Blue has come to the Metroplex.
Third, you observe that brisket is harder to cook than pork shoulder. That’s true, but so what? Since when does degree-of-difficulty enter into the judging? This ain’t gymnastics. For the amateur, part of the appeal of cooking shoulder is that you can sit with it for a long time and think deep thoughts about other things. Hell, if it’s difficulty you want, barbecue chicken. Anyway, if we were going to discuss skill I’d argue that whole-hog barbecue is the epitome of the pitmaster’s art.
Finally, you didn’t answer my question about what Texas barbecue is, and maybe you can’t. Texas has regional styles so diverse that you can’t defend them all without defending everything. But I infer that what you’re promoting is the Central Texas version—i.e., a variety of meats and meat products cooked with indirect heat and lots of wood smoke and served with sauce on the side, if at all. What you get in Lockhart and Luling and Elgin and Taylor. (If I’m wrong, let’s scrub this whole exchange and start over some other time.) Since we apparently agree on the need for wood-cooking (with some differences in technique that aren’t worth fighting about) there are really only two points at issue: (1) our consensus versus your indecision on the proper meat to cook and (2) our commitment to an appropriate use of sauce versus your laissez faire attitude on the subject. Excuse the pedantic tone of what follows, but I can’t help it. I’ve been a college professor for too long.
Let’s start with the meat. It’s true that, as a verb, “barbecue” refers to a technique that even in North Carolina has been used to cook many meats. As recently as the 1930’s we routinely barbecued not just hogs but sheep, possums, shad, sides of beef—all sorts of stuff. We still barbecue chickens. But as a noun referring to something to eat, it was once understood everywhere that “barbecue” comes from hogs. In 1755, for example, Samuel Johnson’s famous Dictionary defined it as “a hog drest whole in the West Indian manner” (more about that West Indian manner in a minute). There are many more examples, some even earlier. There are more hogs than people in North Carolina, but if we are “porcivorous” (in 1728 William Byrd II said we were) it’s not just for convenience. Our barbeculture is something like the dogma of the Orthodox Church—settled, unchanging, secure in the truth, threatened only by modernity, not by rival faiths. Meanwhile, y’all west of the Mississippi seem to have erred and strayed into the barbecue equivalent of speaking in tongues and taking up serpents. In fact, for all I know, you may take up serpents and barbecue them. Wouldn’t surprise me. Look, surely it’s not my responsibility to defend what has been an understanding universal in Christendom. It’s for Texans and Kansas Citians and Owensboroites to justify their departure from it. Martin Luther nailed some theses to the Wittenberg church door: he didn’t just go do his own damn thing.
Y’all’s restless pursuit of unnecessary innovation is equally evident when it comes to sauce. More history from the professor (sorry): You first encounter something that is undeniably real barbecue in the 1500’s, in the Caribbean, where Indians had been cooking fish and birds and reptiles low-and-slow with wood from time immemorial. When Europeans showed up with hogs (note: hogs) the locals realized that this is what the Lord meant to be barbecued, and soon they were into pig-pickings in a big way. And they didn’t just cook a hog. At a 1598 feast described by a Dominican missionary, the meat was mopped with a mixture of lemon juice, salt, and chile peppers and served with a similar table sauce in two strengths, hot or mild. In time, this sauce came to the Carolinas (where the lemon juice was replaced by more easily obtained vinegar) and it spread inland. Barbecue historian Robert Moss shows that by the time of the Civil War this sauce was employed everywhere in the United States (yes, even Texas). This is the ur-sauce, the one from which all others descend, the perfection from which others have devolved. Most heretics have gone to thick, sweet, sticky sauces like those found in Kansas City and on grocery store shelves, doctored ketchup that lies on the surface of the meat and can disguise poor cooking. Yours is the more forgivable sin of making sauce optional, or even doing without it altogether. At least you showcase the meat, which is a good thing. But you miss the opportunity to season it, as people always have, with a sparing application of a penetrating, salty, peppery sauce. This classic, time-honored sauce survives essentially unchanged in eastern North Carolina and (as I explained in my first letter) with only trivial alterations in the North Carolina Piedmont.
Here again, I think it’s up to someone who wants to mess with it to explain why. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. In short (and it really is “in short”—I could go on), North Carolina barbecue stands in a tradition of four hundred years. The history of our barbecue is the history of barbecue itself. That history is interwoven with the history of political campaigns, church homecomings, drive-in restaurants, harvest celebrations, and the Fourth of July. It’s what America is all about. You shouldn’t disrespect it because it’s your heritage too. Return to the fold, Daniel. It is not too late to repent. Thanks for the opportunity to spar with you. I only regret that you get the last word.
The last thing I’ll say about both of our state’s poorest approximations of barbecue (Smithfield’s and Dickey’s) is that only one of them provides a menu of smoked meats that people in other states actually want. Texas barbecue is now the preferred style to adopt around the country (outside of the already identified barbecue capitals), which we understand as a testament to its superiority. When New York decided it wanted to be taken seriously as a barbecue town it did not turn to chopped pork and hush puppies but was instead liberated by brisket and beef ribs. The fact that smoked beef is making inroads in North Carolina is just an inevitable sign that Texas barbecue has no trouble capturing distinguishing taste buds once given the opportunity. On the other hand I don’t see anyone clamoring for a whole hog joint in Austin. That shouldn’t be much a surprise given the fine quality of dentistry in Texas. We don’t require our food to be partially chewed before serving. Whole hog, the way it’s served in North Carolina, showcases the skill of cleaver-wielding meat choppers more than pitmasters. Is there really any need for a “pitmaster” whose job is to provide meat of impeccable moisture, tenderness, and smoke when the cleaver provides all the tenderness and the moisture comes by the industrial-sized vat of vinegar? Your argument in favor of chopped pork doesn’t have any teeth because you don’t need any.
As you mention, the tradition of whole-hog cooking as done in the Carolinas is part our country’s shared heritage just like wagon trains and cloth diapers. I guess if the wheels on our mobile smokers were still made of stone the barbecue would taste more authentic, but embracing innovation and diversity in barbecue is what led to Texas’s superiority. When the cattle arrived on the continent (right around the time that hogs showed up, mind you) they migrated in search of grazing land, eventually ending up in Texas. Y’all were stuck with the hogs, happily ingesting your urban excrement. A sauce’s ability to withstand a lack of refrigeration does not define perfection just as sauce does not define barbecue, except for the barbecue that needs a masking agent to be rendered edible.
Anyway, here’s how I suspect things will go from here: Sooner or later, you’ll swing through Texas and we’ll hit all the best joints. Each bite of perfect brisket will test your faith. You will return to North Carolina and attempt to return consumption of the hog with gusto, yet each mouthful will be but an act of futile protest against your growing lust for beef. Before long, you will succumb. Privately, you will load that backyard smoker of yours with brisket upon brisket. You will eat it alone and in silence, having emerged from the wilderness at last, just as Jesus did: a man who withstood a prolonged fast and was rewarded (in your case with a belly full of beef). Hog was before, beef is now. Embrace it.
(This story originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of Texas Monthly.)