North Carolina Barbecue:
Part of a 350-Year Heritage
Authentic barbecue has been at the center of a rich traditional food heritage in North Carolina for over three and a half centuries. Europeans observed native peoples on both the islands of the West Indies and on the eastern edge of North America building frameworks of green saplings for smoking meat over pits of glowing wood coals. The Spanish term barbacoa—from which the English word barbecue was derived—is an adaptation of a Caribbean Taino Indian word describing these early barbecue grills.
Some of the earliest colonial regulations prohibited discharging muskets "at barbecues." George Washington once wrote in a diary, "Gone to a barbecue. Back in three days." Virginia colonists derided North Carolina settlers for consuming prodigious amounts of "swine's flesh." From the earliest days, North Carolina barbecue has always centered on fire-roasted pork. Most Tar Heel settlers could afford pigs, which could be turned loose to root for acorns and other food, whereas cattle required pasturage.
The common practice in the first-settled coastal plain of North Carolina was to roast split whole hogs over wood coals and to anoint the crispy-yet-succulent meat with the English "catsup" of the time: vinegar enlivened with salt, hot peppers and, occasionally, a dash of oyster juice for flavor. Tomatoes were not commonly consumed in colonial days, as they were thought to be poisonous.
Thus, the whole hog, live coal-roasted barbecue of the east—along with its vinegary, tomato-less sauce—became America's first form of barbecue. The German settlers who swept into North Carolina's piedmont by way of the Great Wagon Road later established the custom of barbecuing only the pork shoulder and of adding a little tomato puree and sugar to the vinegar sauce of the east (once tomatoes were discovered to be safe to eat.) As barbecue practices followed westward expansion beyond the Appalachians, more and more tomato and sweeteners were added to barbecue sauces; and ribs, fowl, mutton and beef brisket became frequently included among the most commonly barbecued meats.
Barbecue has always been the food of celebration in North Carolina, and we're glad you've joined us to celebrate one of our state's most revered food traditions.
By Bob Garner