Jim Early, founder of the North Carolina Barbecue Society and author of The Best Tar Heel Barbecue Manteo to Murphy, recently finished his latest project, compiling the NCBS Historic Barbecue Trail. At each of the 25 pit stops on the 500-mile trail is an old-fashioned barbecue establishment where pork is cooked in a traditional way that Early says is rare.
How did you compile this trail?
I traveled to every one of 100 counties trying to find the best barbecue. I traveled 22,000 miles and talked to over 1,800 people and critiqued 228 barbecue places. I put 140 in the book. I was surprised to learn how few were still cooking old style with pits over charcoal. They have to hire a pitmaster, they have to pay higher insurance by virtue of having open flame, they have to continually dance with the environmental people about making smoke. They work longer hours because it's a 16- to 18-hour process. They have to sell their product competitively with the 99 percent of places cooking with electricity and gas. I just wanted to say thank you.
Is there an event connected with it?
On Oct. 6 and 7, the North Carolina Barbecue Society is presenting the Tar Heel Barbecue Classic in Raleigh. We'll bring together a large number of the people on the trail, so the public can experience some of the 25 pits. The eastern and western icons have never come together and done anything before.
Will you keep them on opposite sides of the street?
No, the Barbecue Society is not about perpetuating a war. This is about performing a wedding. We want marriage, not mayhem. We've been shooting ourselves in the foot by perpetuating the warring factions of the east and west. We're missing a chance if we don't unite in a matter of state pride and promote North Carolina as the cradle of 'cue, cause it started here, the barbecue capital of the world.
What are those distinct styles?
In the east, they cook the whole hog and chop it all together. They have a vinegar-based sauce which is primarily mild vinegar with water, a little sugar and black pepper, crushed red pepper. Some put a little habañero on there and cook it down. In the Lexington area, they take a vinegar-based sauce and add some form of tomato—paste, puree or ketchup—and brown sugar and spices. It's kind of a sweet and sour, where the eastern is more tangy. In then west they call it dip, and in the east they call it sauce.
What sort of barbecue did you grow up with?
I was born in Henderson, and there were several really good barbecue places, and still are. There was a black man named Warner Evans. He put corn cobs on top of his coals for seasoning. I was a little boy and my imagination was as long as my arm. I had seen the World War II newsreels at the movie theater, and he would let me play like my corn cob was a B51 Mustang and sail it into his pit to make the coals poof up like a bomb.
I've eaten barbecue in the lower 48, Alaska and Scotland; I've eaten roast kudu in the bush with Zulu trackers in Africa; I've eaten mutton with the wealthy landowners in South Africa on their farms; I've eaten ribs in all the best places in Memphis and beef in Texas. I liked it all. But I like ours better. It's just different.
For more information, visit ncbbqsociety.com/trail.html.