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Oct 4, 2006 03:39 PM

Jim Leff and NC BBQ


Wow, as someone who was born and raised in NC, reading what Jim has written about NC BBQ so far (dispatch #17) is sort of painful. I guess food critics are paid to be opinionated, but claiming that native diners were eating their own BBQ "wrong" because they were not ordering "outside brown" takes a lot of nerve. Of course, Jim ordered "outside brown" at his first BBQ stop on this trip and found it dry and disappointing. Now, he's learning! I assure you "outside brown" or "with brownings" is not some hip, hidden method of ordering BBQ in the Carolinas. The fact is most diners are probably aware of it but just don't like it. It's actually not that hard to find, but good examples ARE a bit harder to find. Brownings do often tend to be dry and hard to chew, so many people prefer to do without. There's nothing "wrong" about that.

As Jim moves east and south, I hope he tries to maintain an open mind about the BBQ of the Carolinas. I think many outsiders never learn to appreciate America's original BBQ because they want it to be like what they've had in Memphis, Texas, or Kansas City, but it is something else all together. Towards the coast, it is traditional to cook the whole hog, and the beauty of this style of chopped or pulled pork is the way the different parts of the pig combine in sublime ways, accented by a very simple vinegar and pepper sauce. There's nothing like finding moist, flavorful strands of rib meat mixed in with the lighter shoulder and ham meat. Though there are exceptions (like the Skylight Inn in Ayden), smokiness does not tend to be a primary component of whole hog BBQ, because, unless you are partaking of the brownings, there's just not a whole lot in the mix that has been directly exposed to smoke, even if the pit is a wood burner. Just keep an open mind and enjoy!

  1. Thanks for the great posting!

    My mind's wide open, but I'm always trying to figure stuff out. My opinions and preferences are all work in progress - as is cuisine itself. And this series of reports doesn't represent finished, polished reporting. I'm just bringing everyone along and recounting my thoughts and experiences as honestly as I can as I go.

    I've actually spent a lot of time in NC, so this isn't just a superficial impression. But as you read along, you'll see my impressions changing. The next installment should be pretty interesting...I get the lowdown on outside brown directly from a hero of mine, Bob Garner. Please post again, it's great to have you here offering your view. I don't intend my view as the "final" one...I'm not that sort of food writer :)


    1. Woah Jon... did you claim that North Carolina is America's original BBQ & that Texas et al have copied it?

      Given that America's BBQ tradition is a direct descendant of the Mexican Barbacoa tradition.... you are going to have to explain how Barbacoa leapfrogged Texas & reached North Carolina first!

      3 Replies
      1. re: Eat_Nopal

        Actually, Harold McGee credits the etymology of barbecoa to be from the west indies. While the word is indeed Spanish in origin, it came through the West Indies, where Taino, which was a "framework of green sticks suspended on corner posts on which fish, meat and other foods were laid and cooked in the open over fire and coals" became American barbecue by colonial times. Since this existed in the colonies, and while I do understand the Texan urge to claim to have been one of the colonies, I strongly suspect that this was a southeastern tradition long before it was a southwestern one. Besides, since when did y'all have pigs? Texan q tradition is mainly brisket.

        1. re: applehome

          Harold McGee is certainly correct... the word does come from the Taino... mainly because the Spaniards (don't know if you would consider Columbus a Spaniard but oh well) first encountered the tradition there.

          In terms of how The U.S. started a barbecue tradition... lets connect the dots:

          > There is ample Spanish written evidence of Barbacoa from the initial stumbling upon the New to the Europeans World

          > There is no mention of any type of Closed Pit cooking in Cabeza de Vacas wanderings through the Southeast

          > There are no known Pre-Colombian artifacts pointing to Barbecue in the U.S. Southeast

          > The earliest known Barbecue Pits are located in Campeche & the artifacts have been carbon dated at 2000 B.C. more or less

          > The earliest documented evidence of Barbecue in the U.S. dates back to the 1830s

          > The Sephardic Jews that settled much of Tejas & Northern Mexico in the 16th & 17th centuries had a long tradition of pit cooked Lamb & Kid (baby goat)... which they most likely picked up in Central Mexico... before they were kicked out/ given Land Grants to the Kingdom of Nuevo Leon (modern day Texas & the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon).

