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Sep 15

Holy Smoke: Vintage North Carolina barbecue from local church cookbooks — by Stephan Rantz

Posted on September 15, 2022 at 10:10 AM by Tamara Vaughan

Holy Smoke: Vintage North Carolina barbecue from local church cookbooks — contributed by Stephan Rantz

This week, the Museum opens an exhibit from the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources on the history and tradition of North Carolina barbecue. Stephan Rantz takes look in the treasure trove of church cookbooks in the Heritage Research Center at the High Point Public Library to find tasty and vintage recipes inspired by our “Holy Grub.” As befits any church picnic or potluck, there’s plenty to try and something for everyone. 

 Illustration 1, Title image

 

If you don’t live in a state like North Carolina where barbecue is practically a religion, then it is impossible for you to know what is really meant by that single, holy-smoked word: barbecue. [You have to say it with reverence to get the right tone of voice.]

As Bob Garner points out in his tome to barbecue, North Carolina Barbecue: Flavored by Time, for many people, the word “barbecue” implies a kind of grill, either those as small as a hibachi or as massive as a propane spit roaster. They use the word like this: “Put the corn on the barbecue” instead of, “Put the corn on the grill.” Can you imagine? Still to others, when one hosts a barbecue, it means one invites people over to ‘pig out’ on grilled food, namely hotdogs and hamburgers, or maybe a steak if you’re lucky, not our famous entrée.

‘Round these parts, barbecue is pork with a sauce. Period. 

The sauce might vary somewhat depending on what part of North Carolina one is from, but rest assured, it is going to be vinegar-based. We don’t use that pasty stuff like Texans: the red sticky stuff that resembles something out of a crime scene. We go for the more refined vinegar sauce, something so ephemeral it’s almost like it could evaporate if you don’t eat it fast enough.

 

Illustration 2, Barbecuing Pork over a Pit

 

Adrian Miller recounts in his essay, Toward a Theology of Barbecue (FaithandLeadership.com), that it was a retired newspaper columnist who nicknamed North Carolina’s barbecue “the Holy Grub… recognizing that religious words have power to describe things near-inexpressible…” like church and barbecue! He further relates the social aspects of gathering for a pit-roasted pig and how there was nothing better than a barbecue at early church camp meetings to bring people into the arms of evangelism. The use of a church as a social hub was especially prominent among African American congregations in the rural south. Miller credits the African American diaspora with the spread of barbecue westward and into more urban areas. Each place adapting the essence of barbecue to their own local traditions. 

For example, in Texas, beef is the object of barbecue worship, not pork. A former Texan who moved to North Carolina expressed his shock over NC barbecue in an essay for The State Magazine:

I was twenty-six years old before I tasted what Carolinians call ‘barbecue,’ and truly my life has not been the same since! As a Texan, it took two or three years to get over the shock that anyone, let alone the combined populations of North and South Carolina, could call a plate of chopped up pork ‘barbecue.’… So when a Carolinian says, ‘Let’s go get some barbecue,’ he always means pork. It is usually served chopped or shredded in order to disguise the fact that often some of the less appetizing parts of the pig creep into the mixture. That’s why some folks don’t mind paying extra for sliced barbecue when it’s available, because that way you won’t be sinking your teeth into any ears, snouts, tails, or other unmentionables. (April 1980)

Unmentionables? Yikes! Fortunately, Western NC barbecue usually focuses on only the best bits of the pig: the pork shoulder. We are certainly lucky here in High Point, where it seems as though there have always been plenty of restaurants around us in the Piedmont where we can get great barbecue. 

 

Illustration 3, Vintage Restaurant ads

 

We are especially fortunate that High Point is so closely situated to Lexington, home of the quintessentially Western-style barbecue – often called Lexington-style – and the famous Lexington Barbecue Festival! Often this area is designated as a Bible belt, but if we’ve cut extra notches on our belts, it’s because of the barbecue.

