3/2/2011 - NC barbecue battle fires up talk about Asheville traditions
by Carol Motsinger
"Asheville is a foodie destination, but don't think it is all fine dining and gourmet on this vacation. We are still sticking strong to our culinary roots here in North Carolina. It may be called the "Paris of the South", but the country cookin' will earn a second home in your heart." - Ben Falcon
Michelle Obama's barbecue comment fires up talk about WNC traditions
Nate Whiting the kitchen manager at Luella's Bar-B-Que prepares lunch orders Friday afternoon. Luella's is one local restaurant serving up good BBQ like St. Louis style smoked ribs, chile rubbed beef brisket and chopped pork. 2/11/11 - Erin Brethauer (email@example.com) / Erin Brethauer/Erin Brethauer
Barbecue break down
Every region has its own take on what the best barbecue is. Here's a quick look at the most popular incarnations:
The Carolinas: In our neck of the woods, "barbecue" almost always involved a pig, served either pulled, shredded, chopped or sliced. Eastern North Carolina is know for its whole hog approach, where the entire pig is barbecued and the meat is chopped, mixed and usually served with a thin sauce of vinegar and spices. Barbecue from the Piedmont, particularly from Lexington, is known for its mainly dark meat portions from the pork shoulder and is presented with thick, sweet tomato-based sauce.
In South Carolina, sauces range from the peppery, ketchup-based approach of the western part of the state to the Midlands' Carolina Gold sauce, made with yellow mustard, vinegar, brown sugar and spices. Like their neighbor to the north, folks in the coastal region use the whole hog and a vinegar sauce.
o Memphis: Here, barbecue means ribs, and ribs can either be "wet," which means brushed with sauce prior to cooking, or "dry," meaning they are seasoned with a dry rub. And if you do order pulled pork in Memphis, it's going to come with a hot, sweet tomato-based sauce.
Kansas City: It doesn't matter what you put Kansas City-style sauce on for it to be called barbecue in this part of the country. All that matters is the sauce: It's thick, sweet and made with tomatoes and molasses.
Texas: This is a big state, with a wide variety of approaches to barbecue. You could easily confuse East Texas barbecue with southern-style, and in Central Texas, you're getting your meat sliced. In West Texas, goat and mutton, as well as beef, is often the preference. And South Texans have been known to cook the head of the cow for dinner.
ASHEVILLE -- First lady Michelle Obama broke many pig-picking hearts in Western North Carolina when she listed "great barbecue" as one of the tasty benefits for choosing Charlotte as the host city for the 2012 Democratic Convention.
While many N.C. folks outside of Charlotte found that declaration hard to swallow, the first lady's comment also inspired debate over what exactly "barbecue" means in Western North Carolina.
As the Obamas should know -- having headed to 12 Bones as soon as they got off the plane for their 2010 Asheville vacation -- barbecue is a political hot potato, with lines distinctly drawn between the different parties, or more accura tely, different cookout pits.
As with its melding of red and blue counties, Western North Carolina is a melting pot of opposing Carolina barbecue styles, local experts contend, along with regional takes flavored with some local ingenuity.
But don't be duped into debating just the sauces, warns Jim "Trim" Tabb, longtime judge at Tryon's annual Blue Ridge BBQ and Music Festival.
"What people confuse is the sauce," said Tabb, a Mills Spring resident who has judged contests all over the world since the early 1960s. "Sauce complements barbecue. Barbecue is not sauce."
It's also not necessarily pork. "You can barbecue an old shoe," he said.
Out west in Memphis, Tenn., barbecue means ribs. In South Carolina, pork may come with a peppery mustard sauce.
Then there are the barbecue borders slicing up North Carolina: In the eastern part of the state, it's only barbecue if it's a chopped whole hog served with a thin, spiced vinegar sauce. But once you get to Lexington, barbecue's got to come with a sweet tomato sauce -- what's called western Carolina barbecue, meaning the Piedmont west of Raleigh.
But no matter how you take your barbecue, there is one quality all fans recognize.
"Barbecue has a down-home, family feel," said Martha Kooles, whose family has owned and operated Barbecue Inn on Patton Avenue for almost 50 years. "It makes people feel comfortable. It's like a good pair of tennis shoes."
