Barbecue is a versatile word. Depending on where you are, it can be a verb, noun or adjective. It can mean the act of cooking meat or the apparatus with which you cook it. It can describe a style of cooking or it can be the title of an outdoor party. But here in North Carolina, barbecue has a very specific meaning. It is a noun it refers to pork that has been masterfully manipulated into something that plays as large a role in defining our states identity as the UNC-Duke rivalry or the Wright brothers flights at Kill Devil Hills.
North Carolina barbecue has something else in common with the college basketball rivalry. There is a divide of Grand Canyon-sized proportion between our two styles of barbecue, Eastern and Western. The nuances of Eastern and Western (which is sometimes called Lexington after its birthplace) barbecue styles provide fodder for deep-seated debates across the state. Rarely can you find someone on the fence just like UNC versus Duke, you pick a side and stick with it.
What makes these two styles so different? Well, first, they both consist of pork, slow-cooked for a minimum of 16-18 hours at a low temperature, usually around 250 degrees. After cooking, the meat is pulled from the bones and can be chopped or pulled into smaller chunks some old timers say real North Carolina barbecue is never sliced. But that is where the similarities end. Differences between Eastern and Western barbecue styles lie in almost every other aspect of the process, from the type of meat to the finishing touches and side dishes.
Eastern style is simply plain whole-hog pork meat, cooked to perfection with the tiniest bit of a vinegar-based sauce that is used as a moistening agent during the slow-cooking process. It can be served alone, with coleslaw and hushpuppies, or as a sandwich. Any way you eat it, Eastern barbecue is all about simplicity and perfect cooking.
Western NC barbecue is made from the pork shoulder instead of the whole hog, and it has a distinct tomato-based sauce that separates it in both taste and appearance from its Eastern rival. Western chefs often add brown sugar and anything else they can think of to make their signature secret sauces, from Worcestershire to white lightnin.
Flips BBQ House (Oleander Drive) has been a Wilmington favorite since 1950 it is the oldest restaurant in continuous operation in town and has been run by just two families in 58 years. Current owner Bob Church has owned the restaurant for 23 years. Flips is famous for its chopped barbecue, but is equally popular for offering sliced, as well. Everything is homemade, from the barbecue that is cooked for 12 hours, to the potato salad and coleslaw. Flips uses the Boston butt of the hog, which Church considers to be the filet mignon of pork. Flips meticulous cooking process and attention to detail has earned the restaurant its share of regulars, including one man who comes in five days a week. "We also have some people from Asheville, who every time theyre in town, come in and take home pounds of barbecue," says Church. "They love the Eastern style, and they cant get it like this at home."
Carolina BBQ (S. College Road) has been open for four years but already has a strong reputation. Co-owner Clint Proctor thinks the name of the restaurant is a bit of a misnomer, since it actually offers a 75-80 piece buffet every day, but the barbecue definitely stands out. Proctor says Carolina BBQ uses the Boston butt, as well, which makes for a less fatty product. They make their Eastern-style sauce in-house, and among the smorgasbord of food at the buffet, they also have Western-style, a rarity in this part of the state. The restaurant even has some regulars that come in seven days a week. "You know what time it is by when they walk in the door," Proctor says.
Caseys Buffet, Barbecue and Home Cookin (also on Oleander Drive) prides itself on true Southern cooking, and the restaurants barbecue exemplifies the quintessential Eastern North Carolina staple. Owner and Chef Larry Casey says the restaurant uses a combination of the whole hog and shoulders for the meat, but his trick is in the sauce and the preparation. Like any barbecue scientist, Casey has experimented to create his own secret sauce, and he cooks the pork "low and slow." But what sets Caseys barbecue apart is that he doesnt chop all the meat at once. "Once you pull or chop pork, it starts to lose its moisture," says Casey. "So we just pull a little bit at a time and put it out on the buffet to keep it as fresh and moist as possible."
