On top of each table at Picnic, Durham's new craft barbecue joint, a bottle of sauce—or "dip," if your allegiances lean toward Lexington—claims to offer the perfect compromise between North Carolina's two vernacular regions of smoked pig. But Picnic's true place in the state's great barbecue debate is not at the midpoint along the Down East and Piedmont continuum but instead on a vertical axis that extends in a new direction, from the very best of our indigenous food traditions.
This food seeks no hiding places behind artifice or distraction; the entire menu is blatantly straightforward, highlighting the inherent goodness of the ingredients, prepared to honor the traditions they represent. The judicious use of adjectives on the menu showcases this understated excellence. Picnic does nearly everything very well and with great intention, balancing the wholly authentic and thoroughly unpretentious.
Wyatt Dickson's commitment to barbecue orthodoxy is complete, yielding pitch-perfect pork sourced from Bahama's Green Button Farm, a dozen miles up the road. The quality reflects Dickson's emphasis on honoring North Carolina's most revered (and contentious) cuisine by slow cooking over hardwood coals. The irregular percussion of meat cleavers that fills many barbecue places is conspicuously absent here, evidencing Dickson's dogmatic insistence on classic practices. The pork is not sliced or chopped but rather pulled from the pig's carcass just before it's served. The tail-to-snout attention of the preparation follows through to the literal last minute.
The meat is smoky and succulent, with the occasional cracklin for crunch. It arrives unsauced and unadorned, concealing nothing and revealing the quality and complexity that come from eighteen hours amid wood smoke. Not unlike a perfectly played pedal steel guitar, Picnic's barbecue has the ethereal ability to pick you up from where you are and carry you someplace a little bit better.
The side dishes of chef Ben Adams live up to the considerable task of belonging on the same plate. They are clean in flavor and purpose, providing the main ingredients the necessary spotlight. The Brunswick stew, for instance, tastes exactly as it should, with a touch of sweetness from the fresh corn and tomatoes balancing the sturdiness of the meat and lima beans. A friend said Picnic's Brunswick stew "tastes like your best memories at the county fair." Though we come from different counties, I nodded.
As with much else at Picnic, the stew manages the complex trick of being improved-upon and true to tradition. The constituent ingredients in the dill potato salad, baked beans, and collards maintain their integrity and foremost place in the bowl. The herbs in the potato salad, the molasses and bits of meat in the beans, and the bacon in the greens offer harmony, not distraction. The cucumber pickles maintain just the right bite, with the brine complemented by red pepper and rosemary. The pimento cheese, featured in the mac and cheese and as a stand-alone, manages to taste like actual pimentos and bona fide cheese, not orange spackle mixed with mayo.
Speaking of appearances, some Southerners will recognize the sweet potatoes as "Senator Russell Potatoes," with a smattering of crushed pecans atop pureed tubers. But this version lacks the brain-numbing, teeth-rotting sweetness of the one named for the Georgia segregationist; a light texture and seasoning make stars of the sweet potatoes.
While evidently made of high-quality corn meal, the skinny, near-shoestring hush puppies came out cool and a few hours old. Surely, pups fresh from the fryer would be a more fitting side for a plate of barbecue or blackened catfish of this caliber.
Picnic is a barbecue joint, a fact that makes the strength of its fried chicken unfair for competitors. The chicken, on offer as a sandwich or as a quarter chicken plate, could occupy center stage at a restaurant of its own. The bird is smoked and fried, with a breading that's almost impossibly light and crispy. A honey-and-chile hot sauce, which may well have a second life as a country digestif, arrives on top. (Picnic should also consider selling its potlikker by the shot.) It's easy to make bad fried chicken, so it's a praiseworthy feat to make it light and delicious enough to give diners a moment of understandable indecision when choosing between pig or fowl.
The dessert offerings are surprising neither in quality nor content. The customary finale for a pig pickin', banana pudding, is obviously homemade, with strong flavors of vanilla and custard. A slightly salty caramel sauce accentuates the chocolate chess pie, which finds the spot between delicacy and density.
Some barbecue traditionalists and Tar Heel natives might balk at the elevated prices—$13.95 for a pulled pork plate, $12.95 for a quarter chicken. But these costs reflect the excellence of the ingredients themselves, the depth of preparation, and the all-important taste. Based on the crowds at Picnic every time I've visited, customers seem to recognize that paying more for local products cooked skillfully is, indeed, worth it. Put another way, this food costs what it should cost.
For those of us who grew up in North Carolina, Picnic is akin to lived nostalgia, where your most beloved memories are realized on the plate. The best food is nourishing not only because of how it tastes, but also for how it can connect us to a sense of rootedness and belonging. Picnic understands this geographical genealogy. Dickson and Adams honor those traditions by innovating—at least insofar as focusing on the very best ingredients can be considered innovation.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Farm to Pork"