On Friday night, as bluegrass sounded in downtown Raleigh on all sides, I watched a participant in the weekend’s Whole Hog Barbecue Championship receive his hog while blaring beach music. As a son of the Yadkin Valley, this pained my western Piedmont soul too many ways. But I persevered.
That hiccup was mercifully out of the way quicker than a shuffling topsider, allowing the remainder of the weekend’s bluegrass-linked barbecue events to serve as a testament to how slowly smoked pork retains the power to bring people together. Hosted by the North Carolina Pork Council, the barbecue festivities had two components—the Whole Hog Barbecue Championship and dual NC Barbecue Experience dinners. Taken together, and in the context of so much bluegrass, they had a lot to say about the links between North Carolina’s past and present.
The Whole Hog Barbecue Championship, held at the southern terminus of Fayetteville Street, began Friday evening and went until a blind taste test Saturday morning. The most mysterious aspect of the competition wasn’t the ritual of all-night hog cooking, but, instead, a pre-cookoff “BBQ Showmanship” contest. How one displays flair and stage presence while roasting a pig—especially before the pig itself has arrived on the scene—remains a mystery.
Regardless, once the showmanship was duly judged, a truck from the Nahunta Pork Center began unloading carcasses for competition. Cellphone-illuminated bonesaws were soon at work, initiating the night’s tasks. Aside from various plaudits earned by the winning cooks, the key outcome of this competition was a barbecue sandwich sale benefitting Raleigh’s Inter-Faith Food Shuttle. On Saturday afternoon, the meat from the competition became five-dollar sandwiches, with all the proceeds benefitting efforts at local hunger relief. In the last three years, they’ve sold more than 10,000 sandwiches for the very cause. This weekend, they raised at least $20,500 more.
The NC Barbecue Experience dinners were a bit less democratic: For two nights, two respected pitmasters—Matthew Register of Southern Smoke in Garland, North Carolina, and Tyson Ho of Arrogant Swine in Brooklyn—took turns smoking Goldsboro’s Cheshire Pork hogs, offering up the results during ticketed diners.
Each dinner provided its own distinctive, well, experience. Both pitmasters show clear deference to the traditions of slow-smoked pork while leaving their own marks in presentation and creativity. While Register’s pork was thinly pulled and Ho’s more coarsely sliced, each made his craftsmanship clear through season and smoke. The flavor of both reflected the elusive interplay of delicate smoke and pungent vinegar.
And though neither plate had one side dish in common, both pitmasters struck an intentional balance between tradition and innovation. Register’s tiny piquant new potatoes, for instance, were a welcome, vast improvement on the bland Nerf-spuds usually on offer east of the fall line. Ho’s apple-spiked yellow slaw turned a similar trick.
Ho and Register, both culinary autodidacts, understand that theirs is an increasingly rare craft—one thankfully buoyed by growing national interests in both regional culinary folkways and the provenance of one’s dinner. Ho dubbed people like himself and Register “acolytes of a dying religion,” of which he refers to Ed Mitchell as “the apostle.” For his part, Register declared that pitmasters have an obligation to keep the memory and methods of wood-smoked barbecue alive. He refuted the idea that what they do somehow reflects or represents a “barbecue bubble.”
“We’ve been smoking pigs in North Carolina for four centuries, and the bulk of that time it was pretty much identical to how Tyson and I do it,” he said. “If there’s a bubble to be burst, it’s not on our end.”
The overarching sentiment from both of these pitmasters seems to be that their work reflects an effort to respect the people and places that initiated this cuisine. Just as both Register and Ho understand the work that they do to be preservationist in nature, they also realize they are serving to educate people about what they do and why.
Striking the balance of doing something very old in a way that gets the attention of new people is a notion that comes into sharp focus while eating slow-cooked barbecue and listening to live bluegrass. There’s an unavoidable tension between preserving something without compromise and rendering it in such a way that it remains relevant and meaningful.
The parallels are as obvious as they are many—men and women proud of their respective crafts, eager to show that something quintessentially “traditional” can exist in this, or any other, moment with excellence.