09/11/04 — How to cook barbecue in eastern North Carolina

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How to cook barbecue in eastern North Carolina

When it comes to putting on a festival, folks around Goldsboro are past masters.

Future ones, too, according to what seems to be shaping up for the end of October.

Already we have our Daffodil Festival at Fremont, Pikeville’s Independence Day revelry, Warsaw’s famous Veterans Day celebration, the Old-Timey Days at Seven Springs and the Garden Spot Festival at LaGrange, which was just this weekend.

Then, of course, there’s the award-winning North Carolina Pickle Festival at Mount Olive in the spring. Your wardrobe is sadly deficient if you don’t have a T-shirt from the pickle gala.

Well, now comes another mouth-watering celebration: The Feast in the East.

The star of this show will be pork barbecue as it is uniquely prepared in eastern North Carolina.

And how is that?

In the old tradition, you would start by digging a pit, and you would start about 24 hours before you expected company to come. For one reason, it takes a while to dig a pit. For another, this barbecue is cooked sloooowly. More on that later.

Next step: Build a fire of hardwood nearby.

Then you make yourself a grill to place over the pit. On eastern North Carolina farms when all this was done to celebrate the end of the tobacco-barning season or something, the grill might be a length of wire fence nailed to boards on all four sides. The pit would have been dug the width of the fence wire, which was stretched tightly. Voila! A custom-made barbecue grill.

In the pit you would place burning coals from your hardwood fire. The pig would be split in halves and the halves placed on the fence-wire grill over the coals.

Pretty soon, that place would be smelling mighty good! You’ve experienced the aroma of cooking pork, but imagine it in the out-of-doors with a sprinkle of vinegar added occasionally, the fat dripping onto the coals with a tiny little explosion followed by a high-pitched sizzzzzz and the smoke from the fat mingling with the smoke from the hardwood.

You keep feeding the fire with hardwood, bringing the coals and carefully pushing them under the pig. Just enough to keep it cooking; you’re not to hurry, even though the wait is getting tough. Usually there is plenty of company around for entertainment. People cooking barbecue have been known to enjoy a soda pop or something during the long process.

The first dividend comes in a few hours. The halves of the pig have been laid on the grill with the skin side up, but now it’s time for two strong men to grab front and hind legs and flip the halves. The skin side needs to cook longer and needs to be close to the fire.

This rotation exposes the ribs, which have been cooked through and may even bear just a bit of charred crust. These are easily separated, and the cooks and observers reward themselves with an early snack. There was never a more delectable appetizer than a spare rib when barbecue was cooking.

Finally, when the pig is done, the tender meat is fairly floating in the hardened skin. The meat is then chopped and the sauce is added, according to taste. Every barbecuer has his own recipe for sauce, usually vinegar-based and a little spicy.

Then it’s served with slaw.

This is the sort of thing you can expect at the Feast in the East on Oct. 29 and 30 at the Wayne County Fairgrounds. Not all barbecue is cooked in a pit anymore, but even when it’s cooked on a gas grill it’s barbecue. And it’s good, suffused with the tangy, irresistible flavor of eastern North Carolina.

Published in Editorials on September 11, 2004 11:06 PM