Sunday, February 08, 2009

Holy Smoke: A Book Review

There's a beautiful full moon tonight and for the first time this winter, there are no clouds. It would be perfect conditions to ski at night, except that we have had temperatures reaching into the 50s F and much of the snow is gone! Last week, I wrote about cookin' pigs. Here's the book that I referred to in that post.

John Shelton Reed & Dale Volberg Reed with William McKinney, Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 315 pages, plenty of photographs and recipes and more sidebars than you can shake a stick at.

North Carolina has the world’s best barbecue. If you don’t believe it, just ask anyone from the Old North State. And if you can’t believe us, go ask John Shelton Reed and his wife, two Tennesseans, or their South Carolina helper William McKinney (I’m assuming he was a graduate student working for peanuts or maybe barbecue platters). This unholy trinity set out to write the definitive book on North Carolina barbecue.

The real question for most North Carolinians isn’t whether or North Carolina has the best barbecue, but who has the best barbecue within the state. Reed refers to the state as the “Balkans of barbecue.” Those of us who grew up in the eastern part of the state came from the “whole hog” tradition and tended to use a sauce that’s mostly vinegar and peppers. Those from the Piedmont area of the state tend to slather their pork shoulders with a vinegar sauce diluted with tomato ketchup. The best of both traditions slowly cook their meat on coals, preferably hardwood. If not wood, the best barbecuers use charcoal, but never gas. (As a friend of mine use to say about gas grills, you might as well buy yourself a Jenn Air and stick it on your patio.) In the Piedmont, where hickory trees are more plentiful, that’s still the choice wood for barbecuing and there are still many restaurants with a hut or shed out back where they slowly cook their meat over coals.

The Reeds explore the history of barbecue. One theory is that the word came from a native tradition which was observed by the Spanish in the West Indies and called “barbacoa.” A similar word appears in the state in the late 17th Century, as a part of Hertford County that was named “Barbicue Swamp.” A swamp in Harnett Country was called Barbecue Swamp, supposedly because the mist that often covered these swamps reminded an earlier settler of the barbacoa smoke he’d seen in the West Indies. In the mid-18th Century, Highland Scots poured into this area and one of their first churches was named the Barbecue Church, one of the first of many Presbyterian Churches in the Upper Cape Fear region (and hence, my tie to the tradition). Although at first, any meat cooked slowly over coals was called barbecue. Later, in North Carolina, barbecue became synonymous with grilled pork.

The Reeds explore the development of barbecue in North Carolina. In the past, cooking pigs were often done as a celebration at the end of harvest for plantation workers, or as dinners thrown by politicians. Such feasts still exist. (If my readers remember, I wrote about attending such a barbecue for a politician who’d gotten off a corruption charge.) In time, barbecue went from being only done for large social gatherings, to an everyday event served up in barbecue restaurants. The Reeds spend much time discussing the development of the barbecue establishments which dot the North Carolina landscape, each one unique and different. The last third of the book consist of interviews of various barbecue restaurateurs.

The middle portion of the book discusses the variety of food served with barbecue. There’s the barbecue platter with meat, hushpuppies or cornbread, slaw Brunswick stew and other side dishes, along with a cobbler or banana pudding for dessert (I’ve done post describing my method for hushpuppies and Brunswick Stew, cornbread, banana pudding and even cookin’ hogs). Then there’s fast food barbecue, the sandwich consisting of barbecue and slaw. This section of the book includes all kinds of recipes, including a Pepsi Cola cake and of all things Krispy Kreme Bread Pudding. The Reeds are right that most barbecue places serve sweet tea and, if you’re like me, you have to ask to get your tea unsweetened. Reed spends little time discussing alcohol and barbecue. Granted, most barbecue restaurants don’t serve beer or wine (and I agree with him that wine and barbecue is a little farfetched), but I’ve never been to a pig roast where there wasn’t a few bottles of bourbon (often whiskey from his home state of Tennessee). The bottles may not have been out in the open, but you can bet the guys watching the fire overnight took nourishment from the bottle as they swapped stories and keep an eye on the fire.

