By Merle Ellis, The Butcher
RALEIGH, N.C. — The Rice’s Gulf Cooking Team of Havelock won the grand prize in the first annual Carolina Barbecue Cook-Off at the state fairgrounds here on May 18. The team, headed by chief cooks Willis Peaden and Jim Elder, was awarded a $2,500 cash prize, a trophy and bragging rights for fixing the best barbecue in the state … at least till next year’s cook-off.
I was one of several food writers on hand for this year’s cook-off. It was quite an experience. They take their barbecue right serious in North Carolina. There is, or was before the winners were announced, more than a little controversy over which style of barbecue is best — it varies in style from end of the state to the other. The only thing about barbecue upon which all North Carolinians agree is that we’re talking pork. They don’t barbecue steaks, ribs and chicken in North Carolina. In that part of the country barbecue is synonymous with pork, and it’s pronounce bar-BE-cue.
All imaginable different styles and methods of pork cooking were represented by 35 teams of this year’s cook-off. “The Swiners,” a team from Wake Forest, N.C., was one of the teams cooking a whole pig in the style of the eastern park of the state. R.L. Armistead, chief cook, told us about that style: “You take a whole hog, about 100- to 125-pounds dressed weight, and you split it down the backbone from the inside so you can lay it out flat on the grill. You want to be careful not to cut through the skin.
“We use this grill here that we made out of a 250-gallon oil drum. We just cut it in half, put some hinges on it, a heavy wire grill in it, mount it on a trailer chassis and we haul it all over doing pig pickins.
“We cook with hickory wood. You’ll see some around here using charcoal, but we like hickory. We burn the wood down over here in this 50-gallon drum, they just shovel the coals under the pig as we need them. That’s the tricky part. You got to know how to spread out the coals so the pig cooks even.”
“Would you like to give us the recipe for your sauce?” somebody asked. “Well, I’ll tell you,” R.L. said, scratching teh back of his head and smiling kind of a serious smile. “That recipe was given to me by my daddy who got it from an old Indian on his deathbed who made him promise we’d never let it out of the family. I’m afraid the only one I can ever give it to is this young picker right here.” He put his arm around his 12-year-old son and they both grinned.
While the whole pig is cooked in the east, westerners prefer only the first shoulder with the Boston butt attacher. “The nearer the head, the sweeter the meat,” one maid said to me. The Gooch Brothers Cooking Co. from Troy, cook pork shoulder in a way that could easily be duplicated on any covered cooker. The shoulders are cooked over hickory coals or charcoal in a covered cooker for four hours with the skin side up. This allows the fat to drip out. They they are turned skin side down and cooked for two hours more. Then Browning Gooch, the chief cook, makes deep cuts in the meat and pour on the sauce, wraps each shoulder in a piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil and puts it back on the cooker for another two or three hours, to let the sauce cook through and tenderize the meat. “What’s in the sauce?” I asked. “Can’t tell you that Merle; it’s a secret.”
The only one in the whole bunch who would give us a recipe for his barbecue sauce was one of the guys on the winning team. When you’re on top, you can afford to be generous. Willis Peaden and Jim Elder, the cooks on the Rice’s Gulf Cook Team, cook a whole hog, eastern style, and their sauce is a clear vinegar-based one. Every pencil in the place was poised when somebody asked Willis for his sauce recipe and he said, “Why sure!”
“You start with a gallon of good vinegar,” he said. “A good cider vinegar is the best.” Reporters scribbled intently as Willis listed the ingredients of his winning sauce recipe and elaborated on the specifics of its preparation. By the time he finished, we were all convinced that we had, without question, the barbecue sauce recipe.
That special feeling that comes with the discovery of a true gastronomic treasure lasted only a few seconds, however, before Jim Elder, Willis’ partner, hollered across the grill loud enough to make sure we all could hear. “By golly Willis, that sounds good! We’re gonna have to try it sometime!”
North Carolina barbecue is a fascinating subject, one about which volumes could, and probably will, be written. Should it be sliced or chopped, shredded or chunked? Is the inside meat better than the outside meat? Should the skin be chopped with the meat or served separately? Should it be cooked over hickory or oak? What should you serve with it, hush puppies and coleslaw or boiled potatoes and Brunswick stew?
To obtain more information on the subject, along with some sauce recipes, east and west, and recipes for the traditional accompaniments, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to the North Carolina Pork Producers Association in Raleigh.
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