Aside from the well-known establishments, I’ve discovered that often the best barbecue is found at private events: smoked in pits, either at church fundraisers or family celebrations. Usually hosting a real pig-picking barbecue is a huge affair, and that’s why it is reserved for only very special occasions. The home cook will not go out and pull up the daisies from their landscaped backyard just to build a barbecue pit. However, domestic chefs still cannot let the idea go entirely, and they want their suburban meals to echo the happiness and flavor of a social barbecue. The Heritage Research Center’s community cookbook collection is full of dishes inspired by our own North Carolina barbecue. These classic recipes from church chefs continue to expand the definition of barbecue, dripping vinegar-based sauces like nectar wherever possible. 

Interestingly, an early North Carolina receipt for barbecue was with opossum, not pork or beef. Apparently, whenever one has a hankering for barbecue, one uses what is on hand. 

 

Illustration 4, Opossum recipe

 

The ‘possum just demonstrates the degree to which barbecue is imprinted in our DNA. North Carolina even named a swamp in Harnett County “Barbecue Swamp.” According to the North Carolina Gazetteer, Red Neill McNeill saw morning mists rising from the swamp and it reminded him of smoke rising from barbecue pits in the West Indies. That was long about 1750! And no doubt, the swamp gave way to the township named Barbecue, also in Harnett County.

 

Illustration 5, Barbecue Church

 

The American Sociologist, John Shelton Reed, wrote, “Southern barbecue is the closest thing we have in the US to Europe’s wines or cheeses; drive a hundred miles and the barbecue changes.” In that sense, perhaps any Texans among us would have felt more at home if they encountered the more steer-friendly recipes from Springfield Friends, although I’m sure these domesticated receipts are no real replacement for a whole beef brisket.

 

Illustration 6, Springfield Cookery

 

Even though the author, Pat Conroy, claimed that there were “no ideas in the South, just barbecue,” we make up for it with all of our ideas about barbecue. Another beefed-up recipe is this vintage Barbecued Meat Loaf recipe from the Jamestown United Methodist Church.

 

Illustration 7, Jamestown Methodist

 

These little barbecue cups from the Summerfield United Methodist Church might having you dancing the Texas Two-Step.

 

Illustration 8, Summerfield United Methodist

 

Vintage or not, meatballs remain a popular hors d’oeurve at social gatherings. The classic sauce makes these “barbecued.”

 

Illustration 9, Crestwood Presbyterian Church

 

The more humble chicken is a popular choice for home comfort food, as well as for those whose diet excludes pork. Most of the community cookbooks in our collection include a barbecued chicken receipt like this one from the Calvary Methodist Church women.

 

Illustration 10, Calvary Methodist

 

The Emmanuel Lutheran Cook Book includes a variation of Barbecued Chicken with cranberry sauce thrown into the mix. Seems like everyone has a secret ingredient for their sauce!

 

Illustration 11, Lutheran Cook Book

 

Of course, when you get right down to basics, the sauce is the real concern. We won’t argue East vs. West here, however. Bob Garner’s barbecue book gives the two classic receipts treasured throughout North Carolina. His Eastern NC barbecue sauce recipe scares up enough to baste the whole pig, but you can store it without refrigeration and use it to season other meats. Just mix: 2 quarts apple-cider vinegar, 1 ½ to 2 ounces crushed red pepper, 2 tablespoons salt, 1 tablespoon black pepper. Garner’s “Lexington-style Dip” simmers all the ingredients over medium heat: 3 cups apple-cider vinegar, 2/3 cup brown or white sugar, ½ cup catsup, 2 tablespoons Texas Pete hot sauce, 1 teaspoon each of black pepper, salt, Worcestershire sauce and onion powder, and 2 teaspoons of Kitchen Bouquet browning sauce. Garner suggests letting the whole mixture rest for several hours before using.

