Our Barbecue Philosophy

The Philosophy

First, we must define "Barbecue" for the uneducated. Barbecue is a noun, it is not a verb. It does not mean a cook out or any appliance used for a cook out. For our South African friends, barbecue does not mean a braai. Barbecue always means pork. That said, for a change of pace, it is occasionally acceptable to use the term barbecue as a adjective with chicken. However, we will ignore this inferior usage of the term.

In North Carolina the subject of barbecue can be very controversial. People have strong feelings about Lexington vs. Eastern North Carolina style. We enjoy both styles.

Diana -- "I'm from Winston-Salem and grew up on Lexington style, but I like Eastern style best."
David -- "I'm from Fairmont and grew up on Eastern style, but I like Lexington style best."

For those who aren't familiar with the differences in North Carolina barbecue, we'll try to educate you. The secret's in the sauce. While Lexington style uses a tomato and sugar based sauce, Eastern style uses a vinegar based sauce. We won' t discuss South Carolina style which uses a pathetic mustard based sauce.

Debating which type of barbecue is best is riskier than debating which religion will get you into heaven. In fact, in North Carolina, barbecue is a religion. Most Lexington style restaurants observe the Barbecue Sabbath and are closed on Sundays.

We attended a class at Little Richard's Lexington BBQ on Country Club Road in Winston-Salem, NC. Dr. Hugo Freund, folklorist and anthropologist, facilitated a very interesting discussion while Richard Berrier, the proprietor of Little Richard's, explained the finer points of pit-cooked barbecue and gave us a behind-the-scenes tour of the pits.

The following discussion addresses each element of the barbecue experience and explores it in detail.

The Meat

In general, Lexington style barbecue is made from pork shoulders while Eastern style uses the whole hog. Barbecue comes in sliced, chunked, and chopped. Sliced and chunked come from the leanest parts of the meat and are the most expensive.  Some people say chopped is more flavorful but it's easier to hide fat and gristle in chopped. When in doubt about the quality of the meat, order sliced or chunked. Chopped is fine once the quality of the meat has been established. Quality can ascertained by several methods. They are, in order of reliability:

The Fuel

Real barbecue is slow cooked over real hickory, white oak, or other fine hardwood, not gas or electricity. If it's not wood, it's no good. Drive around behind the restaurant and look for a big, messy pile of wood. If you don't see one, keep driving. Some cities, such as High Point, NC, don't allow restaurants to use wood. Their loss.

The best wood used for barbecue comes from the outside of the tree, the slabs that are part bark and part wood. Both are needed for flavor and heat. As it happens, scraps from the furniture industry are great for cooking barbecue. Two of NC's most famous products, furniture and barbecue, combine to avoid wasting any part of the tree.

The Slaw

The are three kinds of slaw: Barbecue slaw, white or mayo slaw, and yellow or mustard slaw.

Barbecue slaw is chopped cabbage with vinegar and red pepper. It is a Western North Carolina barbecue tradition. Just because something is a tradition doesn't make it good. Very few people actually like barbecue slaw. If used on a sandwich, it's not too horrible because each bite mixes meat and bread with slaw. As long as a restaurant offers white slaw, we won't hold barbecue slaw against them.

White or mayo slaw is what most people thank of when they think of slaw. How often do you think of slaw? Many people refer to white slaw as coleslaw. White slaw is made, primarily, of cabbage and mayonnaise.

Yellow or mustard slaw is an abomination that you're not likely to encounter except at a few places in South Carolina or eastern North Carolina. As the name implies, it is made with mustard, and that's all we're going to say.

The Hushpuppies

Hushpuppies are made of corn meal and are deep fried. They are served at restaurants that feature fried fish as well as barbecue restaurants. The best hushpuppies are moist, not dry and crumbly. Some hushpuppies contain bits of onion.

The Fries

There are two types of fries. The traditional crinkle cut fries that are too fat to be crispy. They come frozen and are dumped into a deep fat fryer which can't properly cook the inside without overcooking the outside. As a result, traditional fries just aren't very good, sort of like the traditional barbecue slaw. The best fries are thin which allows them to be properly cooked through and through. When it comes to fries, even the best barbecue restaurants can take a lesson from the fast food joints. Progressive barbecue restaurants offer fries similar to McDonalds and Burger King.

The Tea

The number one beverage for barbecue is sweet tea. It is unforgivable for any barbecue restaurant to serve bad tea. As a rule, the smaller the town, the sweeter the tea. Many small mill towns in the South serve tea that is close to syrup. If you go to Atlanta, it hard to find sweet tea. Of course Atlanta has reached the point that it can no longer be considered a truly Southern city. There is no reason to serve unsweetened tea. If anyone wants unsweetened tea, they can go back up north where they came from. Another unforgivable sin is to allow your glass to become empty. Someone should be circulating at all times refilling glasses or leave a pitcher on the table. An extra pitcher or glass of ice is a good idea because freshly brewed tea is warm and melts ice cubes quickly. Obviously, no one drinks hot tea with barbecue, not even Yankees or South Africans. The only reason we mention hot tea is because this is an international web site accessed by surfers around the world.