          In terms of the Carolina "innovation" of using Pork for Barbecue.... Wild Boar was already the primary Barbecue ingredient in the Olmec & Mayan world thousands of years before... and the use of domesticated pigs in Pibil (Mayan barbecue) began around 1520 something.

          Check this thread out for more info:

        2. re: Eat_Nopal

          Applehome probably does a much better job than I could of defending the theory that BBQ as we know it across the US originated in the Southeast and spread outward from there. (I would add that a likely explanation of how the barbacoa tradition made its way directly from the West Indies to the SE is the thriving sea trade that existed between these places during the colonial period.)

          My original point was actually narrower and I should have defined my terms better. The BBQ tradition of the coastal Carolinas (and a portion of Virginia)--whole hog with a vinegar and pepper sauce--dates back to colonial times and has changed very little over the centuries. Here's a link to an article that quotes resident BBQ expert Bob Garner on the subject:

          If there is any persistant, continually-practiced BBQ tradition in the United States that has survived intact for a longer or even an equivalent period of time, I haven't heard about it. So my use of the term "original" was simply to say that of the BBQ traditions widely practiced in the U.S. today, the BBQ tradition of the coastal Carolinas has been practiced unchanged for the longest period of time and thus can lay claim to being the "original."

        3. You said that the earliest documented q in the us is 1830 - and yet Harold McGee talks of it as being a "popular and festive bout of mass outdoor meat cooking" in American colonial times.

          Even if the pre-columbian roots of closed pit cooking, including boars, is from Mexico, the more modern root of q, within America, could still be from the SE US. Given that it existed in colonial times, and Texas did not, it certainly has the pedigree in terms of the USA. Is it more likely that St. Louis style ribs are decendent from ancient Mayan traditions, or from a hundred year old North Carolinas barbecue?

          Having married an Okie, my personal experience is that if pork was ever a major factor in the SW US, it certainly has not been for a long time. Beef is king in Texas and Oklahoma - and it's hard to imagine that a trail would exist from Yucatan to Kansas City to St. Louis to the Carolinas, exactly because there is indeed a gap in Texas - a pig gap.

          Being from Boston, I have no dog in this race. I do find the food history to be very interesting - and I do think that the OP's point, that the Carolinas support a unique q style based on cooking the whole hog - is an important differentiation, regardless of the history, recent or ancient.

          1. Hey Guys,

            First of all I would like to share a couple of things. In 2004, I was fortunate enough to vacation in the Piedmont & Blue Ridge Mountains and loved it quite bit. The hospitality, being engulfed by woods everywhere, the wonderful percussion made by the insects at dusk, the Blue Grass music & the food.

            In Downtown Raleigh I enjoyed the local BBQ at the place owned by a huge man dressed in overalls who suppossedly keeps a shotgun just in case someone tries to skip without paying the bill. Also had it at a BBQ House out in the "backwoods" near RTP... and in Asheville. Personally... I was able to enjoy a different, unique take on BBQ for what it was without comparing to other forms.

            Second, I am not a Texan in any way shape or form... as a matter of fact I am not very fond of Texas, have not jived with most Texans I have met...and found Houstonites to be the most rude people in the country (yes New Yorkers...there is a city that is more rude than you).

            Now to the discussion.... the quotes by Garner in that link just smell of that American tradition of nationalistic (or in this case regionalistic) historical revisionism that was so common before America's scholastic consolidation in the 1950's. Although more benign than the 1880's social darwinism of U.S. historians & anthropologists (with their Historical "Accounts" that dehumanized virtually all Non-Anglo American peoples)... Garner makes some equally laughable claims:

            > The first style of Barbeque dates to the James River settlements in the 1600s... okay don't let anthropological or historical evidence get in the way.

