Back in the early 1960s, Dale Volberg and her beau, John Shelton Reed, frequented Turnage's Barbecue, a family-owned joint on Morreene Road in Durham that served authentic Eastern North Carolina-style barbecue. Dale and John married, settled in Chapel Hill, reared two daughters, and collaborated on several writing projects, including 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About the South and Cornbread Nation 4: The Best of Southern Food Writing. They joined the Southern Foodways Alliance and the North Carolina Barbecue Society and thought nothing of driving all morning to Goldsboro just to buy a plate of tantalizing 'cue at the now legendary Wilber's restaurant.
Through the years, the Reeds' fondness for Eastern-style barbecue—smoky, slow-cooked pork served with a peppery, vinegar-based sauce—grew into a passion. Turnage's closed years ago, but through the years, the couple easily racked up an impressive list of barbecue spots that could satisfy their carnivorous desires. They traveled frequently, sampling regional American cuisines wherever they went. They became intrigued by the many social dimensions of barbecue, particularly its role in Southern communities.
Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue, published this past November by the University of North Carolina Press, is the couple's loving guide to the Tar Heel State's signature dish. Chock full of historical perspectives (Pliny the Elder praised pig, noting, "There is no animal who furnishes more variety to the tongue") and contemporary humor (Homer Simpson's quip that "you don't win friends with salad"), the book also includes recipes—from coleslaw and hush puppies to scuppernong wine jelly and Krispy Kreme bread pudding—as well as handy do-it-yourself guides on how to cook a Boston butt or build your own barbecue pit. The book captures the near-religious fervor that devotees have for this succulent sustenance.
Holy Smoke is divided into three parts. "The Lore" explores the origins and evolution of North Carolina barbecue, including "the emergence of the Eastern-Piedmont split and how that gave birth to a rivalry that's right up there with the one between UNC and Duke," the authors write. Piedmont barbecue, which the Reeds trace to an influx of post-World War I German immigrants, has a tomato-based sauce—heretical in the mind of Eastern purists—and often uses just the shoulder meat rather than the whole hog.
The rest of the book focuses on the food itself and the people who make their living cooking it—called "Nobles of the Mystic Swine" by the authors. Dale Reed says that she worries that some of these meat masters may not be able to pass on the culinary legacy they inherited from their families. "Keith Allen [owner of Allen & Sons Barbecue on the border of Chapel Hill and Hillsborough] told me he didn't want his daughter to have to work as hard as he's had to," she says. "There is a danger that if barbecue becomes an artisan craft like pottery, it will be out of reach for the average working person to maintain."
As the Reeds travel to promote the book, they've found that their hosts tend to serve local barbecue. You might think they'd grow weary of so much pork. On the contrary, says Dale Reed, "I've never gotten tired of it. It's so different from place to place. Barbecue speaks to my soul."
Dale Volberg Reed '63
Passionate about 'cue
April 1, 2009