While I’ve been writing about food, this trip to North Carolina was particularly special because of the people. I dined with one brother, two nephews, a grand-nephew, a grand-niece, four cousins, and Monk of the Barbecue Bros. And after my lovely meal at Toscana, I had one more treat in store, a very special one: lunch with John Shelton Reed and Dan Levine, the founders of the Campaign for Real Barbecue. Read about the Campaign here.
Briefly, the Campaign for Real Barbecue celebrates True ‘Cue: barbecue cooked exclusively with wood and true to its regional roots: brisket in Texas, whole hog in Eastern North Carolina, pork shoulders in Western North Carolina, and so forth. Most of what people call and sell as barbecue now is cooked with gas or electricity. You can make such meat taste good, primarily by using sauces for flavor. Really good sauces can help a lot. See here. You miss, however, the wonderful chemical reaction between the smoke and the meat — “tangy acids, fruity esters, spicy phenols and nutty furans” — that imparts additional layers of truly wonderful flavor. (The pink smoke ring results from the interaction of the iron in the myoglobin in the meat and the nitric oxide from the wood.) And there’s that all-important layer of flavor that craftsmanship and tradition provide.
But I digress. John Shelton Reed, my cousin Scott Griffin’s favorite professor at Chapel Hill, is a very distinguished scholar (see here) with many books on the South and barbecue ( read Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue) and other Southern foods. He also has a humongous barbecue cooker. In short, John Shelton Reed is the Godfather of Wood-Cooked Barbecue.
Dan Levine is a recovering blogger. Dan wrote the ultra-ecumenical BBQ Jew website until late 2015, when he shifted his considerable energies and wonderful sense of humor to the Campaign. The site is still up, and is well worth a look, if only for the impressive list of about 100 barbecue places (with ratings!) he’d tried before 2015. Respect. I was in the company of giants.
Our choice of where to eat was constricted by the need to eat outdoors (that little COVID issue), and the threat of rain. Through sedulous research and sophisticated photo-analysis, Dan verified that the Smokehouse at Steve’s was a place with ample covered outdoor space.
The Smokehouse at Steve’s is in Graham, a small city where, as in many North Carolina cities, a large local textile complex is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Graham also has Steve’s Market, a “Garden Market” which is somewhere between a large country store and a small supermarket. The market and smokehouse are run by a local couple with considerable restaurant experience. The market offers lots of pretty vegetables and, among many other things, Steve’s Chow Chow. I bought a jar and impulsively gave it to friends, Ellen Buchanan and Ann Owens, two displaced South Carolinians. They tasted the chow chow and immediately checked to see if Steve’s would ship more to Maryland. (No. Not yet.) Steve’s Market also has a great meat counter, and the whole thing bleeds into the Smokehouse at Steve’s. We met there a bit before the noon lunch rush.
That’s the covered outside area on the left. We gathered and promptly got down to the business of ordering. Be warned, or possibly relieved, that I did not spend the lunch taking pictures of everyone’s food or, for that matter, making notes of what everyone ate. When sitting at the knee of Socrates, you don’t fiddle with your iPhone. Well, Alcibiades may have.
I do know that all our orders involved chopped pork. John had his in a pork-sausage combination plate, and Dan had a pork-brisket combination. Each came with hushpuppies (of course) and two sides. I chose collards, and scalloped potatoes. I was disappointed that they didn’t offer their squash casserole that day, as I’ve been looking for one ever since my cousin, Don Hutchins, raved about the squash casserole at Sweet Lew’s in Charlotte. The collards were good, and the scalloped potatoes were delicious. And I liked the hushpuppies.
The pork was pretty good. They have since assured me that they cook it in a wood-only J&R Oyler. The sausage was a good, solid smoked sausage. It wasn’t Conecuh Sausage, but then, what is? I tasted Dan’s brisket which, in a triumph of hope over experience, he had ordered based on a review that declared that Steve’s had “the best brisket in town.” Actually, it was better than I’d expected. It was lean end brisket and a bit too chewy, but it had some moisture, and I can certainly see why the sort of person who orders brisket in North Carolina would choose Steve’s.
We had a good talk about the expansion of wood-cooked craft barbecue places on the one hand, and the disappearance of barbecue places tied to their location on the other. By that I mean the places with simple menus, one type of meat (perhaps plus chicken or the odd turkey), one sauce, and low, low prices. These are places where people from all walks of life long have gathered and today can and do gather together to break bread. The new places tend to be more expensive — too expensive for poor folks unless a good soul buys you lunch — and to sell all sorts of meat with a wide choice of sauces: the “International House of Barbecue” in John’s phrase. They sell barbecue that’s “not from around here.” It can taste great — some of such places serve sensational wood-cooked food. But even at best, something is lost. We talked about the Campaign for Real Barbecue adopting a special recognition for the old school places. My suggestion was UNESCO World Heritage Site recognition — I mean, much as I respect the tradition of kimchi-making in North Korea, and much as I like kimchi, it ain’t Scott’s or Red Bridges. Alas, I’m not sure the Campaign is loaded for that particular bear.
All in all, it was a wonderful, a memorable lunch. And the safe and dry settings of Steve’s was perfect. The company was sensational, and the food was good. If you’re in Graham, definitely stop there for some pork, scalloped potatoes, squash casserole (so you can let me know how it is), hushpuppies, and some hot chow chow from the Market. If you’re in Hillsborough pressed for time, stop by Hillsborough BBQ, but do swing by the Steve’s Market on Churton Street for some chow chow and their other local goods.
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