Friday, November 14, 2008

Holy Smoke: The barbecue aristocracy

Standing there in Raleigh's upscale new barbecue restaurant The Pit last night was an amazing group woven deeply into North Carolina's cultural fabric. No, not the literati, though some of them were there. Not the business elite, nor the political elite, though a few of them were there. These were truly important folks who have worn familiar names to anyone with an appreciation for what my friend Dennis Rogers once called the Holy Grub. These were some, though hardly all, of North Carolina's barbecue aristocracy -- names such as Wilber Shirley, Samuel Jones, Ed Mitchell and Chip Stamey.
They were gathered on this rare occasion to launch a new and most worthy book about Tar Heel barbecue -- "Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue." Published by UNC Press, which has become a major celebrant of N.C. cooking, the book is not meant so much as a guide to barbecue restaurants, such as Bob Garner's ground-breaking Guide to North Carolina Barbecue, an indispensible reference work. This one is about the people, the recipes and lore of N.C. barbecue, according to authors John Shelton Reed, his spouse Dale Volberg Reed and William McKinney.
As the group stood in front of the crowd at The Pit -- which features Ed Mitchell's outstanding barbecue and ribs, among other things -- I thought how vast a trove of barbecue experience that group represented and how far their families go back into N.C. barbecue history. Samuel Jone's grandfather the late Pete Jones founded the Skylight Inn in Ayden, a not-to-be missed barbecue restaurant; Chip Stamey's grandfather Warner Stamey started the Stamey's barbecue restaurants in Greensboro where I grew up, but he's part of an extended family whose blood kin includes those who run outstanding BBQ places in Lexington and Shelby and who have trained many others who now run their own places -- such as a favorite of mine, Fuzzy's in the Madison-Mayodan area.
I asked Chip Stamey's father, Charles Stamey, why he had never opened a barbecue restaurant in Charlotte, where he would have been sure to find hungry customers. "Well, we all like to think that everyone likes everything we like," he mused, but he wasn't sure that was so. "Folks used to ask me to open one in Richmond, and we could have done that. But it might have taken a long time to adjust things to folks' taste there." But staying in Greensboro, where the family's first restaurant opened near what is now the Greensboro Coliseum (it was the fairgrounds them), allowed the family to concentrate on what they knew best -- selling barbecue made from pork shoulders, in the Lexington style.
What I like so much about this book is that the authors have carefully recorded first-person accounts of how these barbecue restaurateurs go about their business. It is as if they turned on the mike, asked the right question and got out of the way. It's not that easy, I know, but the authors made this a mighty easy read. Reading Chip Stamey's account of how the Greensboro Stamey's changed -- and about his own campaign to keep the menu traditional while his father was trying to simplify and streamline the family's offering -- is a fascinating account of how seriously these folks take their obligation to provide us all with the world's best barbecue.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I'm from the Piedmont but the BBQ from King's in Wilson, NC is the best I've had from a restaurant. The best of all is when locals in Greenville, NC cook their own versions. BBQ is a work of art out East.