A good mixture
Visiting at 12 Bones was probably the most bipartisan barbecue option the Obamas could have made during their visit. It was Barack Obama's second visit to the rib and barbecue joint, having stopped by for a take-out order in 2008 when he came to Asheville to campaign and prepare for a presidential election debate.
When Tom Montgomery and Sabra Kelley opened 12 Bones five years ago, they didn't have a particular allegiance to any regional style, Kelley said.
They just experimented with flavors and techniques they liked, she said.
"We didn't really have any family recipes," she said. "It's not really eastern or western style ... there are definitely some rules that you have to follow for some people. We would rather be true to ourselves."
And this means such untraditional options as blueberry chipotle ribs.
Tabb doesn't think there is really a clear style or theme for the barbecue you find in Western North Carolina, noting that even parts of the state east of us are getting "homogenous."
"The barbecue borders are getting porous," he said.
So maybe Kelley's approach -- being true to your own tastes -- is really the key ingredient to WNC barbecue.
It certainly works for Dustin Vanderbunt, owner of Ed Boudreaux's Bayou Bar-B-Q on Biltmore Avenue.
His barbecue "is dry-rubbed with Creole seasonings and smoked with apple wood," he said. "I wanted to bring my New Orleans cooking background and combine with (Southern barbecue traditions)."
This unusual marriage is a good fit for Asheville's adventurous dining community, he noted.
"People are going to do what they want to do," he said of barbecue choices. "People like different stuff up here; they don't want the norm," noting that Boudreaux's Caribbean jerk sauce was one of the crowd's most popular choices at festivals.
"They want to try something that no one else has had," he said.
It also makes sense that Asheville and the surrounding areas would be welcome to a range of traditions. The mountains host thousands of tourists -- and have attracted many to permanently relocate here.
The menu at Luella's Bar-B-Que on Merrimon Avenue is all over the map: The folks there serve up beef brisket like in Texas, have a St. Louis-style dry rub on the ribs and both eastern and Piedmont Carolina sauces on the table. They also don't exclude Asheville's vegetarian set: They offer a barbecue tempeh sandwich.
This approach is partly inspired by the diverse background of the community, said Lindsay Andrasik, Luella's dining room manager. What's most important, she said, is the "smokiness of the meat and a good texture and flavor."
Their customers feel so strongly about their favorite sauces and styles that they often bring in their favorite sauce to share with owner Jeff Miller.
"People will bring sauces and ask him to sample it on the pork or the chicken," Andrasik said. &ldqu o;They want to share their story."
The nontraditional approaches that abound in Western North Carolina don't mean that some barbecue places aren't seeped in tradition.
Barbecue Inn restaurant will celebrate its 50th year of serving eastern Carolina pit cooked barbecue in May.
"My father-in-law (Gus Kooles), before he opened the restaurant, went over to one of the restaurants in eastern Carolina and spent six months there" learning the technique, Martha Kooles said. And the menu has never changed.
This consistency is what has kept people coming back again and again, she said. "We have people who come in and say, 'When I was a little boy, people brought me here,'" Kooles said. "And now they bring their own children with them."
Little Pigs BBQ on McDowell Street opened two years after Barbecue Inn, in 1963. Manager Bob Conner considers the casual eatery's barbecue western-style.
"We don't put anything on your barbecue until you order," he said. "We have a vinegar-based and tomato-based sauce. Our house sauce is vinegar-based."
At Little Pigs, Conner said the most important part of their barbecue definition is thoroughly cooked pork.
Most pitmasters in Western North Carolina agree barbecue is ultimately about good meat prepared well -- over a long period of time using wood or charcoal.
"Pork specifically is a very user-friendly meat," Kelley said. "It goes well with so many different flavors."
Even Tabb, who has crowned barbecue champions for decades, makes a plea for the most passionate pig lover to enjoy barbecue for what it is, whether it's served on picnic tables or crisp white tablecloths.
"We've got into such a hurry-up society," he said. "It keeps going faster and faster, and barbecue is the opposite." It's weekends in the backyard, Tabb said. It's Saturday spent lying in a hammock, only having to keep an eye on a temperature gauge as meat smokes for hours.
"There is no such thing as bad barbecue," he said. "There are just various degrees of good."