When I made my career move to North Carolina (i.e., when I finished my first career as a student at Ole Miss and got a paying job), I soon discovered that I had to declare.
In Mississippi, our obsession is SEC football – particularly for me because I grew up here in Starkville, the penultimate college town and heart of the SEC. But in North Carolina I found myself in a different sub-culture altogether. Yes, when you think of North Carolina sports many immediately think of the veritable shrine to ACC basketball. Even deeper was the NASCAR phenomenon. I suppose we had racing in Mississippi (case in point: Lake Speed, the former driver of the SPAM car, whom I had a chance to meet), but I rarely heard about it – I watched the Indy 500 on TV most years, but I’m not sure that counts. In North Carolina I was surrounded by it and I realized pretty quickly that it was serious business. Declaring was not optional. You were Ford or Chevy, Gordon or Earnhardt. But this story is about barbecue.
In Mississippi I had eaten plenty of barbecue. Does anyone remember Coleman’s? My family didn’t eat there with religious regularity, but I remember it as “the barbecue place” as I was growing up. Don’t remember if it was good, bad or otherwise, though the memories are pleasant. It was just there. Some years later it changed hands – the Coleman’s sold the franchises I guess – some of them lived on as barbecue joints under another name, some just went out of business altogether as far as I know. Here in Starkville, the guy who ran the skating rink took over the barbecue place. The thing to do at the skating rink to prove your mettle was to order a cup of pickle juice over crushed ice. Not sure if that ever caught on at the barbecue place. Now the former Coleman’s is a dry-cleaner. Maybe he should have offered the pickle juice.
Later in life – around the time I graduated from Starkville High School – we were introduced to Little Dooey. By this time Coleman’s and its successor had been converted into the dry-cleaner and was no longer a factor. Little Dooey’s became the phenomenon we all know it to be and later sent up the pulled pork we served to great reviews at our wedding rehearsal dinner, which ironically took place in North Carolina. When we lived elsewhere, it was one of the places we always visited at least once whenever we came back home to Starkville. I don’t know how they cook their meat, but I know it’s good, and I like the mild sauce, maroon in color (we are in Bulldog country, you know) with a hint of sweetness. Coleman’s meat, as I recall, came soaked in tangy, orange-colored sauce, which then soaked into the white bread bun (the kind that sticks to your teeth).
When I moved to North Carolina, I knew subconsciously that there was more than one kind of barbecue sauce, but was pretty clueless to the fierce loyalties people can have to sauces and cooking methods. Eastern North Carolina barbecue, I discovered, was an animal (though pork was still required) of its own. Gone were the tomato-based sauces of my youth, and along came this sharp, peppered, vinegary sauce that took me by surprise. I’d never had to shake barbecue sauce before. It had never soaked into the meat like this, rather than sitting on top almost like chocolate syrup on ice cream.
Being close in proximity to South Carolina, I also became familiar with the mustard-based sauce that has strong links in that state. The most famous — or infamous, as it may be— was Maurice’s Barbecue. Maurice was already famous for his good meat with the unique sauce before he became even more famous for taking a controversial stand that resulted in a lot of stores taking his product off the shelf. Now you pretty much have to go to one of his restaurants to get it.
In Alabama, there is a white barbecue sauce based in mayo, but I have only had one opportunity to try something like that, and it wasn’t with barbecue.
I grew to enjoy all the varieties I had the chance to try. I learned the differences between types of barbecue. Nobody forced me to declare East or West, but in my loose research since those early N.C. days (lots of eating and lots of reading) I have discovered that many of my foodie colleagues have done just that. Ford or Chevy. Earnhardt or ... not. Vinegar or tomato-based. Be prepared to declare.
But later I found myself in a unique environment. I moved to a country where pork was not allowed, and lived there the better part of ten years. There was no barbecue there. Yes, there were grills – but there was no pork, thus there was no barbecue. Most of the pork-lovers (i.e., just about all the expatriates) who lived there depended on the ready-made, pre-cooked kinds of pork that will travel well: pepperoni, pre-cooked bacon that doesn’t need refrigeration, canned hams, and yes – SPAM. Pepperoni is pepperoni. But bacon that’s already pre-cooked means you don’t get the fat to cook with later. Canned hams come with that ... that goo ... which can turn off an appetite pretty quickly. SPAM is SPAM. You either like it or you don’t – you have to declare.
It’s only fair to say that there were other ways to get our pork fix. A friend and former colleague, who thus knew our plight (and was a good southern boy who liked to eat) would come back to visit about once a year, with a couple of coolers in tow. A hungry expat once discovered that you could pack a cooler full of meat, take it to the deep freezer at your local grocer, pick it up on the way to the airport, and it would stay frozen as a piece of checked luggage. That’s how we had a honey-baked, spiral-sliced ham at Christmas one year. That’s how we had amazing Memphis-quality dry ribs the next year. That’s how we came to have sausage and biscuits for several mornings, Jimmy Dean style. You can put enough sage, ginger, and pepper in local ground beef, and have yourself a pretty decent substitute for sausage — but it ain’t Jimmy Dean.
Along the way, we met a few people who didn’t eat pork while they were there out of respect for the locals. We tried that, too. We made it about a week. The moral of the story is that we were in a pork-free zone. There was no pulled pork barbecue there. There were days I would have paid any amount to have a plateful of Eastern North Carolina barbecue, chopped or sliced, no matter how vinegary or peppery. And I would have paid the same amount for a big sandwich loaded with Little Dooey pork with the sweet, tomato-based sauce.
This is a recipe for barbecue that my father made for us as I was growing up. He was the king of the crock-pot in our house. So this is a far cry from pit-smoked meat, but it’s still slow-cooked – and it’s still good. As of this writing I’ve not tried it with beef, goat, sheep or camel but I bet it would work.
Crock Pot BBQ
Adapted from the Rival Crock-Pot recipe book
2 medium onions, sliced and placed on bottom of Crock-Pot/slow cooker
Pork shoulder, Boston butt or picnic (4-5 pounds, or whatever fits your pot), trimmed of most of the visible fat
4-6 whole cloves (optional, but if used, remove them during the “pulling of the pork”)
a bit of salt and black pepper if desired
2 cups water
Place onions on the bottom, then pork, then water and cloves, and cook on low for 8-12 hours until fork tender (resist the temptation to “remove the top and peek” too soon)
When fork tender, remove pork from Crock-Pot and pull the pork from the bone, discarding the bone and fat. Reserve the cooked onions and discard the liquid. Give the cooked onions a rough chop and save for later.
Put pulled pork back into the Crock-Pot, add the chopped onions, pour a 16 oz. bottle of BBQ sauce over the mixture and stir. Now, cook on low for an additional 1.5 to 3 hours, stirring occasionally. Serve on buns or as a main dish item.
Jay Reed is a local foodie and pharmacist. The culinary tastes expressed here are his and do not necessarily reflect the appetites of the Starkville Daily News or individual members of its staff. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org .