What's Our Barbecue Story?
Carolina barbecue began on the coast in the 16th century, worked its way toward the mountains, separated into eastern and western, and continues to feed our bellies and define our state to this day. But the old Carolina barbecue culture is fading fast. Can it last, or is it bound to change?
BY GREG LACOUR
Published: 2019.05.20 06:16 AM
“I truly believe that everyone’s barbecue touchstone starts with the barbecue they grew up with,” says Elizabeth Karmel, also known as the “Grill Girl.” Karmel is a Greensboro native who’s turned her love for eastern-style ’cue into Food Network fame and the online business CarolinaCueToGo.com, which ships whole-hog barbecue around the country. “Barbecue is one of those things that’s very much about comfort, about family, about good times, poignant times.”
Karmel, who lives on the eastern tip of Long Island now, won’t look down on any barbecue style—western Carolina, KC burnt ends, beef ribs cooked over mesquite from the Texas Hill Country. She refers to herself as “an equal-opportunity barbecuer.” If you grew up with it, go ahead and love it. But she, like Jim Early, grew up with eastern-style. “That vinegary tang—I think it’s the best barbecue out there, and I’ve basically put my career on it,” she tells me. “For me, when I take a bite of a North Carolina-style sandwich, it takes me back. It’s a visceral thing. It’s not just food. It’s a lifestyle, a community.”
And it’s shrinking. The Historic Barbecue Trail winds through towns like Murphy, Flat Rock, Little Switzerland, Granite Quarry, Willow Springs, Dudley; the only two city names are Winston-Salem and Greensboro—no Asheville, no Raleigh, no Wilmington, no Charlotte. The small-town people, Early says with a deep sigh, “are the ones who have supported and caused these iconic barbecue places, like the ones on the Trail, to grow. It wasn’t people coming from the cities out there. It was people who ate there five times a week and went on back, generation after generation, with their families.” There’s not much left for them. So the children leave, and the tables empty.
Some of the places and people hang on, though, like Chip Stamey in Greensboro, and Red Bridges’ daughter and grandchildren over in Shelby, and, in tiny Dudley, near Goldsboro, Steve and Gerri Grady of Grady’s Barbecue, which Early describes this way on his website: “This ’cue is so good you don’t want to swallow it. It is one of the best eastern-style ’cues one will ever taste—pure ’cue heaven on Earth.”
And once you drive the state and ask people where the good barbecue is, you apparently find no shortage of people who want to discuss it, and pay for it, and eat it. “I’d stop highway patrolmen,” Early tells me, as he reminisces about his travels two decades ago. “I’d stop people on the highway.”
I ask him how that went over.
“Fine,” he responds, “’cause you’re talking about barbecue.”
Greg Lacour is the senior editor for this magazine.