            > The James River settlements was the first time people thought to season meat with Vinegar & Pepper. What? Ignoring the fact that British people have been marinating meat with vinegar & dry spices since at least the time following the crusades (based on recipes from cookbooks of the time)... Vinegar made from Pineapples was also key ingredient in Mayan barbecues (today Pineapple Vinegar has been replaced by Sour Seville Oranges.

            > People did not put tomatoes in their BBQ because they thought they were poisionous...and it took them until the 1800's to discover they were not! Or how about the even funnier version that BBQ sauce was invented when Vinegar & Ketchup accidentally mixed. I am sure this has nothing to do with the fact that BBQ sauce is actually the American variation of what in Mexico we call Adobos... as in Chipotles in Adobo. Of course it became popular in the 1800s after American settlers in Tejas starting exporting the local traditions back to the States.

            Other than local folklore about the Carolina / Virginia origins of BBQ... what I think you will not find are:

            > 17th Century Carolinas / Virginias cookbooks that make any reference to Barbeque or describe any dishes made with the Closed Pit techniques.

            > Archeological evidence of anything older than the early 1800's.

            Now, I am not going to claim that I have done any scholarly exploration of BBQ in the Southeast or have any expertise in Southeastern food history... but I do bring an outsiders critical eye...and have read & seen some documentaries on the subject... and here is what I have gleamed:

            > The use of the word BBQ was first noted in Texas & Kansas in the 1800's and showed up later as you go east.

            > Every Historic BBQ restaurant from Mississippi to the Southeast seems to have been founded by some African-American in the early 1900's as a way to cook the cheapest cuts of meat for the poor, segregated Blacks entering the world of urbanization & Southern industrialization.

            > If the American BBQ tradition had really originated in the Carolinas wouldn't it have spread gradually west with the settlers until reaching Texas? Instead what we see is that Texas has an older, verified BBQ tradition than most places east of it.

            > When a big wave of Scottish immigrants in the South made a push to settle Nebraska in the 1860's... wouldn't they have brought a BBQ tradition to Nebraska? Instead... Nebraska didn't have a BBQ tradition until the 20th Century.

            Next, the idea that the Southeast somehow picked up the BBQ tradition from trade with the Caribbean is highly unlikely for the following reasons:

            > By the 1600's the native Arawak (Taino) populations of the Caribbean had largely been decimated if not exterminated & replaced by African slaves. It was not just the people that were under siege it was all their cultural expressions as well. For proof, just visit Puerto Rico (the only Caribbean country with a healthy population of Native Americans... you will not find a trace of anyone that speaks Boricua (a variant of Taino)... and you will not find anyone cooking BBQ.

            > Second, not only was the Arawak / Taino traditions virtually stamped out... but the cultural reality of the Colonies - particularly in the South - is that they would most likely have rejected the cultural expressions of groups they considered to be sub-human. You need to look no further than the attitude towards Slavery & Native Americans.

            Now, given that the Southeast was mostly settled by Scots & Dutch immigrants, and that the staple meat in all of the Colonies & United States prior to the annexation of Texas was Pork... It wouldn't be so unusual...if North Carolina innovated a Hagis like dish made from Pork instead of Sheep that eventually adopted the name BBQ.

            But from everything I have seen so far, the most likely picture of the BBQ tradition in the U.S.... is that it initiated in Texas and spread to Kansas & Mississippi during the 1800s... in the 1900's it became popular among African Americans in the South searching for ways to tenderize cheap cuts of meat...and then became Gentrified in the post World War II boom days... as African American cultural expressions like Jazz began to gain acceptance among Southern Whites.

            Finally, back to the issue that began the discussion... an outsider dissing your form of barbecue. I think what we have is the balance between appreciating alternative ways of doing things, and trying to apply a critical assessment to cross-cultural expressions.

            It seems to me that Jim doesn't understand your style of BBQ...and doesn't seem to understand that there are many variations of BBQ...and they don't have to all be the same.

