TV barbecue cookoff pits N.C. against S.C.

Two of the best known barbecue pitmeisters in the Carolinas will serve up their 'que on NBC's “Today” show on Monday in an N.C./S.C. cookoff.

Ed Mitchell of The Pit restaurant in Raleigh will be cooking against Charleston caterer Jimmy Hagood in the first of a three-episode BBQ challenge featuring barbecue from around the country. Monday's episode with Al Roker is scheduled to run between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m.

Unlike most comparisons of North Carolina's and South Carolina's barbecue, the difference in Mitchell's and Hagood's 'que is more cooking style and cuts of pork than the traditional “sauce divide” – North Carolina's preference for vinegar and red pepper and tomato-based sauce, and South Carolina's general predilection for a mustard-based sauce.

Mitchell, who grew up in Wilson, will be cooking his specialty, whole hog. Unlike the majority of professional BBQ chefs who cook below 225 degrees, Mitchell prefers a high heat of up to 450 degrees.

“Yeah, I differ on most everyone else on that, but I cook my hogs skin side up and the high heat sears the meat and breaks down the muscle tissue more quickly while crisping the skin,” said Mitchell, who learned the art of smoking pork from his grandfather, Lawyer Sanders, and his dad, Willie Mitchell.

Hagood, whose ancestors arrived in Charleston in 1670, said that when he was growing up, the best BBQ joints were farther inland in Orangeburg and Holly Hill. The Lowcountry was more seafood and rice than pork and beans.

Hagood, who has finished fifth in smoked shoulder at the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue competition, will be cooking whole shoulders on his 27-foot, double-decker trailer cooker complete with a spiral staircase.

Hagood cooks over charcoal and pecan wood at 210 degrees for about 18 hours or until the meat reaches a temperature of 195 degrees.

“I think what makes our barbecue stand out are the pigs we use, 300-pounders, heritage breed that are raised by local farmers with no growth hormones and cooking it slow and long,” he said.

Both cooks use a “dipping” BBQ sauce to be served with the meat after it comes off the heat. Mitchell uses an Eastern North Carolina vinegar and red pepper sauce. Hagood will serve his with all three sauces used in the Carolinas – vinegar, tomato and mustard.

Mitchell and Hagood are friends who have cooked for the last two years at the Big Apple BBQ in New York, a benefit for Madison Square Park.

“If you have good quality pork and you rub it and smoke it and serve it with a good sauce, it doesn't really matter about all these other details,” Hagood said with a laugh. “At that point, there is no bad barbecue.”