Photograph: The enclosed brick pits and open stacks of thin-split hickory wood behind the parking lot of Stamey’s Barbecue on High Point Road in Greensboro North Carolina. The sign in the foreground requests, “This wood is property of Stamey’s Barbecue. Please do not remove.”
I have become a bit jaded about barbecue in the last year; the pork smoked, chopped and served in restaurants all over North Carolina. Not the barbecue itself, but the superlatives thrown at it with little thought in coffee table books and magazines such as Southern Living and Our State. Cute little stories of gingham tablecloths and too sweet tea that made barbecue restaurants seemingly the only reason one would ever want to visit the state.
Stumbling upon this scene in the photograph on a Saturday morning in Greensboro reminded me how important barbecue is to me. The brick pits, though there are other incarnations, are a shrine to which I can fall to my knees and drink in. This thin brick building that may appear to an outsider as a demonstration unit for a woodstove manufacturer is where men called pitmasters make the barbecue all of those freelance magazine writers fawn over.
The pitmasters walk around this building all day. They walk to the side of the building pictured here, pick up shards of hickory, and chuck them in to the half moon openings that are knee level and choked with soot. The men stand for a minute, puzzling, and then walk to the other side of the building, where rectangle thick metal doors break up the pattern of the brick wall. Inside, two feet off the ground, lay pork shoulders (and pork shoulders only, staying true to the “Lexington Style”), which lay for 9 hours in the hickory smoke and indirect heat.
I respect these men, because they do hard work. They get up when we are asleep and start their work. They lift pork shoulders and hickory wood for hours, over and over. The heat, an intense heat from the hickory wood which burns at almost double the B.T.U’s of most other firewood, saps at their energy and robs them of the sweat nature gave them to cool. The pitmasters cook pig almost every day, all year around, whether its 95 degrees and humid, or 34 degrees and spitting rain.
I like the irony of the preparation of barbecue. Pork barbecue, indigenous only to North Carolina and parts of South Carolina, is a fast food eaten in drive-ins and paper napkin sit-down restaurants just like hamburgers and hot dogs are eaten by people across the United States. It is a cheap food too, a couple of dollars will buy you a barbecue sandwich with slaw; made with a Bunny brand white bread bun if you are lucky. But, the preparation of pork barbecue takes the seller 9 hours at the least. That is a much different “prep to table” timeline than the hot dogs swimming in pink water and the hamburgers on the griddle in the fast food restaurants of every American street corner.
I eat pork barbecue once a week, and live it much more often, in my dreams, and my conversations. I sometimes guard my devotion, especially with people I know that did not grow up with a Stamey’s or Wilbur’s or Lexington Barbecue #1 in their frame of reference. Many friends would never sit down with me on my barbecue home turf, a picnic table beside Allen & Son restaurant, to eat shredded pork with slaw and hushpuppies, and talk. They could not, because their religion forbids eating pork, or they follow dietary restrictions or act upon their feelings about the state of the meat processing business in the U.S. I respect that. I don’t judge their decision.
But, I sometimes feel self-conscious. The caricature of a barbecue eater is a man sunburned, and with a grin, eating a lowly food. Barbecue is much more complex. Barbecue is part of my shared history. Men and women who cook and sell barbecue for their living most likely learned the craft at home, from their family. The old-timers.
I learned from my family too. My grandfather cooked pigs on Saturdays, not for money, but to satisfy the basic human need for companionship. He was a long-time widower, and the smell of the vinegary, smoky barbecue in an insular town of 600 would draw out the neighbors into his yard for supper. My father has always made barbecue; owns a cooker on wheels, one of his prized possessions. It is part of my oral lore remembering the Saturday 25 years ago; hearing my father pontificate to a newspaper reporter at the first “Hillsborough Hog Day,” of which he was a cooking contestant, some lugubrious line to the effect of ” my daddy cooked barbecue, in the Eastern Style, I cook barbecue for you here today, and some day I guess my two sons will cook barbecue too….”
I will, and I will continue to eat the barbecue men and women work so hard to share with me; at Stamey’s in Greensboro, and Speedy’s in Lexington, and in the backyards of friends and family who practice the barbecue faith.