East Vs. West: North Carolina Pulled Pork
Enlarge Image Credit: Todd Coleman
When it comes to regional styles of North Carolina barbecue, you are what you eat
Thinking back on it now, my husband's mother had every reason to be concerned. Her son had brought home an artsy Yankee girl who didn't know beans about barbecue or college basketball—two sacred topics in the Bowen household. As we sat in the living room, watching a Carolina game, I could feel her stare; while everyone else inhaled their barbecue sandwiches and discussed Dean Smith's coaching, I nibbled quietly, trying to make sense of this strange and delicious food.
Twenty years later, I can imagine how my mother-in-law must have felt. When I introduce someone to a North Carolina barbecue sandwich, I expect a strong reaction. It's the perfect food: succulent pork scented with wood smoke—sometimes a whisper of it, other times, a shout—topped with sweet slaw and vinegar-spiked sauce in a squishy white bread bun. Just thinking about it makes the sides of my tongue water and my heart swell up with love.
Once I became a convert, I realized that it's not enough to simply love North Carolina barbecue (or basketball, for that matter); you have to play favorites and defend yours at all costs. And these favorites will land you on one side or the other of a fierce and long-standing debate: Which is better, North Carolina's eastern- or western-style barbecue? To an outsider, this rivalry must seem silly: Both regions serve slow-smoked pork with tangy sauce and slaw. How different could they be? But to North Carolinians, the details represent something larger than barbecue itself: They're a matter of intense cultural pride.
For years I ducked out of the debate, arguing that I didn't know enough about the subject to choose a favorite. The style I was most familiar with came from my husband, Lindsay's, neck of the woods, down east: whole hogs smoked over hardwood coals, so finely chopped that every bit of pig—from the meaty hams to the luscious belly—averages out in a tasty mix. The sauce is simply vinegar, hot pepper, and spices, never tomatoes—they weren't popular when this style first surfaced, during the Colonial era. While other regions pit-cooked other animals, when the tradition took root in eastern North Carolina, it was all about the pig. By the late 1700s, the state was becoming a capital of hog farming (it's now the nation's second-largest pork producer). A century later, entrepreneurs had turned the meal into thriving businesses.
Nowadays in eastern North Carolina, you're never far away from a barbecue sandwich. There are flashy new places in shopping malls; supersize institutions, like Wilber's in Goldsboro; and old joints like B's in Greenville that always sell out by the time we arrive.
About ten years ago, I started grumbling that the mince was too fine and the smoke was barely discernible at a few of our local haunts—had these places abandoned wood smoke for electric cookers? Were they grinding rather than hand-chopping their meat? I started to grow curious about what barbecue tasted like farther west, where the cooks—who use pork shoulders instead of whole hogs and flavor sauce and slaw with tomatoes—were famous for their devotion to smoke.
Now would be a good time to mention that barbecue loyalties (like basketball ones) are not the kinds of things you question—not in Lindsay's family, at least. They're eastern-style people. Tar Heel folks. To Lindsay, there's truth and beauty in his barbecue in much the same way that Carolina basketball has come to stand for all that's right in the world. In his view, it's the higher moral choice. But still, I had to know.