It's time to reconsider Carolina barbecue

Picnic restaurant in Durham, North Carolina. Photo by Tom Wolf.

In a nondescript building situated in a strip mall five miles north of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Sam Suchoff is working the cash register at his barbecue restaurant, The Pig. With one of his staff having sliced a finger on a piece of strong aluminum foil, Suchoff is filling in where he is needed.

If, as Chip Stamey of the renowned Stamey’s in Greensboro suggests, being a “barbecue man…means you have to be able to do everything around the restaurant…be able to man the pits but also work the grounds and wait tables, work the cash register,” then Suchoff is being a good Carolina barbecue man.

If you asked most of the culinary tradition’s enthusiasts if the 33-year-old Suchoff was worthy of this title, however, they would almost certainly say no.

Not because he is a transplant from California. And probably not because he spent time cutting his culinary teeth in Andrea Reusing’s high-end Lantern restaurant in Chapel Hill. Probably not even because he is a former vegetarian who serves BBQ Tempeh at The Pig.

Sam Suchoff would not be considered among the ranks of those who uphold North Carolina’s long, rich barbecue tradition because he cooks his pork primarily with electricity—not smoke.

And yet—Suchoff has preserved a tradition, which has far wider-reaching implications for North Carolinians and their way of life than how pork is cooked, and which these enthusiasts have ignored almost entirely. He uses pork from hogs that were raised, as they had always been until the last few decades, outside.


The first reason given for the existence of the North Carolina-based “Campaign for Real Barbecue” is “to celebrate and to promote barbecue’s wood-cooking heritage.” In case this core mission of the Campaign is not clear enough, it includes a pledge for supporters that reads: “I will keep the Faith. I will not eat meat cooked only with gas or electricity and mislabeled ‘barbecue,’ except when courtesy requires it.”

Started by John Shelton Reed and Dan Levine—and supported by Michael Pollan and The Washington Post’s Jim Shahin among others—the Campaign, or at least this mission taken up by the Campaign, has received much attention in the last two years.

Last September, there was Shahin’s lengthy Washington Post column, “Why North Carolina’s barbecue is still smoldering.” Two months later, it was Calvin Trillin’s feature in The New Yorker, “In Defense of The True ‘Cue”. Our State magazine’s February 2016 edition was devoted to the various traditions of North Carolina barbecue.

The ideas found therein can all be traced to Reed’s Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue, co-authored with his wife Dale Volberg Reed, and acolyte William McKinney. John Shelton Reed, a professor emeritus at UNC-Chapel Hill, taught sociology and southern studies for more than three decades until 2000. Pre-retirement, he and his wife Dale were Carolina barbecue enthusiasts. Now, they are among its foremost authorities. Everyone I have spoken to about the culinary tradition agrees.

Holy Smoke offers an engaging and comprehensive history of North Carolina barbecue, a culinary tradition its authors take both seriously and faux-seriously. Throwing down the gauntlet in the first chapter, they write: “We won’t say that nobody else cooks ‘real barbecue.’ It’s just that they don’t cook North Carolina barbecue. That is, their barbecue isn’t perfect.” The Campaign’s website is also imbued with this tongue-in-cheek tone, as if to make clear that proponents take the cuisine, and not themselves, seriously.

One of Holy Smoke’s feats is that it traces the evolution of the various debates that surround Carolina barbecue—and barbecue, more broadly. Whole hog vs. pork shoulder. Vinegar-based vs. tomato/vinegar-based sauce. Cole slaw with mayonnaise vs. cole slaw without.

For most barbecue enthusiasts, these are the debates that define the tradition. It is on account of these deeply held differences of opinion that Calvin Trillin, in his New Yorker essay, wrote of the Research Triangle—which doesn’t have much stake in the fights over barbecue tradition—as a “demilitarized zone” where one “half expects to see the distinctive blue helmets of United Nations peacekeepers.”

For Reed, his co-authors, and the Campaign’s adherents, there is one debate in which there can be no compromise. The only way to cook barbecue, they would argue, is using primarily wood smoke. And because Suchoff does not cook using the historically preeminent method, his barbecue should be barred from consideration of tradition and authenticity.

