• 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
    • Two very important things you need to know about BBQ in North Carolina

      1. We take it very seriously, see this site


      which is about all you need to know.

      2. There are two great places west of I85. One, which no one knows about is the TarBQue on Route 64 between Lexington and Mocksville, a place frequented only by locals, and is unparalled. The second is 12 Bones in Asheville (where I live). Obama was there during the campaign, and won NC and came back last year. Is it good? Let’s put it this way, I have seen my friend Chris there on three separate times and he is a vegetarian.

    • Wilburs??

      No thanks. I prefer McCalls.

      Tomato can make a decent sauce. It just needs to have enough vinegar as a base.

    • For West of I-85 you have to say Lexington #1 in Lexington NC and Bridges BBQ in Shelby.

      But I also have to mention The Whispering Pine here in Albemarle NC.

    • I followed a link from Andrew Sullivan here. I decided to register and reply only for this: you, sir, are a cad and philistine of the highest order if you think Eastern is remotely better than Western.

      I was raised in Lexington. Our barbecue will cover the world, like a plague of delicious locusts, stamping on the face of Eastern barbecue forever.

    • It isn’t complicated; it’s simple regionalism and tradition. “The people where I live do it differently” or “well, I grew up with it being done this way”. Anything that helps to form human identity can be a source of pride, and humans take their pride seriously.

      Beyond that, I suspect that the “seriousness” with which most folks take barbecue is as much rhetorical and comedic as anything else.

    • My extended family is also from eastern Carolina (and I attended East Carolina University). When I hear “pig pickin” it certainly brings to mind a big event. But I don’t tend to think the same about the word BBQ. Maybe because growing up in Virginia, BBQ took on two different meanings to me. One meaning basically meant anything you put on an outdoor grill/and or anything that had BBQ sauce on it. The second meant some hog that your uncle’s (who’s probably drunk by now) has been tending to since the wee hours of the morning.

      Although I have to say that in my college years, pig pickin is synonymous with tailgating at a Pirate’s game.

      Now, if only fish stew would become as famous…

    • @Sid F
      I have eaten at 12 bones and it is good. Not hear of Tarbque…vegetarians sneaking in the back is a good recommendation. People in the Eastern part of the state were howling at Michele Obama talking about barbecue when she comes down for the convention…..

      bring it….or actually, keep it, meaning Lexington barbecue

      yes, I am sure you are correct. I do think there is something about feasting on animals that heightens this, in part because they were such an economic investment in times past.

    • @Console
      yes, one million times yes. Barbecue is not a verb. You grill hot dogs, you do not barbecue them. Barbecue is a pork cooked slow….then lots of fights about the best sauce.

      Fish stew another Eastern NC delicacy.

    • @Don Taylor

      If for some reason you find yourself traveling on Int. 40 west across NC, just before Greensboro take Int 85 South, get off at Rte 64 West, go past Lexington (sorry Brockton but if you want Lexington can claim TarBQue) and about 8 miles is Heaven, on the left. After the pleasure, continue on 64 west and you get back to Int 40. This is the greatest detour ever.

      Yes, Michelle made mention of the good BBQ in Charlotte. Even the mayor of Charlotte agreed that , there is no good BBQ in Charlotte. She nearly ended Obama’s chances in the state before the election started.

      “Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, in an interview, didn’t try to defend his city’s offerings. “I have had great barbecue in Charlotte that’s been brought in on a truck.”



      Let me know when you are coming to 12 Bones again, my treat.


      BBQ is pulled pork, in either a vinegar or tomato based sauce. That’s it, nothing else, no other use for the word. And those who talk about mustard based sauce, well that is South Carolina and even those folks come over their northern border for Q.

    • Vinegar, mustard and then tomato, in that order. Regardless, the most important part is to smoke the pork low and slow. I also prefer a nice simple rub on the pork. Just paprika, slat and pepper.


    • Pulled…Oh man not another can of worms.

      Finely chopped, that’s a bit more eastern style.

    • I believe this settles things:


      (and vinegar, hands down…)

    • @Sid F
      deal on 12 bones. Tarbque sounds interesting. The Anthony Foxx comments are funny and true.

      A tangential political story that makes me smile this honorary monday morning. I was doing canvassing for Durham for Obama in fall ’08 and we had so many volunteers that we sent teams to Wayne County, where I am from, so I went. One day I was going door to door in Goldsboro with a volunteer friend from Carrboro who asked midday ‘do you think we can find a vegan restaurant for lunch?’ I just laughed and laughed and am laughing now as I remember.

    • Obviously, as a bunch of people living or growing up in the South, this has to be settled with a pistol duel. I suppose we could just do a cook-off but….

      All joking aside, I’m cool with Eastern. I live in Raleigh now and eat it regularly. Certainly the sides are better in Eastern, though I am partial to BBQ slaw.

      I am somewhat flabbergasted that just a touch (a touch!) of tomato in sauce causes so much angst but I happily play along.

    • @Brocktoon
      I would prefer drinking a few beers and sampling some cue with you to pistol duel. Truce.

    • Went to grad school at Chapel Hill. Surprised to see no one mention Allen and Son between Chapel Hill and Durham. (Vinegar-based.) People who haven’t spent time in North Carolina, in particular, really can’t understand the dominance of barbecue down there. Probably 90% of the outdoor public events that I went to over 5 years were catered with pulled pork to the point that I began to suspect that it was a deliberate slight to those religions that avoid swine (not really but it would be a real pain not to eat the pig if you lived there).

    • I grew up in Asheville eating LIttle Pigs and Barbecue Inn, neither of which are heavy on the tomato, but now make a pilgimage to 12 Bones on trips home from DC. Ate ribs and pulled pork two days in a row last week and it was spectacular. Nothing comes close to it north of the NC/VA state line. But I would still drive 100 miles out of my way to get a plate at Wilbur’s. My ASU college roommate was from Lake Waccamaw and when his dad pulled the smoker up from Columbus County to Boone at our graduation, I was reborn. BTW, anyone in Charlotte needing a fix only needs to wait around for the Mallard Creek political evnet in October (alternate years?).

    • This article has been up for more than a day and only has 17 comments. That’s very strange. There should be hundreds by now.

      I’ve lived various places in the Carolinas but home is in Winston-Salem. Here the bbq is tomato based with various amounts of vinegar in the sauce. Honestly what kind I get depends on my mood though there is only one place nearby that has vinegar. Vinegar is always good but often I want the bbq sweet.

      I’ve also lived in the Midlands of South Carolina and enjoyed the mustard whilst there. Though with mustard he sauce needs to be on the lighter side or it overwhelms the pork.