Getting back to our church cookbooks, Janice Hooks of High Point’s First Baptist Church succinctly relays a receipt for sauce that works “great for pork or chicken.” While two receipts from Greensboro’s Holy Trinity Episcopal Church provide separate recipes for chicken and pork.

 

Illustration 12, First Baptist Church

 

Illustration 13, Greensboro Holy Triniy

 

As we all know, the sides served with barbecue are nearly as important as the pig itself. If you grew up in eastern North Carolina as I did, your barbecue plate was traditionally served with mayonnaise-based slaw and perhaps Brunswick stew, whereas in the western part of the state, a barbecue or “red slaw” is more popular, along with a starch of some kind. Baked beans are always a good choice no matter which part of the state you come from.

 

Illustration 14, Stars of NC

 

Illustration 15, First Presbyterian

 

The crowning achievement for a perfect barbecue celebration is the dessert. While many might argue that you can’t go wrong with your granny’s bannana pudding, others might be just as proud to serve Pig-Picking Cake. After all, according to Eater.com, the Pig-Picking Cake was the most distinct dish Googled by North Carolina residents looking for a recipe. The website further suggested that the cake originated in our state, probably before refrigeration, when boxed and canned ingredients were the staples most local homes would have on hand. The cake is fast, easy and perfect for the traditional barbecue, so that the home chefs could concentrate on the pig and the sides. The following recipe from Hillside Park Baptist Church in Thomasville adds the more contemporary ingredient of Cool Whip to the frosting. 

 

Illustration 16, Hillside Park Baptist

 

The best barbecue I’ve ever eaten was at a party hosted by an artist who grew up near High Point and ended up buying her own little abandoned ghost town near Raleigh:  Merry Oaks. Librarian and artist Anne Hill signed her drawings as “A Hill,” more like the title of a landscape than an artist’s signature. She was famous for her parties, the best and the most bizarre of which was her pig pickin’ party. One year, when bidding on a WUNC fundraising premium, she “won” that year’s Spivey’s Corner Hog Hollerin’ Champion. The unusual inspiration for a party prompted an article in Raleigh’s News and Observer

A front porch circle of friends at artist Anne Hill’s home is almost guaranteed to be an odd and entertaining assortment. A headmaster, a farmer, a Spivey’s Corner hollerin’ champion, a professor, a weaver, a forester, a pharmacist and, of course, her Volvo mechanic. 

So when three vans of visiting Russians, translators and American VIPs also turned up in the dirt driveway of her Merry Oaks home for a Saturday pig pickin’ no one could have been too surprised. (April 26, 1988)

When Hill decided to have the huge blowout party, she hired two of the best pit masters from Durham to provide the barbecue, which they cooked right there at Merry Oaks. Eager to demonstrate her generous Southern hospitality, Anne invited a busload of touring Russians she learned would be in the area. Even though they showed up with their own interpreters, there was something about the barbecue that transcended language barriers. As it was reported, one of the Russians said in perfect English, “We weren’t expecting to find any people like us.”

 

Illustration 17, N and O article

 

A great barbecue tends to override any social distinctions and prompts harmonizing interactions among its celebrants. It makes people feel comfortable and at home. It’s always the big, fancy dinners that make people feel awkward and confined. Yet, under a Carolina-blue sky, a pig-picking with traditions going back generations has a way of making everyone feel special and fortunate to have been invited. There’s usually enough food that even people who weren’t on the original guest list can take part in the festivities and thank their lucky stars that they were in the right place at the right time.

Chef G. Garvin is quoted as saying, “Backyard barbecues are really just about getting together. It’s about making people come over, having a really good time, talking about their lives, and sharing some great recipes.” 

In the tradition of sharing, if any readers would like to share a recipe or a fond barbecue memory, please add your comments to this post. 

Y’all come back now, ya hear?

 

 

Stephan Rantz is a Research Associate in the Heritage Research Center at the High Point Public Library. Contact him at 336.883.3637 or stephan.rantz@highpointnc.gov

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