my family barbecue recipe... around 400 years old... eastern NC
Folks seemed to like my chili recipe, so I thought I'd offer up some info on how we do barbecue in my family. My folks came to NC/VA/SC via the islands (where they learned the technique) close to 400 years ago. This is very traditional (mostly pork) barbecue, that uses no expensive equipment - no smokers, just a pit (a hole in the ground). It needs no fancy rubs or sweet sauces. I've made quite a bit of my living barbecue catering. This is not the barbecue you see on tv or in Kansas City style contests. Folks are always amazed when they taste it.... usually they feel like they have been fooled into thinking a substandard, commercial, over-hyped product was the real deal... it isn't. Anyway, here is an article I wrote a decade or so ago. BTW, it also works great for bear, coon, etc… any fatty game... and can be adjusted for beef or goat/mutton... if you use lean game, you will need to lard it. Goose or duck can be cooked like a pork shoulder. Chicken and turkey need much less cooking time and I like to finish all poultry hotter to crisp the skin.
From a series of articles I wrote for the NC Visitor Center:
Real North Carolina Barbecue
Real North Carolina barbecue is a dying art. Real North Carolina barbecue is either pork shoulders or a whole hog cooked very, very slowly over hardwood coals. The coals come from real wood – predominately oak and hickory – which are burned down to glowing embers and shoveled under the pork. It takes about 10 hours of this difficult physical labor to cook pork shoulders and up to twenty hours to cook a whole hog. The result is amazingly tender, smoky (but not over smoked), succulent, salty pork which may be complimented by vinegar based sauce. Down East, the sauce is only vinegar and spices; the further west you travel, the more tomato paste or ketchup is added.
Pork shoulders or whole hogs cooked using a gas or electric heat source is just roast pork. Roast pork can be very good, especially with the right sauce, but it ain’t barbecue! In times past, North Carolina was full of real barbecue joints. But, cooking real barbecue is very hard work and hickory is expensive. Every year or so we lose another real barbecue restaurant; they either close down or convert to gas. When they close, I mourn the loss. When they convert to gas, I get angry, stomp around the parking lot for a while, label it the work of the devil and vow never to return.
Of course, there are plenty of folks who enjoy roast pork masquerading as barbecue just as much as the genuine article. Some would argue that North Carolina barbecue is more popular today than ever and certain chain, fast food “barbecue” businesses (that shall remain nameless because I will not dignify them with the honor of a mention) do such a good business that it can be hard to find a table. So, I guess this is really just my own opinion, and the success of the “whomp biscuit” is evidence that my opinion probably isn’t worth much.
You know what a “whomp biscuit is”, don’t you? Whomp biscuit was a term coined by the late Jerry Clower, who said that the saddest sound in the world is that of canned “biscuits” being “whomped” on the counter. I have to agree with the most famous son of Yazoo Mississippi on that one. I compare every biscuit I eat to those my great grandmother made. She used real lard. Lard and butter are gifts from God. Scientists figured out how to squeeze oil from carrots (or celery or some such nonsense) to make margarine and vegetable oil. I don’t understand it, it doesn’t taste as good as butter, lard or even olive oil and I won’t eat it. Sure, “health professional” claim that such test-tube alternatives are better for you, but my great grandparents lived to be 96 and 99 – when was the last time you met someone who ate margarine and lived to be close to 100? A better question may be who would want to live to be 100 if they had to give up butter, lard, real barbecue, greasy collard greens, red meat, chicken with the skin left on, etc, to do so?
Perhaps the saddest thing about the decline of real barbecue in North Carolina is that cooking barbecue is an indigenous art. North Carolina can rightly claim to be the birthplace of barbecue in America. Early colonists came to North Carolina and the southern costal areas of Virginia by way of the Caribbean, where they witnessed island folks roasting pigs in pits dug in the ground. Historical accounts of pig pickin’s in NC and VA run throughout the development of the colonies and the birth of our nation, but the tradition really took hold in our state. In fact, I live in the Lynchburg, VA area for a few years and folks would drive hours down to Short Sugar’s in Reidsville for North Carolina barbecue.
All North Carolinians should be proud of our culinary heritage. The descendents of the white colonists employed black slaves as “pit masters”. Soon, certain black men became legendary barbecue cooks. Some earned enough money cooking barbecue to buy their freedom. After the Civil War, black owned barbecue and “soul food” restaurants began in the south and spread through the industrialized north, as black folks gained renown for cooking the same wonderful foods as white folks did in the rural south.
Over the past few decades though, our culinary arts have been in decline. Even as the Food Network celebrates southern food with special programs, fewer and fewer southerners are cooking in the fashion of their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. The reasons are obvious – the general homogenization of culture due to television, the steady influx of northerners moving south, high divorce rates, working mothers not having the time to teach their daughters to cook, fast food, packaged and frozen food, etc. When was the last time you fried chicken, or ate anyone’s home-fried chicken? Most fried chicken these days comes from the Kentucky Fried Chicken. KFC is great, but it can’t hold a candle to my grandmother’s fried chicken! I can’t fry chicken like my grandmother, neither can anyone in my family – it is a lost art and our lives are emptier for it.