Methods of cooking in a region’s culinary tradition are by no means trivial. They are arguably as important as a regional art, literature, poetry, etc. If North Carolina’s barbecue tradition includes cooking over wood, then there is a case to be made in reversing its endangerment.

But is this really more important than preserving an agricultural system that is, in every way, more just and sustainable than the one that has, with the help of corrupt governance, largely crushed it? Besides, if the Campaign cares about the way in which barbecue has been made traditionally in North Carolina, shouldn’t it also care about how its main ingredient has been traditionally raised?

Those who have spearheaded or chronicled the Campaign seem to have answered yes to the first question, and no to the second. When I asked William McKinney, the third co-author of Holy Smoke, about pasture- vs. confinement-raised pork, he referred to the former as “an indulgence.”

In 1974, 22,975 farms raised 1,414,751 hogs in North Carolina. By 1982, that number of farms had decreased more than twofold, to 11,390. But the number of pigs raised in the state had grown to 2,047,098. Ten years later, in 1992, 4,311 producers raised 5,100,979 hogs. And, finally, after to swelling to more than 10 million hogs raised in North Carolina, the latest USDA census shows that 2,217 farms are accountable for 8,901,434 hogs, the vast majority of which are raised in confinement facilities.

The grip that tightened around traditional hog farming (i.e. pasture-raised), forcing this consolidation and staggering growth in pork production, was not that of the free market’s invisible hand. It was that of taxpayer subsidies and deregulation resulting from unabashed political corruption.

As Joby Warrick and Pat Smith put it in their 1995 Pulitzer Prize-winning series for the Raleigh News and Observer: “While Midwestern states debate the merits of increased hog production against the loss of independent family farms, North Carolina's government and land-grant university have promoted and encouraged large-scale production for years.”

North Carolina’s state government, which included legislators with stakes in hog production, used a few essential measures to grow the pork industry.

In 1986 and 1987, state senator Harold W. “Bull” Hardison sponsored or co-sponsored bills to do away with sales tax on hog and poultry confinement facilities and related equipment. In 1988, while seeking the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor, Hardison received a $100,000 campaign contribution—exceeding the legal limit—from Wendell Murphy, the founding father of big pork in North Carolina, who had occupied a seat in the General Assembly since 1982. (By the time this illegal contribution was uncovered, in 1992, Murphy could no longer be prosecuted because the election law violations statute of limitations had a two-year limit. It was too late.)

Next, in 1991, Murphy co-sponsored a bill that would take out the teeth of any county’s effort to place zoning restrictions on hog facilities. In what is now a case of déjà vu, Murphy and the General Assembly’s assault on local power was a response to a local act passed in Mecklenburg County allowing it to issue its own definition of a farm.

Even after Murphy left the General Assembly in 1992—after three terms in the House and two in the Senate—he and his company retained an outsized influence on statewide legislation. The 1995 News and Observer series points out that, for two years, Murphy’s company and family received an average of 50 calls per week from state government. One call that epitomized the ties between the growing pork industry and state government came from Senate agriculture committee chairman Charles W. Albertson. He called Murphy on the same day that the General Assembly passed a bill to prevent state environmental regulators from being able to find out from the Department of Agriculture the location of hog facilities—a bill big pork had been pushing for.

The government that, in theory, represents the people of North Carolina neglected then—and has neglected since—those same people, in favor of propping up the confinement hog industry. And the government-assisted growth of this industry has come at the sacrifice, in particular, of poor North Carolinians, and people of color.

Research done by epidemiologist Steve Wing shows that the proportion of people of color who live within three miles of a hog confinement facility compared to non-Hispanic whites is 1.52. More specifically, the proportions are 1.54 higher for African Americans; 1.39 higher for Hispanics; and 2.18 higher for American Indians. According to the website, “Whole Hog,” more than 470 southeastern North Carolina residents filed complaints in 2013 against Smithfield and its subsidiary Murphy-Brown, claiming they have created a nuisance. This often means, as Wing points out, that residents have dealt with adverse health problems that can be attributed to sprawling hog facilities, including eye irritation, nausea, elevated blood pressure, and wheezing among other symptoms. Almost 90 percent of the plaintiffs are African-American.

