By Beth Nevarez
For the past several years the Tobacco Farm Life Museum has hosted a BBQ Cook Off event in November. Unfortunately, this year we have cancelled the event due to the COVID-19 pandemic and all of the uncertainty around hosting a large event. We normally have 6 to 8 pig cookers who produce about 300-400 pounds of delicious barbecue. The event includes entertainment, vendors, demonstrators, and more family-friendly fun. While we will miss hosting the BBQ Cookoff this year, we do look forward to making the event bigger and better when we are able to hold it again.
Hog butchering at Penderlea Farms in 1936. Image from Library of Congress.
This year we thought we would “root out” the history of North Carolina BBQ and share it with you here on the museum’s blog this month. November, the month of our usual event, was selected for a number of reasons. One is that it’s cool enough to make the transfer of the hogs from refrigerated truck to grill safer and easier than in the heat of the summer. For the same reason, it was also historically when families and communities in Eastern NC in the late 19th and early 20th centuries would start holding their hog killing gatherings. A hog killing was done in preparation for the winter—families slaughtered hogs and prepared meat in a number of ways that would keep well through the winter, a time when fresh foods were scarce. The byproducts of processing the meat were also used to make things such as lard, which was used for cooking throughout the year as well as in the making of lye soap. Meat was often processed into smoked sausage, and hams were salted for preservation and hung in the smokehouse.
Rendering fat after a hog killing in Maxton, NC. Image from Library of Congress.
While pork can be eaten in many ways, North Carolina barbecue is particularly famous. What are the origins of North Carolina BBQ? And which type is truly North Carolina BBQ—Eastern or Piedmont/Lexington style? This author, born and raised in Wilson County, would argue that Eastern style-- vinegar-based sauce without tomato, whole-hog, chopped on the grill --barbecue IS North Carolina BBQ and is the best barbecue anywhere. I will never be convinced otherwise, but apparently, the piedmont and western parts of the state would disagree. Below we explore the history and lore of North Carolina BBQ.
North Carolina barbecue is defined as “meat that has been barbecued—that is, cooked for a long time at a low temperature with heat and smoke from a fire of hardwood and/or hardwood coals; that meat being pork – whole hog, shoulder, or (occasionally) ham; sometimes basted and always served with a thin sauce or “dip” that is at most only a slight variation on a traditional recipe including vinegar, red pepper, and maybe (or maybe not) tomato.” (Holy Smoke)
Barbecue can now be found in places across the country, but its American origins are in North Carolina. As barbecue spread across the country it changed in many ways. North Carolina BBQ has held true to its definition for generations. References to “a whole Hog barbecu’d” date back to the 1700s. Other meats were common in early North Carolina and many were also cooked whole over a barbecue; however, the term barbecue to mean the dish that resulted from pork cooked on a grill has a long precedent. You can have barbecued beef or chicken but it isn’t barbecue and other meats were not referred to as barbecue historically. Pork was a favorite due to its plentiful availability and relatively inexpensive cost and when grilled, chopped, and sauced it came to be called simply barbecue.
East vs. West
The sauce of Eastern North Carolina barbecue has pretty much remained the same since the early to mid-1800s —some combination of vinegar, peppers, and lard or butter. Barbecue in the Piedmont region of the state was very similar to Eastern NC BBQ throughout the 19th century. However, around the time of World War I (1914-1918) a new version of barbecue emerged in the Piedmont where barbecue stands were cooking just parts of the hog –loins, hams, and shoulders—instead of the whole hog. And they were adding tomato ketchup, which had recently become widely available thanks to the commercial bottling of it by companies like Heinz, to the traditional vinegar-and-pepper sauce. By World War II the distinctions between Eastern and Piedmont style barbecues was clear: “The defenders of Eastern orthodoxy took pride in doing it the old way, Piedmont folks were equally proud of their new and improved product, and each region claimed its ‘cue was better.” (Holy Smoke) North Carolinians have been arguing about the best barbecue ever since.
A cook chopping barbecue at one of our past events.
Long-Standing BBQ Restaurants Near the Museum
Like North Carolina BBQ itself, many restaurants that serve it have developed their own lore. There are several historic barbecue joints in Eastern NC, many of which are not too far from the Tobacco Farm Life Museum. According to Bob Garner’s North Carolina Barbecue, Eastern North Carolina barbecue is concentrated in tobacco centers. Farmers used to celebrate the end of the tobacco harvest with a pig picking. (Many still do today.) Garner says, “It is no coincidence that the best eastern barbecue restaurants are in the tobacco-market towns of Rocky Mount, Wilson, and Goldsboro. It is at these restaurants where farmers often celebrate selling their tobacco with a convivial barbecue meal with friends and associates.” Below are just a few Eastern NC BBQ restaurants that have stood the test of time.
The Skylight Inn, Ayden, NC
Pete Jones, after cooking barbecue for his uncle, opened his own barbecue business in 1947. At one point known as the barbecue capital of the world, The Skylight Inn has hosted presidents and celebrities, but the place, its décor, and its cooking methods haven’t changed much, if at all, over the years. Jones did have a silver-painted wooden dome, like the one on the US Capitol building, added to his brick building. His great-great-grandfather sold barbecue out of a covered wagon starting around 1830 and the family business carried on. The restaurant still serves barbecue, cooked in the traditional way-- whole hog over wood.
Parker’s, Wilson, NC
Parker’s Barbecue opened on U.S. 301 in 1946 and is one of the most famous barbecue restaurants in North Carolina. Opened in the midst of a transportation boom as well as Wilson’s tobacco market heyday, the restaurant quickly built a reputation. Founded by Graham and Ralph Parker, brothers, and their cousin Henry Parker Brewer, the restaurant is well-known for its no-nonsense décor and its waitstaff—a battery of young men all dressed in white aprons and white-paper, drive-in style hats.
Wilber’s Barbecue, Goldsboro, NC
Wilber’s, like Skylight Inn, still cooks whole hogs all-night over oak embers on open pits. Wilber’s makes a special sauce, which, like other Eastern NC BBQ establishments, contains vinegar, salt, red pepper, black pepper, and other spices. The other spices are where different sauces diverge a bit. Wilber’s is also unique in serving potato salad as a side dish.
White Swan, Smithfield, NC
Another long-standing barbecue restaurant, the White Swan boasts a family recipe used for 89 years. Like the others listed here, it boasts a relatively limited menu of barbecue, fried chicken, slaw, and hushpuppies.
What’s your favorite local barbecue restaurant? Do you prefer hush puppies or cornbread or corn sticks? Slaw or no slaw? Tell us about your connection to North Carolina barbecue. What stories and history is tied up with this beloved food of our state? Let us know!
Want to learn more about NC BBQ History? There is much more to it than we could fit in a blog post. Check out the below books to dive deeper.
Rien Fertel, The One True Barbecue: Fire, Smoke, and the Pitmasters Who Cook the Whole Hog,” (New York: Touchstone), 2016.
John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed with William McKinney, Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press), 2008.
Bob Garner, North Carolina Barbecue: Flavored by Time, (Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair Publisher), 1996.