The Desserts

The most popular dessert is banana pudding. It must be made from real bananas and vanilla wafers. It is unacceptable to use banana flavored pudding mix from a box in the recipe.

Another excellent barbecue dessert is peach cobbler with vanilla ice cream on top. The marriage of the warm cobbler with the cold ice cream is indescribable.

Other Sides

The best barbecue restaurants offer side dishes in addition to the traditional slaw, hushpuppies, and fries. Obviously, if you hate an item, such as turnip greens, no matter how well prepared, you're not going to consider them worth eating. We won't attempt to debate the merits of one side versus another but will offer some advice on judging various sides.

Some examples are:

Tossed salads - Beware of tossed salads at barbecue joints. They usually consist of the few pieces of lettuce, a couple of chunks of tasteless unripe tomatoes, and a few cucumber slices along with dressing in a plastic packet. Need we say more?

Okra - Breaded and deep fried, not green and slick.

Green beans - The best green beans are well cooked with bacon grease or a ham hock to give them extra flavor. We've never eaten at a barbecue restaurant that served green beans any other way. We can't imagine someone trying to pass off Yankee green beans in an institution as Southern as a barbecue restaurant. For those of you who don't know, Yankee green beans are barely cooked and to most Southerners would be considered raw.

Baked beans - Don't call them Boston Baked Beans.

Stewed apples - Spiced with cinnamon.

Boiled potatoes - Small new potatoes or chunks of larger potatoes, white or red.

Rolls - If a restaurant's hushpuppies are so bad that you order the rolls, why are you eating there?

Cornsticks - Found only in Eastern North Carolina.

Cucumber slices - Marinated in vinegar.

Collards - Douse liberally with vinegar.

Turnip greens - Similar to collards, but not as strong.

Pickled beets - Don't call them Harvard beets.

Macaroni and cheese - Click for Diana's favorite recipe from Creamettes®.

Potato salad - Click for David's favorite recipe from Julia Jones.

Pinto beans - Even better if you stir in some chopped onion or white slaw and chopped radishes.

Corn on the cob - My mother always said "Have the water boiling before you pick the corn."

Sweet potatoes - Better with possum than barbecue.

Baked potatoes - Better with steak than barbecue.

Brunswick stew - Seems strange having a side with meat along with a meat entree.

Onion rings - The best onion rings are made from whole rings and not chopped pieces formed into a ring shape.

Mashed potatoes - Should be the real thing, not flakes from a box.

Tater tots - Surprisingly good.

Other Beverages

If you don't want iced tea, soft drinks are usually available. It is acceptable to order a diet drink with barbecue. In fact, it cancels out some of the calories so you can have banana pudding. We have only seen one restaurant where you can get beer. This is due to the fact that many counties in NC did not allow the sale of alcohol in the past and is probably linked to barbecue's ties with religion (see Barbecue Sabbath). We've never even heard of a barbecue restaurant that allows brown bagging or mixed drink sales. The same place that serves beer also has a Utah wine list (red, white, pink).

Our Favorite Restaurants

Wild Hogs - 5910 University Porkway, Winston-Salem, NC. 
Unfortunately, they closed on January 17, 2005. David is still in mourning.

Prissy Polly's Pig Pickin Bar-B-Que - 729 Hwy. 66 South, Kernersville, NC
Diana's favorite, serves both Lexington and Eastern styles.

Little Richard's Lexington BBQ - 4885 Country Club Rd, Winston-Salem, NC
Real wood, good "Q". David's new favorite. Sliced barbeque nearly as good as Wild Hogs.

Pig Pickin's of America - 613 Deacon Blvd, Winston-Salem, NC
Their motto is "In Barbeque We Trust". Classy atmosphere, serves beer and wine, great barbecue chicken and ribs.

Lexington Barbecue - 10 US Hwy. 29 70 South, Lexington, NC
Considered by many to set the standard for Lexington style barbecue. If you're lucky, maybe David's cousin, Mandy, will be your waitress.

Wilber's Barbecue - 4172 US Hwy. 70 East, Goldsboro, NC
The best Eastern style barbecue there is.

Clark's Barbecue - 1331 Hwy. 66 South, Kernersville, NC
Good barbecue, open on Sunday.

Other Restaurants

Hill's Lexington Barbecue Inc. - 4005 Patterson Ave, Winston-Salem, NC
Open on Sunday. Great banana pudding. Their barbecue reputation is living on past glories. It's made from hams not shoulders and cooked over gas not wood.

Parker's Barbecue - 2514 US Hwy. 301 South, Wilson, NC
Another restaurant living on past glories but Diana likes the young waiters in their little paper hats, aka "The Parker's Revue".

Bill Ellis Barbecue - 3007 Downing St, Wilson, NC
Was once a favorite but Hurricane Floyd flooded it to the eaves so we need to reevaluate.

Stameys Barbecue Inc. - 2206 High Point Rd, Greensboro, NC
No need to drive all the way to Greensboro, there's better barbecue in Winston-Salem, Kernersville, or Lexington.

Sonny's Real Pit Bar-B-Q - 7820 Lyles Lane, Concord, NC
We don't think it's real pit barbecue. It's about what you would expect from a chain.

Copyright 2005 David Jones & Diana Hartman
Last revised: February 13, 2005.