Sky Full of Bacon

My Trip to DC: Carolina Barbecue and Virginia Ham

I’ve read an entire book on North Carolina barbecue and I still have trouble keeping track of which part likes ketchup in their sauce and which doesn’t, and which part is whole hog and which shoulder, and what the hell the damned Piedmont is. This site tries to explain it for me:

The big difference between eastern barbecue and western – or Lexington-style, as it’s sometimes called – barbecue is that ketchup is commonly added to the sauce of western barbecue. The other difference is that in the east they use the whole hog, both white and dark meat, while in the west they cook only the pork shoulder, which is dark meat and thus more fatty, moister and richer.

All that said, though, the truth, says me, is that – contrary to the mythical status of this east-west “rivalry” – most casual barbecue eaters probably wouldn’t even notice the difference between eastern and western North Carolina barbecue if you put one of each before them.

Certainly, if you compare the two styles against the whole panoply of American barbecue styles there’s far more similarity than difference. The unadorned chopped pork meat is distinctly different from, say, Memphis chopped pork covered in goopy red sauce and slaw, let alone from brisket in Texas or ribs in Kansas City.

Anyway, we were in Richmond for a few days, which was just close enough to North Carolina for a totally insane person such as myself to drive for eight hours down to North Carolina, across the center of North Carolina for three or four lunches, and back up to Richmond with lots of leftovers for the rest of the family to share. Seriously, I drove more for lunch (es) that day than we drove getting from Chicago to West Virginia. But when else was I going to get to North Carolina? I’d gotten this far in life without ever going there, and there seemed little enough reason to expect that to change otherwise.

With the help of the North Carolina BBQ Trail I plotted out a number of candidates and took off. The first one I knew I wanted to hit was Allen & Son near Chapel Hill:

Looks like a great old barbecue place, doesn’t it? (That was it at the top, too.) I wouldn’t know, though, since it was closed for two days for no particular reason. I’d been Faidley’d again! Given that Aaron Deacon at LTHForum had roughly the same experience, I think we have to regard the allegedly great Allen & Son as having passed into an unreliable phase of its existence where you’d best have a backup at the ready.

Allen & Son Pit Cooked Bar-B-Q
203 Millhouse Road
Chapel Hill, NC 27516-8101
(919) 942-7576 (calling first strongly recommended)

Which I did; another 15 minutes of driving brought me to this place:

A&M Grill in Mebane looked and felt less like a barbecue spot than it did any old family restaurant in the South. But don’t let the comfortably padded, honey-voiced waitress who greets you fool you; a glance in the kitchen revealed serious barbecue equipment:

I ordered sliced pork, per the BBQ Trail’s guidance, then felt regret as I contemplated the probable result, gray CAT-scan-slices on my plate. Still, I was cheered by the first thing that arrived at my table, a freshly-fried platter of the best frickin’ hush puppies I’d ever eaten in my life. Okay, I was hungry enough that if I’d eaten the napkin it would have gotten two Michelin stars, but still, I ate four places’ hush puppies on this trip and these were easily the champs, light and yet complexly spiced. Really great.

My plate came, bearing something large and brown on it— a bun? Damn, I’d meant to order a plate of meat, not a sandwich…

No, it wasn’t a bun. It was an enormous sweet potato, fresh from the oven, what I’d imagined would be a little scoop of orange mash but was, instead, practically a meal in itself. While the “sliced” pork was what anyone else would call pulled, nice long strings of supple, lightly but definitely smoked pork flesh, moderately doused with a ketchupy, heat-laced mop of sauce and accompanied by a peppery slaw. A&M Grill doesn’t normally make the top tier of Carolina barbecue places (the trail site was the only place I’d seen it mentioned), and I grant I was hungry enough at that point to love anything that came on a plate, but this was first-rate in every way, the waitstaff and my fellow diners were friendly (when my sweet potato came a weatherbeaten old boy smiled at me, minus a couple of teeth, and said he wished he’d ordered that), it’s clean and bright, I absolutely recommend it as a backup to Allen & Sons… or on its own.

A&M Grill
401 E Center St
Mebane, NC 27302
(919) 563-3721

The next stop, Hursey’s, was another 20 minutes away in Burlington, which was the main thing that recommended it.  The three smokestacks set the atmosphere— except for one thing: no smoke coming out of them.

Not a good sign, and between that and the somewhat overly clean and professional look of the place, I decided not to spend too much time here and get my order from the only marginally friendly to-go counter.

