For nearly 5 years, I kept hearing so much about Eastern NC BBQ. On the weekend of August 4, 2018 I went to Eastern NC, to understand this barbecue culture and region. I had the opportunity to visit with Pitmasters Stephen Grady(Grady’s BBQ) and Rudy Cobb (Jack Cobb & Sons which is closing). I went specifically to visit them, as they are two of the last remaining black own whole hog bbq joints in Eastern NC from my understanding. If there are any more, black own whole hog bbq joints cooking with all wood in Eastern NC, please let me know.
While I was driving to Eastern NC, I was quickly reminded of the Pee Dee area of SC with the vast fields of tobacco. Seeing the tobacco fields and tobacco barns reminded me of my childhood, when I would visit Nichols, SC as child to see my maternal grandparents located in Marion Country, which is located near the border of NC and SC. Growing up in the southern part of the Pee Dee region in Paxville(outside of Manning, SC), tobacco fields were scattered around but not to degree as in Nichols or Eastern NC. Cotton was king in my part of Pee Dee Region. However, the landscape, the trees, the agriculture, the names of churches, and bbq pig pits (Above ground or on wheels) in people yards reminded me so much of home.
On my first stop at Grady’s, while talking to Mr. Stephen Grady I quickly realized Eastern NC BBQ was the exact same thing as Pee Dee Whole Hog BBQ. Then when I talked to Mr. Rudy Cobb, it was confirmed because Rudy described the firing of the hog with the cooking woods use, the same thing was done as taught to me in SC. However, the real confirmation to me came when both men spoke of their fathers cooking bbq in a hole in the ground. The described how they cook in the hole in the ground, nearly identical to how my father described to me as a child and later as an adult because that was how he learned to cook. In each of the individual stories, they all described the process and the resourcefulness it took to execute whole hog barbeque. The use of a vinegar based bbq sauce solidified the linkages, even if my own’s family sauce has mustard and tomato additions despite vinegar being a base. However, when I look at home, there are many people in my area who swears by vinegar-based pepper bbq sauce for whole hog. The culture around bbq that I can not omit right that came up in discussion on the trip, but I will discuss in a future post is the inseparable pairing of bbq with moonshine(stumphole, corn liquor) or wine(muscadine), from a period long before the ABC stores. The alcoholic booze pairing with bbq is no different than today’s craft brewery pairings with bbq. The last thing that was mysterious in my eyes, came down to idea that eastern NC has chopped up “crispy” skin in the pork and that was different to the bbq of SC. I did not really care so much about the cole slaw debate as I was focus on the pork itself.
On this bbq pilgrimage, I was fortunate to have good friend Marcus Bass, a fellow North Carolina A&T Aggie and Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity brother, from Clinton, NC to join me on this trip on a whim. Like me, he thought the difference was simply chopped pork with “crispy” pork skin and cole slaw. I had a theory on the chopped pork skin in pork skin in that it was not always present, rather it was an evolution of combining pork skin with pulled pork. The bombshell news came when we visited Marcus’s grandmother, to take her some Grady’s BBQ whom have catered their family gatherings for years and Marcus did not know this. Marcus’s grandmother eloquently described cooking pigs in the ground from her younger years no different than Mr. Grady, Mr. Cobb, or even my father. Then she told us they had pulled pork, crispy skin on the side, and a vinegar-based bbq sauce that the men mopped on the pig. At that moment, the heralded story of American BBQ was unfolding and being revealed from a time period I would say pre 1960s on farms across the American South. This to me solidified the connections of American BBQ, especially pitcooked bbq because recall there was no google or YouTube to pass this knowledge, just simply oral traditions and apprenticeships.
The old Eastern NC and Pee Dee Whole Hog BBQ were the same. The modern iteration of whole hog bbq in both regions does has its differences. One thing I would say, the chopped crisped skin changes the dimension of bbq when it is chopped in, when executed right in Eastern NC and it is something to appreciate. From an application point of view, the chopped skin would not go well into pulled pork. Skylight Inn in which I visited did a great job with this execution. Whomever, added this contribution to Eastern NC BBQ should be thanked, as I thoroughly enjoyed it. The execution of the chopped skin is also a key to understanding the quality and freshness of the pork. This is a tip, if the pork is freshly chopped and mixed with the skin, it will have that perfect bite and crunch. However, if the skin sits in the pork for any length of time, it will be soggy and it will not have that bite. The obvious differences in Eastern NC and Pee Dee now comes down to chopped vs pulled, cole slaw vs no cole slaw, no hash vs. hash, vinegar pepper sauce vs vinegar pepper sauce(also mustard and tomato), boiled potatoes vs rice, and fried corn sticks in Eastern NC.
There is so much more on what I want to share on the conversations with Mr. Grady and Mr. Cobb but you will have to wait on that story, book, article, lecture, etc. Contact me if you want to hear more.