The BBQ state: Unique origins of barbecue define North Carolina history, culture

The pit master at Stamey's western-style barbecue restaurant checks on pork shoulders that have been cooking for roughly four hours. Photo by Nicole Esplin, reporter.

Political debates change with every season, but one argument that will never end in North Carolina is where the best barbecue comes from.

Many native Carolinians have an opinion on which barbecue joint is the most famous or authentic, and it is often a joint around his or her hometown.  A quick description of the taste and texture of their local barbecue recipe is followed by a longer story describing the history and culture behind their specific shop, as well as the reason why it’s home to the “most delicious barbecue in the world.”

Barbecue joints can be argued about for days, but the real question remains — What comprises a great barbecue sandwich, and how did North Carolinians become so loyal to pulled pork slathered with sauce?

Western v. Eastern

Smoke rises from the smokehouse at Stamey's Barbecue in Greensboro from 5 a.m. until opening time, signaling another day of barbecue served at the restaurant. Photo by Nicole Esplin, reporter.

Smoke rises from the smokehouse at Stamey’s Barbecue in Greensboro from 5 a.m. until opening time, signaling another day of barbecue served at the restaurant. Photo by Nicole Esplin, reporter.

North Carolina barbecue can be classified based on its location in the state: eastern-style originated from farmers who raised their own hogs and cooked the entire pig, while western-style developed primarily for barbecue stands where only the shoulder of the pig was cooked.

Whether North Carolinians prefer eastern or western style barbecue, one thing natives will agree on is that the only “true” barbecue comes from hogs, and they quite possibly have Spanish settlers to thank for that.

Spanish settlers may seem far removed from today’s Carolina pit masters tending hickory-wood fires, but they have more in common than one may think. Settlers introduced pigs to the southeastern part of the United States, which is why North Carolinians inherently think of barbecue as pulled pork as opposed to beef brisket, which is more common in Texas.

Creating an identity

Despite the origins of barbecue, one thing is for sure: it’s as important to Carolina culture as the Wright brothers.

“For old-fashioned North Carolinians, barbecue is one of the markers of identity,” said John Shelton Reed, author of “Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue.” “Before barbecue stands, there were big community barbecues — sometimes regularly scheduled, sometime to celebrate holidays or special occasions. The harvest, the 4th of July, the opening of railroads, veterans’ reunions — that sort of thing.”

Pulled pork and slaw were “the original fast food in the south,” according to Stamey's Barbecue owner Chip Stamey. Photo by Nicole Esplin, reporter.

Pulled pork and slaw were “the original fast food in the south,” according to Stamey’s Barbecue owner Chip Stamey. Photo by Nicole Esplin, reporter.

During the colonial era, the popularity of community barbecues grew, and during the 1880s and 1890s, traditional community barbecues became more commercialized.

“People began selling barbecue at fairs and other gatherings,” said Robert Moss, historian and author of “Barbecue: The History of an American Institution.” “These were similar to old outdoor barbecues, with the main difference being that they weren’t free.  Most of the early barbecue restaurants evolved in towns that were the county seats and tobacco market towns.  People would come into town regularly and the barbecue stands would make good business.”

The town of Charlotte was potentially the first to host its own barbecue stand, according to The Charlotte Observer. The Charlotte stand wasn’t discovered until an old newspaper advertisement clipping was found promoting the stand, and it was also discovered the stand closed down shortly after.

In Lexington, which is the county seat for Davidson County, Sid Weaver and Jeff Swicegood are revered as the first owners of a stand-alone barbecue establishment.

“Weaver and Swicegood set up tents across from each other outside the courthouse,” Moss said. “They competed against each other and then finally joined together and enclosed their stands…they placed tin roof over it their stand, and that was the beginning of barbecue restaurants.”

The pit master at Stamey's tends to hickory coals. The process of rotating coals and adding new hickory wood lasts from six to ten hours every morning. Photo by Nicole Esplin, reporter.