This is a fun book and although the Reeds are from Tennessee and John Shelton’s politics (which comes out in another of his books that I've reviewed, Whistling Dixie) is a bit more conservative than mine, there’s much to be recommend in here. But one warning, it’s a rather expensive book. Mine came as a Christmas present!

For other book reviews by Sage, click here.
For Semicolon's Saturday's list of book reviews in blogs, click here.


  1. Adding it to my gift list! Sounds like just the read for my husband who is head over heels for NC BBQ. It is pretty awesome.

  2. more sidebars than you can shake a stick at.


    I've had NC BBQ before - yummmmmm! My friends had it for their son's first birthday party - lol. I don't think he ate any of it, but we all sure enjoyed it!!!

    Slaw on top of the BBQ or no in the Sage house?

  3. I don't want to read, just want to eat. Can you cook for me? :) Oh clarification, can you make a BBQ without getting the meat burnt? I have been avoiding burnt meat since my bio chemistry class years ago. And that means I have been actively avoiding BBQ too.

  4. I love to eat it, but I never cook it myself. I had a friend whose sister lived in California. Every time she went to CA to visit, she had a standing order for 2 things: a gallon of NC barbecue and a pound of fudge from the state fair.

  5. One of the things on my bucket list is to eat a barbeque sandwich with slaw on the top.

  6. I've only seen whole pigs cooked for luaus

  7. I don't usually eat meat but in New York we order from two barbecue restaurants that specialize in NC, and I'm a total devotee. Here most of the barbecue is vinegar which normally I love but after NC

    There's a great mystery series by Margaret Maron that take place in the North Carolina hills. Gives a lot of history, tradition, socio/ecoonomic stuff-- a reason I love a good mystery series. Effortless learning about a place and people while I figure out who done it :)

    Read them before I ever suspected i would be moving to the Carolinas. Actually preordered one coming out this summer--the heroine goes to Wilmington :)

    I don't think I could do a pig barbecue--the Jew thing--maybe if they come in ribs

  8. Kontan, You're in a perfect area for some good barbecue!

    TC, yes, for a BBQ sandwich, I add slaw on top of the meat

    Mother Hen, sometimes I think it would be fun to run a restaurant, then I remember it's a loto f work. But to answer you question, yes I can cook it without burning it.

    Kenju, in the book, there are stories of barbecue places shipping meat around the country, the customer paying as much for shipping as for the meat!

    Ed, that's the NC way.

    Diane, Luau pigs seem small (at least in the pictures, I've never been to one) compared to the hogs that get cooked in NC--but anytime you cook it slow and over coals, it's gonna be good.

  9. Pia, what happened to your name, it came in as "pis"? I like to cook babyback ribs in a vingear sauce in dutch ovens! I don't know Margaret Maron, I'll have to check her out (but I'm not a big mystery reader).

  10. This book has been on my wish list for at least a couple of months. I may have to break down and buy it now!

  11. I hate to say it and as much as I love North Carolina I actually like Memphis bbq better. And so does Martin. We are in the minority I know. But, that said, I would really like to go to the Lexington bbq festival. I still love bbq here, it is just Memphis has my favorite.

  12. BBQ coking is something I can't do. Maybe I ought to check it out!

  13. Something new to me. How are you sage?

  14. Most of the bbq places here offer slaw, potato chips, baked beans, or potato salad as side options.

    And I was well into my teens before I even knew there was such a thing as UNsweetened tea.

  15. I'm back and catching up.

    I've not tried NC Barbecue, but Memphis barbecue sounds similar, i.e. vinegar and spice based sauces. I prefer slow, hickory smoked and pre-rubbed meats with very little sauce, although my tastes alternate between vinegar-spice and tomato based sauces.

    Bottom line: All BBQ is good.


  16. I have no preferences when it comes to BBQ, whatsoever other than it's really messy and I don't know how to properly eat a rib (i.e. suck everything off of it until it's just the bone). I don't like the constant hand and mouth wiping.

  17. Yes, I must admit all BBQ works for me. It's the beer chaser that I'm fussy about.

  18. hmmmmmm, not much into BBQ but when it comes to snow being gone here in Michigan, that I can relate to!

  19. I saw the word hushpuppy and started salivating :)