The economics of barbecue

On Saturday, Ezra Klein tweeted:

ezraklein Heading to north Carolina outer banks. Any recs for barbecue along the way, particularly NC style?

I answered immediately, both with what I understand to be true, but also with a bit of snark:

donaldhtaylorjr .@ezraklein no such thing as ‘NC’ style BBQ. Eastern NC BBQ (vinegar sauce) is awesome; Western NC BBQ (tomato sauce) is tragic
I even offered my opinion that Wilber’s Barbecue in my hometown of Goldsboro, NC serves the best barbecue around in a follow up tweet, though it is around a 4 hour drive from Goldsboro to the Northern Outer Banks, so it was a tip that was not of much practical good to Ezra. Jim Hufford, a great health policy/law blogger chimed in to agree with my assessment that Eastern NC style barbecue (vinegar-based sauce) is superior to that served in the Western (tomato based sauce) part of my fair state. However, he actually really prefers mustard-based barbecue sauce to either vinegar-or-tomato-based sauce, agreeing with Seyward Darby, online editor of the New Republic who got in on the game (she went to Duke and is from Greenville, N.C., also east of I-95), who tweeted in response:
seywarddarby @donaldhtaylorjr tomato done really well can be great — but you can’t go wrong with vinegar. My fave tho is mustard-based, down in florida.

I am not going to try and adjudicate which of these types of barbecue is truly the best, but instead ask, why do many people seem to care so much about barbecue? I believe the answer lies in the economics of pigs, especially in the agrarian South of years past.

I spent my summers starting around age 10 with my grandparents in Snow Hill, N.C., the county seat of Greene county, just up the road from Goldsboro. The main industry in Greene county is agriculture, and I worked harvesting tobacco and tending to pigs on the farm of a cousin each summer until I went to college, while staying with my grandparents.

Almost all big occasions in this community are marked with ‘pig pickins’, events in which whole pigs are cooked slowly (all day) over wood coals, and then individuals ‘pick’ or get what they want from the carcass of the pig after it is finished. Barbecue is a chopped mixture of multiple parts of the pig (tenderloin, ham, shoulder) that one would get in a restaurant. A pig pickin allows for self-serve barbecue. The tradition of the pig pickin is a profound cultural icon in Eastern N.C., held to mark notable events.

I can vividly remember two pig pickins at the home of my grandparents: one to celebrate the wedding of my mom to my step father, and the other to celebrate the life of my grandfather, the afternoon after he was buried. The menu for the two events was exactly the same, but the purpose for the gathering was not. Why the pig pickin?

I think it has to do with the economics of the ‘cull hog.’ A cull hog is a pig that develops a problem that decreases its desirability as it is being ‘topped out’ or grown to a size to take to market to be sold for slaughter (about 180-200 pounds is optimal). When something is wrong with such an animal, such as having an injured foot that would cause a noticeable limp, or having a bulging hernia, it greatly reduces the price that an animal can be sold for at auction. I can remember my grandfather pointing out a hog with a hernia one day when we were loading animals to take to sell at market and saying we would save that one for a pig pickin he was going to hold to celebrate my grandmother’s birthday in a few weeks time. Because the price that could be gotten for such an animal was so low, it made it much easier for people to have large feast celebrations on momentous occasions. And if you raise many pigs, some of them will be such cull hogs, so there will be a steady supply of such cheap animals. And access to such pigs was relatively easy in the past, so many people could get and afford to buy such a pig because the price that could otherwise be obtained for them was so low. Even 30 years ago, there were few people who lived in this general area who didn’t have some connection to a farm, and 100 years ago this would have been even truer. And one 200 pound hog would yield a dressed carcass that weighed ~ 140 pounds that would yield around 45-50 pounds of edible meat, easily feeding 100 people or more. If even 1 in 5 of the 100 attendees brought a side dish or a dessert to share, you had a feast, for a relatively low cost.

Interestingly, Austin wrote yesterday about his move toward vegetarianism, or at least toward a much more sustainable (smaller) level of meat consumption. His notion actually lines up in many ways with an agrarian lifestyle/economy that would hold a pig pickin for a momentous occasion. The health problems associated with meat consumption do not come from attending a pig pickin to celebrate weddings, births or to commemorate loved ones at times of death; the problem is the over-consumption of this food in large quantities as a matter of normal course. Especially for people who sit at desks for their work. In fact, I recall many meals served me by my grandmother that were functionally vegetarian: tomato sandwiches when the garden had many tomatoes, with cucumbers and onions soaked in vinegar, collard greens (cooked with a small bit of pork which is why I say functional vegetarian) and cornbread. Or Chicken stew with a small amount of chicken but large amounts of cooked pastry (flour) and broth, again served with bread. Meat was not consumed in large quantities at every meal because of the cost of eating animals was high, especially ones that could otherwise be sold for money.

I think feelings are so strong about barbecue because feasts around pigs were infused with meaning since they represented shared experiences with loved ones and friends in both good times and bad. So these meals of both celebration and lament, centered around cooking a pig, became culturally meaningful in a way that make me interested in disagreeing with others about the best type of sauce to put on your barbecue. Because these events are important, it makes the way barbecue is prepared and served, important. Even if you are many generations away from a farm, I suspect this is the basic reason that many people have such strong feelings about barbecue.
update: a small amplification
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