Sunday, June 16, 2024

NCtrend: Pork is king

Barbecue is having a moment. Pork is showing up everywhere from the Charlotte-based chicken titan Bojangles’ Inc. to scratch-and-sniff lottery tickets. Some might say it’s a barbecue renaissance as the traditional dish of the Carolinas is reimagined by high-end restaurants in Raleigh, Durham and Asheville. At the same time, Dan “Barbecue Jew” Levine and Southern culture scholar John Shelton Reed have teamed to save “real barbecue.” Even the Fox TV show The Simpsons last month featured a barbecue-themed episode as Homer bought a cooker: “It’s not a grill. It’s a smoker that you can grill on,” he explained to his family. The rest of the world is quickly catching on to what North Carolinians already know: Barbecue is a noun, not a verb.

Real ‘cue
Hundreds have signed the True ‘Cue pledge dreamed up by Levine, promising to eschew so-called “faux ‘cue” cooked with gas — and tattle on restaurants that don’t smoke their pork with wood or wood coals through online reviews and word-of-mouth. The campaign is tongue-in-cheek, but he’s serious about preserving authentic methods as he travels the state to “certify” barbecue restaurants. Levine, who writes his blog under the name of Porky LeSwine, is a real-estate developer for Durham-based Self-Help Credit Union. He co-founded the website with Reed, an author and retired UNC Chapel Hill sociology professor. The two struck up a “pork-based friendship” after Levine interviewed Reed and his wife, Dale, about their book Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue.

Levine and Reed have mixed feelings about the gentrification of barbecue at such restaurants as The Pit, with locations in Raleigh and Durham, where barbecued tofu and traditional pork barbecue are offered side by side. (So is alcohol, a rarity at most traditional barbecue joints, where sweet tea is the favored nectar.). Picnic, a restaurant opening by early 2016 in Durham by lawyer-turned-pitmaster Wyatt Dickson and chef Ben Adams is so neotraditional, Dickson doesn’t believe in chopping his barbecue, a method preferred by N.C. pitmasters. Some restaurants are adding barbecue “ambassadors” to explain the dish to newcomers.

“If transplants are going to be introduced to barbecue, it’s great to be introduced to barbecue the traditional way,” Levine says. Adds Reed: “I’m more optimistic than I was. If that’s what it takes to keep (traditional barbecue) alive, that’s what it takes.”

‘The secret to barbecue is sitting around doing nothing. No wonder I’m great at it.’ – Homer Simpson
Betting on barbecue
The N.C. Education Lottery has sold more than 1.7 million barbecue-scented lottery tickets since introducing  scratch-off BBQ Bucks in September. Pork products are hot in lottery tickets this year, with New Hampshire, Colorado and Indiana each introducing bacon-scented tickets. In North Carolina, there have been 92,000 entries in a “1,000 Pounds of Pork” second-chance drawing — 100 pounds of pork will go to 10 winners. In a separate poll, more than 10,000 users voted through Facebook and Twitter on whether they favored eastern Carolina style vs. western, which includes tomato or ketchup flavoring. Eastern barbecue, known for whole-hog cooking with a vinegar-based sauce, won handily.

North Carolina is the nation’s No. 2 pork producer, after Iowa. Last year, hogs generated about $2 billion in revenue. State officials counted about 8.7 million head as of Sept. 1, not much less than the human population of about 9.9 million.
Pigging out

Bojangles’ brought back its $2.99 pulled-pork sandwich this summer, while burger chain Wendy’s has offered pulled-pork cheese fries. Quiznos sold a Southern BBQ Pork sandwich in some areas. Opting for pork makes good business sense because the spread between pork and more expensive beef prices in October was 20% higher than the 10-year average, according to Bloomberg.

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Allison Williams
Allison Williams
Allison Williams is senior editor of Business North Carolina. You can reach her at

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