Food & Drink

Book tackles touchy topics on N.C. barbecue

Now they've done it. John Shelton Reed and his wife, Dale Volberg Reed, have gone and written a book about N.C. barbecue.

It's a darn good book, too. He's a historian and she often assists with his research, so “Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue” (UNC Press, $30) addresses all sorts of touchy questions, like why Eastern and Lexington style are so different.

We talked to the Reeds by phone, but we had to miss talking to their co-author, William McKinney, who now lives in Virginia. We interviewed McKinney back when he founded a student-run barbecue society at UNC Chapel Hill. We knew even then that the boy showed promise.

Q. Carolinas barbecue fans are notoriously cantankerous about anyone else's barbecue opinions. What kind of security measures have you taken to protect yourselves?

Dale (laughing): “A soft answer turneth away wrath.”

John: “You're right, we're living dangerously. We're braced for people to come after us.”

Q. This book reads like you had fun doing it. What was your favorite part of the project?

Dale: “It was all fun. The eating was fun.”

John: “We thought of a subtitle too late to use it: ‘The Sacred and the Propane.'”

Q. You really dug into the theory that the unique style of Lexington barbecue has German origins. Do you feel that has been definitively settled?

John: “Strictly speaking, what we turned up is just circumstantial evidence. But all five of the pioneers (John Blackwelder, George Ridenhour, Jess Swicegood, Sid Weaver and Warner Stamey) were of German descent.”

Dale: “And that kind of marinated coleslaw is a German recipe, and the fact that it turns up in the Piedmont with pork shoulder and the sweet and sour effect of the sauce – it kind of all adds up.”

John: “I'd bet the farm if I had a farm.”

Q. One question you didn't answer: Why is Boston butt called Boston butt? What's Boston got to do with it?

John: “I don't know – I'll Google it.” (He does and turns up an answer: In prerevolutionary England and America, lesser cuts of meat were packed in casks or barrels called butts. And the way these cheap cuts were cut in the Boston area came to be called Boston butts. “It's still called Boston everywhere except Boston.”)

Q. We won't be cruel enough to ask for your favorite barbecue restaurant – that kind of thing gets people in trouble. But what's your favorite barbecue road trip?

John: “We're trying our best not to plug specific restaurants. But for your readers, Bridges Barbecue Lodge (in Shelby) is one of our favorites. Or you could do a Piedmont trip, starting with Fuzzy's (in Madison) and ending up in Lexington. You could eat at a dozen places (in the Piedmont) in one day if you put your mind to it.

“In the East, they're more spread out, but you could do Ayden (Skylight Inn) and Greenville (B's) and Goldsboro (Wilber's) in a day. To do the whole state would take a few days.”