Chopped is a legitimate style for North Carolina barbecue but this was chopped so finely it was practically liquefied; it was chopped to the kind of no-teeth-necessary consistency one associates with other Depression era foods when people couldn’t afford dentistry as the Maid-Rite sandwich or Russell’s BBQ in the Chicago area. That said, with some of the (perfectly standard) cole slaw and some sauce on it, this wasn’t a bad sandwich, really (and they did have the best fries of the day). It’s just that with smoke apparently existing only in this place’s memory, it isn’t barbecue in any sense I’m willing to recognize. This place seems to have been yuppified out of its roots, and isn’t worth the travel for the barbecue tourist.

1834 S Church St
Burlington, NC 27215
(336) 226-1694

Thankfully, you could spot the smoke easily at my fourth and final stop. Despite my geographical confusion, I’m pretty sure that the Lexington Barbecue in Lexington is an example of the “Lexington style” referenced above— though the only sauce I saw was a vinegary red dip as clear as raspberry Kool-Aid, without a trace of ketchup gooeyness to it.

As I came around the side to see where the smoke was coming from, I found a window into the kitchen and a cook hard at work chopping the meat. When I asked permission to snap a picture, he invited me inside for a closer look:

Lexington cooks only shoulders, round as hams, with cardboard flaps over the meat to keep the smoke in and ash that flies up from falling down on the meat. The firebox was roaring away just a foot or two to the right:

Lexington gives you a wide variety of ways to order your meat— coarse chop, medium coarse, with brown (outer skin), etc., and what makes this possible is that the shoulders are disassembled and neatly organized in the kitchen:

When I was finished snapping pictures he asked, “You gonna have somethin’ to eat?” When I said yes, he escorted me through the kitchen to a side door which put me straight into the dining room. I ordered a plate of coarse:

Not that I needed much to eat at this point, but the meat was tender and full of flavor— though still not that smoky, even though this had been the smokiest place I’d visited all day. The cole slaw was way too strong, almost like eating cocktail sauce; only that night, when I put it on a sandwich, did it really work as the condiment, rather than a side dish, it is. The people couldn’t have been nicer and so I ended my day by ordering some more food to fill out my assortment of leftovers (have the peach cobbler), and took off for Richmond. I couldn’t wait till dinner in about 3 hours, and another chance to eat barbecue.

Lexington Barbecue
10 US Hwy 29 70 S
Lexington, NC 27295
(336) 249-9814

* * *

Barbecue was not the only pork-related adventure I wanted to have in this part of the world, however. If North Carolina was for barbecue, Virginia was for ham in my book. I imagined seeing hand-scrawled signs for country ham by the side of the road, and kept my eye out for same, but I didn’t spot any, at least not in the middle of the state— maybe in a seriously ham-oriented area like Surry County, but not up Richmond way.

I did find one place online that was on the way back to D.C., however: Calhoun’s Country Hams. It was in Culpeper— where I have a couple of friends at the Library of Congress’ new film preservation center— and ironically enough it’s the one ham producer who comes to the Alexandria farmer’s market, just blocks from my sister’s house where we’d be staying. But it worked for us to visit him in his natural element, and I was glad I did— the sight of these beautiful hams hanging on a plywood wall was worth the drive alone:

Mr. Calhoun, as you might suspect from someone selling in the city, aims for a more natural-tasting, less salty product than many old time producers, and even uses refrigeration during part of the curing process to allow him to get away with the minimum salt necessary. (This is no blasphemy; prosciutto producers have always done the same, beginning the curing process in winter to take advantage of the cold.) Besides the hams, there was a variety of other bits and pieces sitting, cured and unrefrigerated, on display. I picked up some fatback, of which more anon.

I had dreams of talking my way into a tour of the smokehouse, or curing rooms, or something. Unfortunately by the time we got there it was straight up noon, and a lunchtime crowd ordering sandwiches made it impossible to schmooze my way into special treatment. So we bought our ham— the young woman stressed the price (around $55) to make sure I knew what I was getting into— and in the meantime ordered sandwiches to eat in the car. As we waited, a man getting his lunch struck up a conversation with me about country ham, how to cook it, etc. He seemed even more excited for me to be getting a Calhoun ham than I was.

We had our sandwiches in the car; the meat was milder than others I’ve had but it had the full flavor of true country ham, and it’s hanging proudly in my basement right now, awaiting an occasion for soaking and cooking soon.

There’s just one thing I’m still left wondering about. I bought the fatback, which looked very much like the bacon I make. And I started to fry some up last Sunday morning. But I could tell as it fried, it was going to be very, very salty. Too much so, in fact, for any of us to eat with pleasure. So what is this fatback for, exactly? It would have to go into something, where it would add salt to the dish and lose some of its own, I guess. Has anyone used this kind of true country fatback, extra salty, and what did you use it for?

Calhoun’s Country Hams
219 South East Street
Culpeper, VA 22701

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