We Love Barbecue
Here in North Carolina, we love our barbecue with a vengeance. And while we grudgingly concede that other parts of the country can and do cook meat over heat, we like to tell anyone who will listen that what we do and the way we do it is not only the original way, it’s the best way.
It’s like any contest, except that it’s not.
From March through September, in towns peppered throughout North Carolina and Virginia, some of the best barbecue cooks in the nation come together between 15 and 20 times a year to strut their stuff in the Whole Hog Barbecue Series cooking contests.
The barbecue chefs who qualify in the local events then square off in October for the grand prize: the Whole Hog Barbecue Championship.
All of the events are organized and sanctioned by the NC Pork Council. There is no cost associated with becoming sanctioned as long as a contest meets NC Pork’s Sanctioning Requirements. And if you haven’t been to one, you don’t know what you’re missing.
The Whole Hog Barbecue Series, sanctioned by the NC Pork Council, celebrates the history and artistry of whole hog cooking, supports communities and nonprofits, and is proud to have a wide and growing fan base in North Carolina.
What sets us apart from other barbecue cooking competitions around the country is that at the Whole Hog Barbecue events, attendees get to chow down on the winning cuisine.
What have I been missing?
The air is saturated with the tantalizing aroma of freshly cooked pork and the echoes of “hey y’all.” From tea so sweet it makes your teeth ache to tangy chopped slaw, nothing smacks of time-honored family tradition – and good Southern eating – like a whole hog barbecue cook-off.
Whole hog barbecue contests are much more than a hobby; they’re a way of life. These cooks grew up watching their parents and grandparents wield their secret techniques and impart their own brand of hog-cooking magic. Now they’re raising their kids in the same culture.
The cook-offs have been woven into the fabric of their communities. Established as local fundraisers, cook-offs raise more than $114,000 statewide for local charities through barbecue plate sales and other means.
On average, 28 cooks participate in each cook-off, with some contests attracting more than 80 cooks. Over 130,000 people attend the contests statewide. And with nearly $20,000 worth of prize money and bragging rights up for grabs, there’s a lot at stake.
Many of the cooks spend their summers traveling across the state, participating in as many contests as they can. You’ll see many of the same cooks over and over again, and that’s where the drama begins. They’re old friends, but fierce rivals – and sometimes, it is parent versus child, or even grandparent versus parent versus child.
When the hogs are handed out, the aprons donned and the grills fired up, the friendly banter quiets. It’s contest time. Time to get serious. And the long night of cooking begins.
Judging starts bright and early the next morning as the perfectly-cooked hogs, in all their golden, glistening glory, are torn apart. The judges pull meat from bone, listening for just the right crackle of crisp skin and checking for moistness, flavor, seasoning and exactly the right amount of time on the heat.
There are more stories than there are hogs at the cook-offs. This is a culture that will live on. The competition is stiff, the atmosphere infectious, and the pork? It’s the best y’all will ever taste.
Everything But the Oink
The meat used for the Whole Hog Barbecue Series and Whole Hog Barbecue Championship is – you guessed it — the whole hog. Though the cooked meat is tender, the challenge of cooking a whole hog is tough.
Ribs? Tenderloin? Hah! We eat them for breakfast.
Of the three barbecue capitals of the country – Memphis, Kansas City and North Carolina – only ours uses the whole hog exclusively.
It’s quite a challenge. The shoulders and rib area are dark meat, with more moisture due to higher fat content. The hams and loins are white meat, leaner and drier than the dark. Getting one major part done without over- or under-cooking the other – all while finishing with the perfect, crispy skin – is both tricky and time-consuming. But for serious contenders, it’s gotta be done – all the parts are judged individually.
Cooks have to adjust their cooking times and methods for the weather; even a change in humidity can affect the cooking.
And on top of that, cooks who use wood have to contend with how different types burn. Hickory, for example, burns faster and hotter than oak.
No wonder the chefs are also known as pit masters. What they do is pretty darn masterful.
Even Tougher than Judge Judy
The tiniest details of a cooked pig’s appearance are scrutinized by the judges. Color matters – the pig is expected to be roasted to a uniform golden brown. And points are deducted for even tiny charred spots, unnecessary cuts on the meat, and cooked meat that separates from the bone as the pig is being turned.
Adding a large element of fun to cook-offs is grading the contestants for showmanship. Many teams erect elaborate sets around their cookers, dress in costume or even perform skits.
If you want to appreciate the number of criteria each hog and team are judged upon, take a look at the official scorecard.
More than good eats: good works
The Whole Hog Barbecue Series raises more than $114,000 each year for select local charities. In 2013, the Pork Council donated the meat from the Whole Hog Barbecue Championship to a local nonprofit that sold sandwiches and raised over $20,000.
About the North Carolina Pork Council
The North Carolina Pork Council (NCPC) is the statewide organization chartered in 1962 to support producers and allied industry partners within the NC pork industry. Today, the pork industry in the state includes more than 2,200 farms, about 46,000 full-time jobs and adds more than $8 billion to North Carolina’s economy.