It’s hard not to conjure up Don Quixote when considering Joe Haynes. Like the fictional character who went into the Spanish countryside on a quest to right wrongs, Haynes has traveled the hills and valleys of Virginia to right the wrong he believes has been done to the state’s barbecue.
“Virginia doesn't get its due,” says Haynes. “Virginia, not that long ago, was one of the nation's great barbecue destinations.”
A mild-mannered technology consultant by day, Haynes, 54, is on a mission to save Virginia barbecue from obscurity. In 2016, he succeeded in getting the Virginia General Assembly to designate May through October as Virginia Barbecue Season. He runs a blog called Obsessive Compulsive Barbecue that's heavy on Virginia tidbits. He's trying to market three Virginia-style sauces. And in September, his book, “Virginia Barbecue: A History” (Arcadia Publishing), is due in stores.
In it, he argues that Southern barbecue grew out of Virginia barbecue, which developed not from the Caribbean, as is often claimed, but from the Powhatan Indian technique of slow-cooking foods above smoldering coals. Some seasonings, such as vinegar and salt, came from European settlers, while Haynes credits African slaves with using more complex flavorings.
This version of history is guaranteed to start an argument in the ornery barbecue subculture, particularly in the Carolinas, which draws a lot more attention for its barbecue culture. A Smithsonian magazine article in 2013 called barbecue “a Caribbean cooking style brought north by Spanish conquistadors, moved westward by settlers, and seasoned with the flavors of European cultures.” It goes on: “Eventually, the technique made its way to the colonies, traveling as far north as Virginia.”
Haynes argues the reverse. He says barbecue began in the Old Dominion – George Washington and James Madison attended and hosted barbecues –and spread south and west.
Even more provocative is his contention that such a thing as Virginia barbecue still exists. In his book, Haynes cites religious opposition to the rowdy public barbecues and the dispirited post-Civil War populace as contributing to the decline of “grand barbecues.” He quotes a writer in 1876: “Pity if so good an institution (Virginia barbecues) has gone down, as we fear it has in its original simplicity, among the other wrecks of the war.”
Nowadays, it seems hard to find clearly identified Virginia barbecue. Pierce's Pitt Bar-B-Que in Williamsburg opened in 1971; on Garden & Gun magazine's barbecue bucket list, it calls itself Tennessee-style. The Silver Pig Barbeque in Lynchburg calls its offering “authentic Carolina barbecue.” The seven-outlet Virginia Barbecue chain serves an “Original Virginia BBQ Sandwich,” but also a “Classic NC BBQ Sandwich.”
Haynes asserts that the popular North Carolina style is the result of a culinary crime, noting in his book that, among other things, “When settlers first moved into what is today North Carolina, it was known at that time as Virginia's Southern Plantation.”
In person, Haynes is more direct.
“North Carolina kidnapped Virginia barbecue,” he tells me.
Traditional Virginia barbecue includes chopped and sliced smoked pork and beef (though, until recently, not brisket), but Haynes says it is primarily identified by four sauces: Tangy vinegar, tomato-mustard blend sauce of the Tidewater area; the vinegar- and spice-based, Worcestershire-inflected sauce of central Virginia; the vinegar- and herb-based sauce of the Shenandoah Valley; and the sweet tomato-based (sometimes called mahogany) sauce of Northern Virginia. Virginia barbecue also includes wood-smoked Shenandoah-style barbecue chicken, basted with an herbaceous vinegar-based sauce.
Haynes’ book, with 42 pages of citations, is as deeply researched as any barbecue book I've read. When he talks, Haynes goes deep into a given subject, from the Powhatan connection to slavery's influence. You can practically see the references circling his balding head.
At the Barbeque Exchange in Gordonsville, established in 2010, I asked owner Craig Hartman what style he considers his barbecue.
“We called it Carolina style, because before Joe came along, we didn't know,” he says.
“I wrote [the book] for people like you,” Haynes says, “for people who want to cook real Virginia barbecue but didn't have ammunition to argue that there is a Virginia barbecue history.”
Shenandoah Valley-Style Barbecue Chicken
The basting sauce of vinegar and red peppers can be traced back to early Virginia.
1/4 cup peanut or canola oil
1 cup apple cider vinegar
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (from 1 lemon)
1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon each freshly ground black pepper and crushed red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon poultry seasoning
1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic or garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika (optional)
1/4 cup tomato juice (optional)
4 chicken leg/thigh quarters, about 3 1/2 pounds total
Combine the oil, vinegar, lemon juice, salt, pepper, crushed red pepper flakes, poultry seasoning, granulated garlic and the sweet paprika and tomato juice, if using, in a gallon-size zip-top bag. Add the chicken and seal, pressing out as much air as possible. Refrigerate at least 4 hours and up to 8 hours.
When ready to grill, remove the bag from the refrigerator and let the chicken, still in the marinade, come to room temperature for about an hour. Soak hickory wood chips in water for about an hour.
Prepare the grill for indirect heat. If using a gas grill, turn the heat to high (450 to 500 degrees). Drain the chips and put them in a smoker box or foil packet poked with a few fork holes to release the smoke; set it between the grate and the briquettes, close to the flame. When you see smoke, reduce the heat to medium (375 to 400 degrees). Turn off the burners on one side.
If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or briquettes; when the briquettes are ready, distribute them on one side of the grill. For a medium-hot fire, you should be able to hold your hand 6 inches above the coals for 6 or 7 seconds. Drain the chips and scatter them over the coals.
Place the chicken skin side up on the indirect-heat side of the grill; discard the marinade. Close the grill lid and open its vents halfway. Cook for 30 to 40 minutes or until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh reads 165 degrees, turning the chicken as needed. For crisper skin, move the chicken, skin side down, directly over the coals for the last 3 to 5 minutes.
Yield: 4 servings