The North Carolina barbecue story is an unending tale of people, land and traditions, a tale written in pork fat and sweat.
A pair of cookbooks from two of the state’s new generation of pitmasters puts some of those stories down on paper.
Sam Jones comes from North Carolina barbecue royalty; he’s the grandson of the late Skylight Inn founder Pete Jones and owns his own barbecue restaurant, Sam Jones BBQ in Winterville. Matthew Register taught himself how to smoke pork on a small charcoal grill and now owns Southern Smoke BBQ in Garland.
Each make some of the most acclaimed barbecue one can buy in a state obsessed with smoky pork.
Jones’ book, “Whole Hog BBQ: The Gospel of Carolina Barbecue,” co-written with Daniel Vaughn, is more of a window into an Eastern North Carolina way of life than it is a book of recipes, though there are recipes. Jones, a James Beard Award semifinalist, reveals the secrets of whole hog barbecue and treasured family recipes that he serves at his restaurant. A downtown Raleigh location is in the works.
Register’s “Southern Smoke: Barbecue, Traditions and Treasured Recipes Reimagined for Today” takes its name from his two-days-a-week restaurant, which sells out every Thursday and Friday. The book uses barbecue as a launching point for many of the Southern sides and grilled meats Register is known for.
We talked to Jones and Register about writing their first books — both of which have gained attention and acclaim — and the trials and tribulations of North Carolina barbecue.
Q: Your book includes recipes and techniques, but whole hog doesn’t lend itself to a traditional cookbook. What do you hope readers take away from your book?
A: I didn’t want it to be a traditional cookbook. I wanted to share recipes and obviously how to do whole hog. ... I look at that book as a piece of a bigger puzzle. I never thought I would get to write a book. I didn’t think of a sequel or anything. I just packed in everything I could, every story I could think of. I’m super proud of it. Even if no one reads it, it’ll be in the Library of Congress forever. ... I didn’t take it lightly and pinch myself all the time that I got to write it.
Q: What is the biggest mistake people make when trying to do whole hog for the first time?
A: I think any style of barbecue, when you’re trying to do it traditional, it’s at odds with the age we’re living in, which is fast and everything’s at your fingers. Barbecue makes you slow down when it’s done correctly. The biggest mistake people make is not leaving themselves enough time and having to rush. Then you’re pushing your grill, getting it too hot and that’s when you get a grease fire.
Q: Your co-author, Daniel Vaughn, the barbecue editor for Texas Monthly, is one of the country’s best known barbecue writers. But he’s also a Texas guy. How did you end up writing a whole hog book with a Texas barbecue writer?
A: I met Daniel six years ago. He was in Ayden and came to Skylight, and I randomly happened to be there. He was just starting to take off with Texas Monthly. He and I got to be friends, and we both share an agent. So when (our agent) pitched the book, my thought was, “Who would want to buy my book?” I’ve got plenty of stories, but how to lay a book out and making things concise, that’s what I didn’t know. But Daniel did and had a wealth of knowledge.
Q: In one section of your book, you unearth an old family pit and cook a pig in it for the first time in decades. What did that mean to you?
A: I didn’t really know it was there, I had always heard about that pit. There’s a picture from the 1930s that hangs on the wall in Skylight. ... The woods had encroached on it, but I stuck my head in there, and I was like, “Holy crap, this is the pit.” ... There were weights on the wall in the butcher room where someone wrote in pencil the hog weights. We cleaned it up and made it into an event. People came from all over, but we all knew the gravity of the moment. Nobody alive knew the last time that pit was cooked in.
Q: What is the barbecue question you get the most?
A: The common one, since I didn’t come from a big barbecue family, is, “How did you get started?” I started on a Weber grill in my backyard. I never planned to get into this. So I say to people that if you are really into grilling, be careful, because you might end up in the restaurant business.
Q: When did you get into barbecue and how long did it take before you thought it was any good?
A: It was probably three or four years before I was actually giving it to people who weren’t friends and family. I think our barbecue is still evolving. When we opened the restaurant five years ago, our barbecue has evolved from there to a better place.
We’ve balanced our smoke a little better, a little more dialed into where we want to be. We want a consistent flavor and taste every time. But I’m my worst critic. If even the least little thing doesn’t taste right, that’s all I’m going to think about.
Q: Your book is not the typical barbecue book, if it’s a barbecue book at all. What do you want people to know after reading and using the book?
A: You know, we’re not your typical barbecue place. Our sides are a little crazy and funky. That was the point of the book. Everything in the book is something we serve in the restaurant or on our catering menu. I wanted you to learn my philosophy on barbecue and food and why some of these things are important to us.
I don’t think people understand how ingrained rice is in who we are, or how important the foods of West Africa and the Sierra Leone are on Southern food. Okra, rice, tomatoes, people in this day and age don’t know what makes something Southern and why. I wanted recipes intertwined with the history of the South.
Q: Southern Smoke is open just two days a week and sells out just about every week. How often do you get asked about a full-time restaurant, and will it ever happen?
A: A full-time restaurant is not in the future for me, no. Maybe one day my kids will want to take it over and open six or seven days a week and that’s fine. ... I’ve got to be a dad and a husband. I promised my wife the restaurant wouldn’t run our lives.
Q: What is the North Carolina barbecue tradition you hope will never die, and which one would you like to see fall by the wayside?
A: Cooking with wood is the most important thing. We live in a microwave world, and really and truly, when I started out I was trying to do something that would show my kids a part of our history in North Carolina, our lineage. That you can sit in front of this fire for 14 hours and something amazing is going to come out. That it wasn’t easy or fast, but it was worth the time and burns and cuts.
It really scares me as a barbecue person, as a loyalist to Eastern North Carolina barbecue, that there are these places closing, that we’ve lost some of our classic places in the last six months.
Now, a tradition I don’t like? You’re going to get me in trouble. I think there’s room to improve sides and stuff like that. I think (places) can branch out and do some cool and country sides. Not chef it up, but dishes like squash casserole, or tomatoes and rice. Maybe get away from baked beans and canned green beans and boiled potatoes.
But don’t get me wrong, I love some boiled potatoes. There’s something about going to these places and having the same tastes you enjoyed when you were 7 years old.