The whole hog style (universally popular Down East) of barbecue takes more time and effort than the pork shoulder style of North Carolina’s piedmont, and real barbecue has become harder to find east of Interstate 95. There are a few legendary joints that still cook real barbecue Down East, but most of the remaining real barbecue restaurants are in the piedmont. Please eat at independently owned, traditional southern restaurants and help keep our culture alive. And, if your parents and/or grandparents are still alive, learn their recopies and techniques and please, please pass them on to your children. This is our proud southern heritage and it must not be lost!
End note 1: Credit should be given to Bob Garner for documenting the history of North Carolina barbecue in his books and programs and for also doing so much to keep the tradition alive. Credit should also be given to The Lexington Collection for their efforts in promoting real barbecue http://www.ibiblio.org/lineback/lex.htm
End note 2: There is no shame in using good quality hardwood lump charcoal in place of live hardwood coals if you are cooking barbecue in your backyard. Good lump charcoal (not briquettes) is simply hardwood burned down to coals and then extinguished. You will still want to add some hickory wood for flavor.
End note 3: I prefer piedmont style barbecue pork, but Down East sauce - that is my own bias. I was born in the Blue Ridge Mountains, but my mother’s family was from Bladen County. I spent fairly equal amounts of time growing up Down East as in the mountains, passing through the piedmont on every trip. I’ll go ahead and recommend my favorite sauce: Scott’s. Legend has it that the recipe for the sauce came to Rev. Scott (a black minister from the Goldsboro area) in a dream. I can’t vouch for Scott’s barbecue, but the sauce is fantastic. It is vinegary, peppery, spicy and never overpowers the meat; in fact, it highlights the flavors. One may argue that a bit of ketchup or sugar will bring out the flavor of the smoke in the pork, but Scott’s is what I grew up on and what I prefer. I also prefer Down East slaw. So, in this series, I’ll focus on the meat, the history, the pits and the cooks. Besides, sauce is what people focus on when the barbecue isn’t good enough to be the star – the places I’m reviewing cook fantastic barbecue!
I decided to start this series on Uwharrie/NC piedmont barbecue with “Lefler’s Place Café and Grocery”, because Lefler’s is everything real North Carolina barbecue should be. First of all, Lefler’s is in one of North Carolina’s most historically significant areas. Lefler’s is in the Pee Dee community (officially a part of Mt. Gilead) near the river for which it was named. Pee Dee is basically a cross-road.
Native Americans populated the banks of the Pee Dee long before recorded history – the Town Creek Indian Mound is just on the other side of Mt. Gilead from Pee Dee. White folks settled in the area some time in the early 1700s. This was cotton plantation country through the Civil War and cotton remained the driving force of Montgomery County’s economy well into the 1900s.
Lefler’s Place opened in 1922. As of today, Lefler’s has been in business for about 86 years. Consider that most restaurants in America close in under three years from opening and you’ll begin to realize just how unique is Lefler’s Place. Consider also that little has changed in the way Lefler’s cooks and serves its barbecue over those 86 years – I think they may be onto something. I’m not the only one to recognize the quality of Lefler’s; the restaurant was a favorite of both Elvis Presley and Dale Earnhardt!
I’m told that Lefler’s has the last remaining outdoor, wood burning barbecue pit in Montgomery County. I checked out the pit and found it to be the real deal:
Lefler’s is a true “wood burner”. See the wood in the chimney ready to be burned? Here is a closer look (backyard barbecuers take note, this is how a real barbecue pit should be built):
The wood burns, the coals fall through the grates and are shoveled under the pork shoulders. The big steel cover raises up using a pulley system weighted with cinder blocks, and the meat cooks on the grill.
Lefler’s Place is the oldest operating store and grill from Montgomery County to Charlotte. The atmosphere is great - down home, southern – part old country store and part barbecue joint.
Pictures of Dale Earnhardt line the wall as do huge mounted bass (the fishing is great in the Uwharries).
Lefler’s is the type of place that used to be a lot more common in North Carolina – a place where old men from the community gather every morning about dawn to drink coffee and talk about farming, hunting, politics, sports and such. It is a place where “everybody knows your name” and the heart of a community. The first time I visited Lefler’s, the diners included farmers dressed in overalls, businessmen in suits, tables full of older ladies “dressed to the nines” with fresh from the beauty shop hair, all eating lunch, and plenty of folks just sitting around talking. Often times, when a place like Lefler’s closes, a community dies with it.
Each menu bears their message, “We want our customers to feel at home at Lefler’s Place. Our family enjoys making you smile and feel warm and welcome. We strive to give you excellent service. We thank you for your patronage and hope the atmosphere was an enjoyable one! And.. May God Bless You.” They also promise, “to provide the highest quality food while giving you courteous and dependable service at an economical price.”
The pictures above of the pit speak to the quality of the food. You don’t cut any corners cooking barbecue that way. What you may not know is how much hard work goes into cooking barbecue the traditional way – hours of hot, sweaty, backbreaking work, burning wood, shoveling coals, smoke in your eyes, getting burned, etc. – that’s all part of the process.
I really can’t say enough good things about Lefler’s Place, the Pee Dee Community, Mt. Gilead and Montgomery County. There is just something about the place that exemplifies everything good about the South. It is slow paced, rural, friendly, historically important – the river, the dense forests, rolling cow pastures, old white columned and Victorian homes, downtown department stores with Coca-Cola ads painted on the brick walls, live country music on weekends, a church on every corner and a real sense of community. There is also truly great food.
Pee Dee may no longer be “the land of cotton”, but old time places like Lefler’s should not be forgotten!
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