"You know what's great about this? It's pretty much the most diverse group you could possibly imagine—different ages, different industries, different walks of life."
A middle-aged white man leans in to tell me this as I'm standing in a chilled meat-processing lab at N.C. State, surrounded by more middle-aged white men. The diversity he is observing isn't evident to me. In fact, I am the only woman in the room. Every single man here is my father's age. There is one person of color present.
I'm at N.C. State's BBQ Camp, a thirty-six-hour event that has run annually for the last three years. The price of admission ranges from $450 to $550—an expensive opportunity for home chefs to sharpen their barbecue skills, share smoking strategies, and be delighted by the toys in the lab, a place typically reserved for university students learning the ins and outs of meat processing. But today, adult men are here, enraptured by an industrial sausage grinder.
The program is aptly named; it is very camp-like. Campers introduce themselves and count off into groups for competitive games, trading the Capture the Flag experience of their youth for a more sophisticated culinary competition, like who can spice up the best dry rub for a rack of ribs. Several of the participants grew up in rural North Carolina but now live in cities like Raleigh or Charlotte. As they share their names, backgrounds, and stories of barbecue, a sense of nostalgia permeates the room.
A few men are from outside of the South, identifying barbecue as their first step in understanding this state. I can't help but wonder if they've come to the right place.
Their conversations make it apparent that many of them hold whole-hog cooking in higher esteem than any other form of barbecue, perhaps because they understand its cultural significance in North Carolina. Barbecue pork generates both adoration and argument—and they're going to do it right if they're doing it at all. They came here drawn by the promise of watching a professional break down a whole hog.
But as a food studies student at UNC-Chapel Hill, I'm used to having a different conversation about barbecue than the one that happened at this camp. Barbecue has always been connected to race, climate change, and politics. The New Yorker once called barbecue "America's most political food." Before the Civil War, enslaved African Americans Nat Turner and Gabriel Prosser did much of the planning for their slave rebellions at barbecues. The Civil Rights Act was upheld in a Supreme Court case brought by a barbecue restaurant in South Carolina.
None of those topics were mentioned here. Instead, the complexities of barbecue are glossed over. A few times, for example, Mexican mole is heralded as a "Mexican barbecue sauce," yet there's no mention of the immigrants who hold up so many parts of our food system. There's talk of where to get the best brisket, but no discussion of the environmental impact of cattle farming. Even as a whole hog from the Nahunta Pork Center is sliced apart, no mention is made of hog farmers dying from exposure to the animals' waste just a hundred miles down Interstate 40.
I wonder why these men are here. Robert Eades, a mulch manufacturer from near Lake Norman, tells me he came to camp for the community.
"I wanted to be around other people who were interested in the same thing as me," he tells me as we sample dry-rubbed ribs. "Community was a really important part of barbecue traditionally, and I think this is an extension of that."
Of course, he's correct. Barbecue has historically been a food for everyone—cheap enough for the worker, but delicious enough to tempt even the U.S. president into partaking, like President Obama on a visit to Charlotte. But the community present at this particular meeting doesn't reflect this nuanced history. It is no longer egalitarian.
This camp isn't about understanding North Carolina. In fact, this barbecue suffers from a distinct lack of a sense of place, even down to the vinegar and ketchup sitting side by side on a table—which, as we all know here in North Carolina, is barbecue blasphemy.
Beyond that, important context is lost. For example, when you eat at restaurants like Allen and Son, where a barbecue plate runs you $6.75, you're condoning the practices of companies like the Chinese-owned Murphy-Brown, which is being sued by five hundred primarily black residents of North Carolina for horrible effects on their health and environment. At more upscale restaurants like Picnic, which sources local, sustainably raised meat directly from Green Button Farm, the price is beyond what many North Carolinians can afford. So what are we supposed to do?
This group of thirty-one men obsessed with barbecue could easily have this crucial conversation. They already share a clear interest in preserving traditional barbecue techniques. One man asks if there is a barbecue museum where he could donate a vintage smoker he recently purchased. But the wider cultural importance of those traditions doesn't exist in the group's discussions.
Certainly, N.C. State's barbecue camp represents some important changes. Natalie Ramsey, the female pitmaster and owner of Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge in Shelby, is treated with the utmost respect in the final roundtable discussion. During this conversation, Bob Garner, UNC-TV's resident barbecue expert and author of several books on the subject, asks the men to identify themselves as pure traditionalists or as "barbecue explorers." The room is split almost exactly down the middle. He also talks about how his old concern that barbecue culture would die with the last generation of pitmasters has been alleviated by camps like this one.
Times have changed since then—barbecue is certainly not at risk of dying. But the risk that we'll lose the communities that made it important in the first place remains.
This article appeared in print with the headline "White Meat"