SHELBY, NC. — We begin North Carolina barbecue proper. Other sources will be more thorough, but here’s an abbreviated explanation:
There exists a culture war in North Carolina, a divide as vast as the state is wide. The difference between “Eastern North Carolina” and “Piedmont-style North Carolina” is but one ingredient — ketchup — but defenders on either side won’t ever see eye-to-eye. In the east, the hog is smoked whole. Meat from all parts of the pig, including crispy bits of rind, are chopped into a hash of pork textures. The sauce is based on vinegar and peppers; food historians believe this originated from immigrants of the West Indies stretching back to the 17th century.
About a century ago, Piedmont style seceded, declaring its indepedence from the East. In “Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue,” authors John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed point out that early settlers in the central-west part of the state had names such as Stamey, Ridenhour, Swicegood — Americanized versions of the Germanic Stemme, Reitnaur and Schweissgouth. Further, the authors theorize that German settlers added ketchup to Eastern sauce (H.J. Heinz unveiled consumer-grade ketchup at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia), and the added sugar gave the sauce a sweet-and-sour profile prevalent in German cooking. Rather than using the whole hog, shoulder is the favored cut of pork in the west — an inexpensive cut, but with a fattiness that lessens the chances of the meat drying out.
The squabbling goes on today, and really, it’s over that lone ingredient. Westerners think Eastern barbecue is one-note and mushy; Eastern purists express the same heretical feeling regarding ketchup as Chicagoans do when it comes to ketchup as a condiment for hot dogs. (Technically, there’s a third style in the far western part of the state — ”mountain-style barbecue” — a heavy tomato sauce similar to what you’d find in Kansas City. But arguments are easier fought one-on-one … and so it goes.)
We arrived in Shelby, a 45-minute straight-shot west of Charlotte, on the periphery of Piedmont barbecue country. Several days earlier, I connected with Jackie Bridges, an editor at the local daily The Shelby Star. After a lovely chat on the phone, we agreed to meet for lunch Sunday at Bridges Barbecue Lodge.
There are a lot of Bridges living in Shelby. Jackie’s husband, Bruce, is a distant fourth cousin to the family who owns Bridges Barbecue Lodge, which has been smoking pork for some 60 years. Jackie and Bruce grew up here in Cleveland County. Dining out was reserved for special occasions, and when they did, chances were they ate at the Barbecue Lodge. People in Shelby head to one of two places for their ‘cue: Bridges Barbecue Lodge or Alston Bridges — yes, yet another of the Bridges smoking pork in town. “A friendly rivalry,” Jackie explained.
The couple said they prefer Lodge over Alston. They have arguments with friends from Lexington — considered the cradle of Piedmont barbecue 80 miles northeast of here — about which town serves the better barbecue. Zoom farther out, and they fight over Piedmont vs. Eastern style (“I was just in Raleigh,” Bruce said, “and their barbecue is terrible.”). Soon, they’re defending North Carolina ‘cue against the rest of America. No matter what geographic level, there’s a friendly argument to be made, a nesting doll of divisions, where there are always two competing sides. And the folks in Shelby happen to think they’ve got points won on every level — ipso facto, they have the greatest barbecue in the whole world. They truly believe this.
Other than updating seats from an ugly green to a less-ugly turquoise, Bridges Barbecue Lodge is a time capsule. If you work here, you don’t leave. Same goes for customers. I met Jeanette Ross, who told me she remembers the first day the restaurant ever offered hush puppies — a half century ago.
Behind a white fence out back, hickory logs are stacked five feet high in a neat row that stretches at least 30 yards. (A fellow barbecue aficionado gave me this advice: ”If you don’t see a pile of wood in the back, turn around.”)
Back inside, we sit in a corner circular booth. Jackie and Bruce order pitchers of sweet tea for the table, de rigueur in this part of the world. Here, it is one notch over sweet, but the melted ice self-corrects the pitchers to just-perfect.
The hush puppies resemble tamarind — long pods of dense and crispy fried cornmeal batter, a touch sweet and addictive. I dip one into the house sauce, the first time I’ve sampled proper Piedmont style. The whiff of vinegar is so pungent it snaps my head back. Then I taste it: There is clearly the concentrated-sweetness of ketchup, giving way to tang, before the pepper afterburner fires up, like a sauce in three movements. The realization comes that the sauces I’m used to, the sweet tomato-based sauces you’d find in Kansas City or Memphis, act as a complement: They take meats and bend the flavor to a different angle, and sometimes, overwhelm it. The vinegar-based sauce here makes pork taste porkier. It operates like salt, as a flavor-augmenter. (Plus there’s the added physiological benefit: In “On Food and Cooking,” Harold McGee talks about acids’ effect on taste buds, how they literally make the mouth water.)
The inclusion of tomato, the eternal debate among Tar Heelers, is then less about philosophical differences than a matter of personal preference. Do you like your sauce with a hue of red?
The chopped pork is tremendous, but the greater thrill is tasting “outside brown,” the crispy, hickory smoke-hardened exterior layer of meat. This is the start point where all seasoning begins its long seep inward. The ketchup/vinegar-spiked coleslaw, a brighter, crunchier version of its mayo-based brethren, is by definition a proper accompaniment, as opposed to side dish.
For a coda, we try a pimento cheese sandwich, a new experience for Keith and me. Cheese, mayonnaise and cherry peppers melt into a single, gooey, intoxicating mass, sandwiched between buttered press-toasted bread. This, like everything else in our first North Carolina barbecue experience, knocks us for a loop.