            On the other hand...I have to say that my favorite BBQ style thus far from the state of Hidalgo in Mexico. There the tradition is the marinate lamb in a Chile-Vinegar based marinade (which I will describe below)... pepper it with dried Avocado leaves... then wrap it in Agave leaves. Volcanic rocks are heated for 24 hours then placed in the pot... covered with dried brush (specially Mesquite & Huisache) to create smoke. A pot with legumes & water is set in the pit to create steam & catch the lamb drippings. Then the wrapped lamb is set over the pot...and the pit is closed. After about 8 hours.... the Lamb is removed... and vegetables are added to the pot. Finally you are served lamb that combines fall apart tender, smokiness & crispiness on the outer edges with a sublimely flavored thin soup... often served as an "Au Jus dipping sauce"

            To me that is the best expression of Barbeque anywhere...and while I appreciate the Yucatecan or North Carolina versions... I do prefer the more complex & sophisticated version from Hidalgo. That doesn't mean that I would always choose an Hidalgo version over a North Carolina version... or that I couldn't appreciate the best of the North Carolina versions

            As mentioned above the marinade used in Hidalgo style Barbacoa features Guajillo & Ancho chiles, light Vinegar, Garlic, Onions, Thyme, Oregano, Cloves, Allspice, Coriander & Cumin.

            2 Replies
            1. re: Eat_Nopal

              Well, I think this discussion is going beyond the realm of food and into a debate over history and revisionist history. While making your own historical assertions without any citations, you discount the assertions of people like Bob Garner who have actually researched and written books about the subject. Read his book and check his research before you discount his claims. Also, I think you read too much into Bob Garner's statements. He is not claiming BBQ was invented in Virginia and NC, he is simply claiming that this area was the cradle for BBQ in what became the US, not the entire world. Frankly, the idea that BBQ spread eastward from Texas is rather counter-intuitive since cultural practices almost always spread in the direction of population migration, and there was no such west to east migration from Texas to Deep South to Upper South in the period of time to which you refer. There was, however, a steady migration of settlers going the other way, and the logical conclusion is that BBQ spead from the Southeast westward. Now, in Texas, BBQ may be an amalgam of Southern tradition and Mexican tradtion, but as such it is not a singular, persistant tradition such as that found in the coastal Carolinas.

              Here's a link that posits the BBQ George Washington ate very probably is the same kind prepared in the Southeast today:

              Here'a link on the etymology that establishes that actually the word "barbecue" was in common usage in colonial times: And if the word made it into common usage back then, it only follows that so did the practice, or else what would the word refer to?

              Your claim that white southerners would never adopt the traditions of other races quite frankly flies in the face of the entire history of southern cuisine and music, and the deep impact that African-Americans have had on both. One could write a book on this, and many have. Look up where white southerners adopted peanut cultivation and the banjo, just to name two examples among many.

              Check out the wikipedia page on tomatoes and you will see that the myth of tomatoes being poisonous did persist in North America even during Thomas Jefferson's time:
              To quote, "Cultured people like Thomas Jefferson, who ate tomatoes in Paris and sent some seeds home, knew the tomato was edible, but many of the less well-educated did not."

              I will only say this much more: you need look no further than the late NC BBQ statesman Pete Jones (of the Skylight Inn) for an example of someone whose family has been in the BBQ business since 1830. I'm pretty sure Pete Jone's ancestors weren't cooking Texas BBQ way back then.

              1. re: Low Country Jon

                Alright... you made some pretty convincing points. Based on your links it seems that African slaves might have been barbequing in the 1700's... so I infer that they might have picked up the tradition in the Caribbean.

                It is then very possible that you have two distinct BBQ traditions develop in the U.S.... at different times & under different circumstances... which might explain why there ISN'T satisfactory evidence that it spread West (in the sense that you have a much strong tradition in the Southeast & Texas...than in any place in between).

                I will stand by the argument that Barbeque suace is just a variant of Adobos that relies heavily on Worcestire sauce rather than Whole Dried Chiles & Spices.

                If we accept that the Southeastern BBQ tradition is as deep as the 1700's then Jim certainly went off the rocker in not understanding your particular version.