The pit master at Stamey’s tends to hickory coals. The process of rotating coals and adding new hickory wood lasts from six to ten hours every morning. Photo by Nicole Esplin, reporter.

The presence of Weaver and Swicegood is still obvious in the Piedmont, and “the Piedmont has a network of barbecue all learned from the same mentors, Weaver and Swicegood,” Moss said.

These roots are present at Stamey’s Barbecue in Greensboro. Chip Stamey, the current owner and grandson of founder Warner Stamey, operates two locations of Stamey’s Barbecue, and experiences the interconnected web of Piedmont barbecue daily.

“My grandfather worked for Jeff Swicegood in high school,” Stamey said.  “He eventually graduated and decided to go back to Shelby.  He didn’t go to college — this was depression-era stuff, so he took the one thing that he had learned when he was in high school and he opened up his own stand in Shelby. They had never had barbecue in that area as far as a restaurant or barbecue stand, so he indoctrinated that style there.”

Stamey explained how Stamey’s Barbecue in Greensboro came about a little later, after Warner Stamey returned to Lexington and bought Swicegood’s shop there. Stamey’s eventually spread to Greensboro, High Point and Asheboro.  Warner Stamey taught what he had learned from Swicegood to his employees, who are now owners of their own barbecue restaurants throughout central and western North Carolina.

Remaining a Carolina staple

While the Piedmont was rapidly expanding its number of barbecue joints, eastern North Carolina was developing its own flavor and style.

“There’s not a great difference in the tastes between Eastern and Western,” Reed said. “Shoulder tends to be moister and smokier than whole hog, Piedmont sauces are usually, but not always, somewhat sweeter and often more complex, but the predominant taste is still vinegar.”

For those looking to get a true taste of what original barbecue used to taste like in the state, Moss said go with eastern-style.

The Carolina Smokehouse off Highway 64 in Cashiers has a local, home-grown feel. The smokehouse prepares pit-cooked barbecue for travelers along the highway daily. Photo by Nicole Esplin, reporter.

The Carolina Smokehouse off Highway 64 in Cashiers has a local, home-grown feel. The smokehouse prepares pit-cooked barbecue for travelers along the highway daily. Photo by Nicole Esplin, reporter.

“Eastern style whole hog barbecue is a direct descendent to the 19th century barbecue,” he said.  “Barbecues used to be outdoor events with no refrigeration, so farmers would cook the entire hog for the event.  They weren’t able to save any of it unless it was cooked.  The basic sauce ingredients are vinegar, salt and pepper and hot red pepper.”

Even with the advent of fast food restaurants and franchised diners, barbecue has remained a staple in North Carolina and has even gained national popularity in recent years.  Reed said he believes this has to do with the atmosphere inside a local small-town barbecue joint.

“I prefer simpler places like that don’t do much of anything but barbecue,” he said. “Fish on the menu is generally bad because the odors conflict, and valet parking and a wine list are bad in a different way. Ideally, you want a place where everyone in the community goes and feels comfortable.”

A homey atmosphere and quick service are as important to the recipe of a great barbecue joint as the secret sauce, according to Stamey.

“Barbecue restaurants are unique because they were one of the first places you could take food home quickly,” he said. “They were almost the first kind of fast food, but the main difference is the cook works for six to 10 hours preparing your food.”

Locals flock to barbecue joints for quick friendly service, and often agree that a great barbecue sandwich must include pork, a kind of vinegar-based sauce and some slaw on the side.

“Barbecue is part of our identity,” Stamey said. “In different places, barbecue is thought of as ‘grilling hotdogs and hamburgers.’  Here, barbecue is different. It’s somewhere you can go; it’s a place and a thing. It’s not a verb – it’s a noun.”

Still curious about the history of barbecue? Check out this interactive timeline. To access the content, scroll through the stories on the bottom of the pop-out window.

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