What You Need to Know About Eastern North Carolina Barbecue
Depending on what part of the country you're in, barbecue can be a really hot topic with very specific ideas of what it is and how it is prepared. North Carolina is one of those such places. North Carolina is a bit conflicted, actually, as there are two regional barbecue styles and strong opinions on which one is best. We're not stepping into that debate; however, we will tell you the general difference between the two. The western part of the state (also known as Lexington-style barbecue) and Eastern North Carolina barbecue are not that all different in reality (ssshhh, don't tell anyone), but the distinction is found in the seasoning and sauce portion of the barbecue. Both are pork, of course, but here's the rub, literally: Eastern NC barbecue basically is a vinegar, salt, black and red pepper seasoning; whereas the Western NC barbecue adds those same seasonings but also puts ketchup into the sauce. Gasp! The other noticeable difference is that Eastern NC barbecue usually entails the use of a whole hog, where Western NC generally uses the pork shoulder (also known as the butt) for its barbecue.
As anyone from eastern North Carolina will tell you (often passionately and at great length), barbecue means a whole hog cooked low and slow over a banked pit. The meat is pulled or chopped into moist strands, dressed with some remaining "mop" (the vinegar-and-red-pepper basting sauce), and mixed with cracklings.
History of North Carolina Pork Barbecue
For this portion, we turn to Bob Garner and his Guide to North Carolina Barbeque. Trust us, he knows his stuff! He also married a Northeastern North Carolina farm girl who knew a thing or two about cooking a pig—all of it, actually. After he married her, he learned to cook whole pigs in true Eastern North Carolina style and was exposed to the incomparable aroma of the juices dripping onto the coals and being able to "pick” a pig for the first time. For him, it was a life-changing revelation!
Here's Garner's definition of North Carolina barbecue: "Pork that is cooked slowly, with low heat, and which is served tender, juicy and properly sauced and seasoned, particularly if it is to be served on a sandwich."
So what are the origins of North Carolina barbecue?
"From the very beginning," Garner writes, "barbecue in North Carolina meant pork. During the 1500s, the Spanish introduced pigs to the southeastern part of America. Whereas cattle tended to fare poorly in the region, swine flourished, nowhere more so than in North Carolina."
Garner goes on to explain that the pork would most commonly be cooked over an open fire and would be seasoned with "an ordinary table condiment of the time, which consisted of vinegar, salt, red and black pepper, and oyster juice… Salty vinegar liberally laced with pepper (but minus the oyster juice) is still basically the same sauce used on eastern North Carolina barbecue today …"
As noted earlier, the biggest difference between eastern barbecue and western barbecue is that ketchup is commonly added to the sauce of western barbecue. The other main difference is that in the east they use the whole hog, both white and dark meat, while in the west they cook only the pork shoulder, which is dark meat and thus more fatty, moister and richer.
There are other preferences when it comes to barbecue like whether it's cooked over coals or gas, but at the end of the day it's really about good barbecue versus bad barbecue. If you're interested in reading more about barbecue in the state of North Carolina, check out this NC barbecue Q&A session featuring Bob Garner.
Which brings us to our next topic: an Eastern North Carolina barbecue event that is not-to-miss!
The Newport Pig Cookin'
The annual Pig Cookin’ in Newport (just a short drive across the bridge from Emerald Isle) is a competition of 80 plus cooks all trying to cook the perfect pig and use their secret sauce hoping to be judged worthy of the number one spot (though there are awards all the way through to 10th place). The Newport Pig Cookin' also features food, free entertainment, crafts, rides and fun—making it a wonderful family-friendly event.
In this competition, a whole hog is cooked on a large grill, usually with
propane gas; however, wood or charcoal can be used but propane is the
fuel of choice.
"Whole Hog” is just what it indicates: a whole pig, split down the middle (without head and feet) and placed on the cooker. Newport has always cooked "whole hogs” whereas some contests use whole hogs and pork shoulders. After research, it has been determined that Newport is the largest "Whole Hog Cooking Contest in the USA".
This year, the Newport Pig Cookin' is in its 38th year. The big, juicy, and oh-so-tasty event is slated for April 1-2, 2016. Mark your calendars; it's coming up fast. You don't want to miss your chance to taste some of the best Eastern North Carolina barbecue found anywhere. Come hungry!
Eastern North Carolina Barbecue Recipe
So, what can you do to bring the mouthwatering flavors of North Carolina barbecue into your own home? Make your own, of course. Now we're not expecting you to have an entire pig on hand, so a bone-in pork shoulder/butt will have to do. You can adjust the seasonings as you like, but here's a basic Eastern North Carolina barbecue recipe just for you.
Add hickory, oak, and maple chunks or chips to your smoker. Refer to the directions for your smoker to determine the correct amount of chips for the meat and for lighting instructions. When the chips are ready, add the pork and smoke it for 2 to 2 1/2 hours at 250 degrees F. Remove the pork and wrap it in heavy-duty aluminum foil.
Preheat the oven to 225 degrees F.
the pork for 6 to 8 hours or until the meat is tender and falls apart
when the bone is removed. Chop the pork coarsely and mix in salt and
barbecue sauce, to taste. Serve with more barbecue sauce on the side. Serves 6.
2 cups apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons crushed red pepper
1/2 tablespoon chopped fresh garlic
1/2 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
In a medium saucepan, combine the vinegar, red pepper, garlic, and salt over high heat. Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat to medium-high. Boil for 15 to 20 minutes and then remove from the heat. Let cool then add the black pepper.
We also highly suggest that you try your hand at this Eastern North Carolina Pulled-Pork Barbecue. You won't need a smoker for this one, just a grill for low and slow indirect cooking.
Cheers to good North Carolina barbecue however you may enjoy it! Happy eating.
Where's your favorite place to eat Eastern North Carolina barbecue when you're in the area?