Moreover, as Elsie Herring, an African-American resident of Duplin County whose home neighbors a hog confinement facility, told writer Barry Estabrook, “The whites get all the profits, and the blacks are the ones living with it.” She was hardly exaggerating. According to wholehognc.org, less than two percent of hog farms in North Carolina are Black-owned.

The short end of the stick has not been reserved only for hog facilities’ largely poor, minority neighbors. North Carolina’s air and waterways, and the hundreds of millions of pigs that have been confined inside have also suffered sordid fates.

In 1995, a manure “lagoon” at Oceanview Farms in Onslow County broke open, spilling 25 million gallons of waste into the Neuse River. The spill—not as big as the BP oil spill, but bigger than Exxon Valdez—was one of the biggest spills in U.S. history. Oceanview was fined all of $103,820.49.

Then, in 1999, Hurricane Floyd hit North Carolina. Hog waste lagoons flooded, emptying 120 million gallons into the Tar, Neuse, Roanoke, Pamlico, and Cape Fear rivers. Tens of thousands of pigs drowned. Hardly humbled, the lobby organization North Carolina Pork Council sought $1 billion in federal grants so that pork producers could repair their confinement facilities and waste lagoons.

In his latest book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, Michael Pollan describes a North Carolina hog confinement facility he has visited as “a deep circle of porcine hell the stench and shrieking squeals of which I can still vividly recall.” John Shelton Reed himself acknowledges pigs’ misfortune: “I cook [pasture-raised] pork when I’m cooking, but I do that for humane reasons, and not for culinary ones. Horrible things go on with cage-raised hogs. I mean it’s just a dreadful thing to do to any sort of animal, much less one as smart as a hog is.”

And yet, the traditional farming method of raising pigs outside, which has been endangered by confinement production only in the last few decades, gets no public mention from the Campaign, and rarely any from its adherents.

Reed admits that he is ambivalent when it comes to how barbecue restaurants source their pork. While he respects that Picnic (in Durham) and Buxton Hall (in Asheville) buy pasture-raised pork, he thinks that the price tag that practice requires shuts out the average North Carolinian. “The downside” of sourcing that way “is I don’t think you’re going to get too many electricians in there for lunch,” Reed says.

Although Reed would quibble with the authenticity of Sam Suchoff’s barbecue, The Pig charges a modest $5.25 for a barbecue sandwich topped with cole slaw and with a side of pickles. More famous barbecue institutions, which opt for confinement pork over pasture-raised, do not charge substantially less. One can order a barbecue sandwich at Stamey’s, in Greensboro, for $3.50; at the Skylight Inn, in Ayden, for $4.50; and at Allen and Sons, down the street from The Pig in Chapel Hill, for $5.90 (which also includes a side).

Does this price difference really exclude the electrician? Even if the cost of a barbecue sandwich using pasture-raised pork is closer to Picnic’s $8.95, it is worth considering why it costs more. When we buy barbecue that uses confinement pork, we do not pay the hidden costs that underlie abusing rural, poor, and minority North Carolinians; the state’s air and waterways; and hyper-intelligent animals—the costs of which are admittedly hard to quantify.

Splurging for barbecue that is more expensive because it has been prepared with the more labor-intensive wood-cooking method may be considered an indulgence. Spending more on a culinary tradition that treats humans, the environment, and animals with dignity should not.

When I met with Jamie Dement, who co-runs Coon Rock Farm in Hillsborough, she admitted that she, like Suchoff, had spent years without consuming meat. Dement grew up in eastern North Carolina, around family members who worked in confinement facilities, and became so disillusioned with that method of animal agriculture that she spent high school and part of college as a vegetarian.

Now, she raises pastured pigs—along with other livestock—for slaughter. Of her early proximity to confinement-raised hogs, she recalls: “I had a great uncle…when he had a set of pigs that he ate, they lived outside. And then he had 10,000 in a confinement house that he sold. That says it all to me.”