Mile 923-953: Carolina Bar-B-Q and Richard’s Bar-B-Q

SALISBURY, NC. — Low on the list of arguments among the barbecue cognoscenti: debating chopped vs. pulled. In our limited time in North Carolina, there’s no doubt which was superior. 

Chopped, all the way.

The question, then, was why?

We spent the afternoon dining at two Piedmont-area institutions: Carolina in Statesville and Richard’s in Salisbury. Luck of lucks, both served sauces closer to the Eastern ideal of North Carolina barbecue  apple cider vinegar and pepper spiked, without the added ketchup so prevalent in this region. No matter, good smoked pork discriminates no sauce.

Restaurants here offer meat in two forms: chopped to a mishmash, almost like pork chaw. Or pulled (also referred to as “sliced”), where it’s hand-pulled into ropes of meat.

We essentially have two presentations of the same pork shoulder, each with a clear difference in taste. With chopped, the texture is uniformly moist, thus the porcine flavors immediate. Or, as one waitress explained: “Less chewin’.”

Pulled pork seems to require more work. There’s an additional three seconds of gnashing before the pork releases its juices. And I’ve never found strings of pork that separate on the grain to be good conduits of flavor. Perhaps it was eating fibrous, flavorless versions in my youth, so now my brain references the negative taste memories of pulled pork past. 

An argument, though, could be made for pulled pork. Occasionally it comes attached to the “outside brown,” the prized smoke-crisped exterior that’s fabulously seasoned. And sometimes there are delicious bits of fat attached to the lean meat. It’s a luck of the draw: with 20 percent of a pulled/sliced plate, you’ll taste extraordinary bites.

My theory was validated by Richard Monroe of Richard’s Bar-B-Q, a pitmaster for 43 years (his masterwork is pictured in the two pictures with this post). He said customers who order chopped outnumber pulled three-to-one. But he doesn’t believe there’s a discernible difference in taste.

While at Richard’s, I called up John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance (and my favorite food writer), to pick his brain on the matter. He warned: “When people argue over any kind of absolutes like Piedmont vs. Eastern, chopped vs. pulled, they all vary depending on the pitmaster.”

He added that the differences between chopped and pulled become more pronounced the farther I head east in North Carolina. Piedmont BBQ uses almost exclusively shoulder. Closer to the coast, it’s whole-hog country, where chopped meat becomes a hash of textures  pork shoulder, belly, loin, even bits of crispy skin.

I take that as meaning chopped barbecue in Eastern North Carolina might taste even better. That’s where we’re headed, first thing tomorrow.