A distinct vinegar and pepper aroma hits you once you step out of your car at Jacksons Big Oak Barbecue (S. Kerr Avenue). Jacksons has been serving Eastern-style barbecue for 24 years, with three generations of the Jackson family carefully seasoning and slow-cooking pork shoulders to reach the perfect balance. Loyal regulars come in anywhere from twice a week to every day for the famous barbecue and popular sides and desserts like collard greens, Brunswick stew and banana pudding. Owner Terri Barker says that one of the best things about the restaurant is seeing people grow up on Jacksons. "We have kids now who are in college whose mothers were coming in here when they were pregnant with them," says Barker. "We call them our barbecue babies."
Whether your taste is for Eastern or Western North Carolina barbecue, collards, coleslaw or a hefty helping of hushpuppies, theres a local barbecue joint that can quell your craving. While youre digging in to a heaping helping of barbecue and fixins, just remember that theres a lot more to what youre eating than what first meets the mouth.
Local barbecue restaurants arent in any kind of hurry to divulge the secrets to how they prepare perfect pork getting someones secret barbecue recipe, in fact, is a lot like getting change for a penny. As a result, we have included a basic sauce recipe that you can tweak into your own secret concoction. But dont despair; the next time you throw a huge party with your own barbecue as the main attraction, our local barbeque establishments have shared some of their best side dishes to complete your spread. Just keep in mind that when we say huge party, we mean huge these recipes serve 100!
Flips BBQ House Hushpuppies
5 pounds all-purpose flour
5 pounds cornmeal
2 pints sugar
1 pint buttermilk
Mix all ingredients together, and add water until the dough reaches a gummy consistency. Form dough into small balls, about 1 1/2 -2 inches, and deep fry in 350-degree oil until golden brown.
Caseys Basic Eastern North Carolina Barbecue Sauce
2 quarts apple cider vinegar, 5 percent acidity
1/2 cup salt
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 tablespoon crushed red pepper
Mix ingredients together for a basic Eastern barbecue sauce. Every chef has his own variation on the classic, so experiment with cayenne pepper, paprika and any other spices you can think of to make your own secret sauce!
Carolina BBQ Coleslaw
25 pounds of cabbage
1 gallon of mayonnaise
6 cups of sugar
Chop the cabbage very finely, and be sure to include some of the leaves for color. Add mayonnaise and sugar, and mix together with clean, gloved hands.
Caseys Boiled Potatoes
10 pounds white potatoes, peeled and quartered
2 pounds butter or margarine
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1 tablespoon black pepper
2 tablespoons salt
2 cups dry parsley
Put all ingredients in a large pot, cover with water, and bring to a boil on medium heat. Boil for 20-30 minutes, or until potatoes are fork tender.
Variation: Substitute parsley with two cups of paprika.
Puppies, slaw and beans
Everyone loves hushpuppies. These fried cornbread snacks are a delicious traditional barbecue accompaniment that exemplify the saying, "You cant eat just one." But where did the name "hushpuppies" come from? The stories vary, but one legend dates the name back to the Civil War. When Yankee troops were approaching a Confederate camp, the Confederate soldiers would feed the Yankees dogs the fried dough with the command, "Hush, puppies!"
Cole slaw can take many forms, but the traditional Southern version is all about simplicity. Cabbage, mayonnaise and sugar is all you need to create the perfect complement to a plate of barbecue because whenever barbecue is being served, it is a sure bet that some slaw is on the table, too.
You need something to balance out all that protein in barbecue, so a hefty helping of fiber from baked beans is a perfect addition to your plate. Southern baked beans are just one of a plethora of baked bean varieties, but they have some flair that sets them apart from their leguminous comrades. Yellow mustard is a uniquely Southern addition to baked beans, that have, of course, copious amounts of sugar in the form of maple syrup, brown sugar and ketchup. Most recipes also call for bacon or pork, but no matter how you tweak the classic, baked beans and barbecue make a perfect pair.