You can raise the price on North Carolina pork barbecue. You can put brisket on the menu. You can even sell chicken from the most traditional pig-purveying huts. But a wine list at a barbecue joint? For The New Yorker, that is a modern-day deal-breaker.
At least that's how Calvin Trillin ends his early November piece on the state of Tar Heel 'cue. Those other tweaks are within reason, notes Trillin, but he and his traveling companion, UNC professor John Shelton Reed, can find little excuse for the selection of fermented grapes at Durham's The Pit—"an effort to do authentic barbecue in a trendy setting." It's simply "wrong," Reed notes.
Trillin's 4,000-word exploration of the state's smoked meats ticks through all the requisite tropes: He illuminates the smoldering divide between the shoulders topped with a ketchup-heavy sauce, endemic to the state's west, and the east's pulled, chopped and vinegar-drunk recipe. He indulges unapologetic nostalgia for old methods and mores, essentially serving as a mouthpiece for an organization working to maintain them. And, of course, he makes a college basketball joke.
But in diving headlong into efforts to preserve North Carolina's atavistic approach, Trillin overlooks thoughtful attempts to reimagine our beloved barbecue in a changing South in ways that do more than add expense and extravagance. In fact, to my mind, he missed some of the best barbecue in the state, even if it's not barbecue at all: soy, smoked low and slow, pulled apart by hand and drenched with a vinegar-based sauce. It is a regional delicacy, reinvented for reasons beyond upscale dining.
Caroline Morrison—the head chef and co-owner of The Fiction Kitchen, blocks away from Raleigh's own Pit—grew up in Roanoke Rapids, a mid-size town wedged between the Virginia border and the Carolina coast. She ate the pulled or chopped pork of her region at tiny restaurants and family pig pickings until she became a vegetarian early in college. But she missed the smoke and chew of the barbecue, prompting a backyard mission to re-create it.
The process took years, but her barbecue—now served at The Fiction Kitchen with a heaping mound of slaw, a pillow-top potato cake and a side of savory greens—is perhaps the pièce de résistance of her restaurant. It's her heritage, reimagined for her life.
Perhaps on his next trip to North Carolina, Trillin will visit. Here's hoping he doesn't mind the sake selection.
INDY: You grew up eating pulled pork in little North Carolina restaurants. But when did you realize it was such a regional delicacy?
CAROLINE MORRISON: It was elementary school, when we went to Texas. One of my dad's Vietnam buddies said, "We're gonna have barbecue." He just meant putting stuff on the grill. It didn't have anything to do with what kind of animal it was, or what kind of sauce it was. He was just barbecuing.
And then I went to college at Cullowhee in western Carolina. There was a smokehouse nearby. You had four different sauces that were on the table to put on your brisket or different cuts, either cow or pork. There was a mustard-based sauce, a tomato-based sauce, a vinegar sauce and a hot sauce. And they had Texas Pete. They were calling it all barbecue. The first year, I spent a lot of time at the smokehouse. I really liked the textures, the smoked flavor, and I liked the idea of slow, low cooking.
But you became a vegetarian shortly thereafter, right?
I passed out in the hallway in college with wing sauce all over my face, after devouring wings all over the bone. I decided I needed a lifestyle change after a case of Anheuser-Busch and wings.
I had started to think about the impact on the environment. Steak was one of the biggest things I ate when I was younger, but I said, "I don't think I need to eat this animal to survive anymore. How can I eat to survive without feeling bad about eating a cow?" The cafeteria was not making vegetarian stuff, so I had to come up with a plan to sustain myself. I just felt that I would feel better about myself. Passing out like that, I was just in a bad place. Part of it was habits, like eating chicken. It's just so accessible and easy to eat crap food and not think about how the animal was treated or what happened to the animal during their death or their life.