Eastern North Carolina Barbecue
Just about everywhere you go in this part of North Carolina, it seems pork barbecue is offered on the menu. It’s a traditional way of preparing pig, so traditional that it seems to predate colonial times.
It’s mostly conjecture masquerading as an educated guess, but general consensus is the word “barbecue” came from the language of the Caribbean Native Americans. Their word “barbacoa” seems to translate to a sacred fire pit in which game is cooked over the embers of a fire.
Most everyone in North Carolina swears by pork barbecue, but it’s important to note that hogs are not native to North America. There’s little doubt that early Spanish explorers and English settlers brought over pigs and released them into the wild. After release, pigs are referred to as wild boar, and they showed a remarkable ability to adapt to their new environment. With few natural predators, they actually thrived in the New World.
From the settlers’ point of view, there were few negatives about the introduction of pigs. They were able to forage on their own and were a ready source of meat and protein. The only downside was that wild boar could be vicious when approached in the wild.
Ultimately, one problem that did arise was how to cook a wild pig, which averages 175-200 pounds in size. The ultimate solution was to dig a fire pit and slow cook the meat all day. What distinguishes barbecue from other forms of meat preparation is how it is cooked. To become true barbecue, the meat must be slow cooked over a bed of wood coals. As the meat cooks the smoke from the coals infuses the meat with remarkably complex flavors.
Every region of the country has its own style of barbecue. Eastern North Carolina barbecue is a vinegar based barbecue with pepper flakes mixed with the vinegar. There is no way to prove this, but logic indicates this may be one of the original forms of barbecue. With no refrigeration available, one of the best ways to preserve meat would have been to pickle it; therefore, the addition of vinegar was not only tasty, but was born out of necessity.
There are a couple of places on the Outer Banks preparing traditional eastern North Carolina barbecue. Will Thorp’s version at “High Cotton” in Kitty Hawk is very good. During the Barbecue Cook-off at the 2014 Taste of the Beach event, “Crazy Johnny’s Bar-B-Que” in Buxton served up pulled pork that was wonderful. My opinion is “The Blue Point” in Duck may have the best around but it’s only available at lunch.
If you’re used to tomato based barbecue served in the rest of the country, the first taste of eastern NC barbecue can be a shock, and although it is addictively delicious, it’s not classically considered a gourmet food.
I remember a conversation I had with Leonard Logan, proprietor of “Elizabeth’s Café” in Duck. Leonard probably knows more about wine than anyone I’ve met and his café serves truly classic cuisine. We got to talking about eastern NC barbecue and he was waxing poetic about its virtues. Curiosity got the better of me and I asked him, “What wine goes well with barbeque?” His cryptic one word response was perfect. “Beer,” he immediately replied.