            2. I'm not going to get into the historical commentary I am just going to suggest to Jim that if he is still in NC that he stop in Manning SC. The D&H if it is still going does the whole hog "Q". They were kind enough to take me DH who was new to real "Q" at the time and show him their pits and how they prepared the coals for smoking. They also made thier own fried pork rinds. gosh I hope they are still there. I look forward to going back some day

              11 Replies
              1. re: Candy

                The whole hog thing is something I discussed briefly with Bob Garner...the fact that SC tends to do the whole hog thing. I remember his having an explanation for why that's done down there and not so much in NC, but...I forgot. A shame, 'cuz when Bob Garner talks, you ought to listen up!

                Just a note to the thread: there are lots of place on the Internet where barbecue sparks over-the-top indignant debate. Nobody tends to ever change their mind, and nobody ever eats better as a result. I hope we continue to steer clear of that sort of angry, intolerant vibe on Chowhound, but my suggestion is this: if you spot people getting huffy about barbecue (or any other food topic!), it's usually a good time to give them the last word. :)

                Food ought to make you hungry, not angry!

                1. re: Jim Leff

                  It's still your baby, Jim. But you know, I'd rather read 100 pages of people like EN and LCJ going back and forth about the history of q than 1 page of what's good at CCF.

                  1. re: applehome

                    Hey, back and forth is good! I wasn't asking anyone to be quiet!

                    The whiff of anger, though, could easily erupt into full-out flame. And that's counter-productive to the friendly, tolerant climate that elicits chow tips/info from the throngs reading along. Angry threads discourage shy people from chiming in with contrary opinions. And we thrive on tons of contrary opinions!

                    Keep on posting, everyone! I'd just suggest we remember to create a spirit of friendly tolerance for dissenting viewpoints. Shoot, I THANKED Low Country Jon for disagreeing with me, and invited more! :)

                  2. re: Jim Leff

                    Whole hog BBQ is prevalent in the coastal regions of both Carolinas. It is kept alive, in part, by the wonderful tradition of the communal pig pickin', an event that is arguably the direct descendent of the "barbecue parties" people like George Washington attended way back when. If you ever have a chance to go to a pig pickin', don't pass it up! There's nothing like picking the choicest bits of the pig right off the carcass.

                    I'd be the first to admit I can take BBQ a bit too seriously. Three things southerners don't tend to joke about are BBQ, religion, and an event my grandma liked to refer to as the War of Northern Aggression. Okay, admittedly, I am joking a bit right now!

                    1. re: Jim Leff

                      Food ought to make you hungry, not angry!

                      Gosh, as a CH lurker/learner/poster I sure hope that's the point!

                      1. re: HillJ

                        Folks have been jawin' about BBQ since Fred & Barney fought over the last piece of Brontosauraus.
                        More interesting to me than who threw some meat on the woodpile
                        200-300 years ago is how Cue has expanded all over the country
                        (and World).
                        New styles and tastes are being born every day.
                        Different meats, different woods, new techniques....
                        based on a respect for tradition.

                        1. re: bbqboy

                          Well put, bbqboy.

                          Just to toss another issue into the pot...Jamaican jerk is pretty close to American barbecue. In fact, I've seen more than a few southerners with no Jamaican ties at all offer jerk sauce as an alternative on their 'cue.

                          I'd love to see bbq scholars include the Jamaicans in their writing. For one thing, they use a real interesting and distinctive wood...and use it very young/green, too.

                          1. re: Jim Leff

                            This link has a recipe for Jamaican Jerk... and a bit of info on their BBQ methods:


                            1. re: Eat_Nopal

                              thanks to EN for this great 'fiery-foods' link--it's bookmarked!
                              ain't chowhound grand!

                            2. re: Jim Leff

                              Jerk is bbq. No difference. I had the pleasure of eating it at its bithplace, Boston Bay. In fact, if you travel around Jamaica, Jerk is simply called Boston. (though, of course, anyplace that caters to tourists will call it Jerk.) The spices are different, and Jerk is not automaticlaly hot, despite what is normally available in the US.

                            3. re: bbqboy

                              great reply bbqboy, loved it!