The unmistakable smell of pork cooking low and slow over hickory coals hits you as you pull into the parking lot. It’s certainly the first time you’ve salivated on the way to a museum. But this is no ordinary museum and it’s okay to drool. You are about to visit The Museum of North Carolina Barbecue. You stride swiftly from your car toward the museum’s front door, growing more eager to see what’s inside with each step you take. You pull the door open and… you wake up and realize it was a all a dream. But it doesn’t have to be.
A few weeks ago I wrote about the numerous museums in North Carolina, which celebrate everything from teapots to textiles. Yet there is no barbecue museum in the state, and as far as I can tell there is no such museum anywhere. Not in Kansas City, not in Memphis, not in mutton-loving Owensboro and not even in that big ol’ overconfident state of Texas. But why not in North Carolina? After all, we have the nation’s longest continuous barbecue tradition and millions of dedicated barbecue fans inside and outside the Old North State. Let’s give the barbetourists who descend on barbecue joints across the state something else to enjoy, let’s give them The Museum of North Carolina Barbecue (aka “The Pork Palace”).
The Exhibit Halls
What lies inside the doors of The Museum of North Carolina Barbecue? Below are my ideas, so please leave a comment and let me know what else you’d like such a museum to include. As Lolis Eric Elie writes in Smokestack Lightning, “We know that barbecue is a metaphor for American culture in a broad sense, and that it is a more appropriate metaphor than any other American food.” As broad a metaphor as is barbecue, there should be no shortage of material for exhibits at the museum. Here are several initial ideas:
- A “Legends of NC BBQ” hall featuring exhibits on famous restaurateurs (Scott, Stamey, Monk, Jones, etc.).
- A “Life in the Pits” exhibit dedicated to the workers who are often out of the limelight, those who actually cook the food run the pits day in and day out.
- A hog farming and slaughtering exhibit, including information on new technologies for cleaning up hog farms (methane capture, protection of waterways, etc.)
- An exhibit that puts NC BBQ in context, explaining the other styles across the United States and the world.
- Video documentaries, oral histories, historic photos and other media dedicated to documenting barbecue’s place in North Carolina’s past, present and future.
- A hands-on exhibit where staff show visitors how to cook whole hog or shoulder barbecue. The exhibit could include cooking equipment ranging from (shudder) gas cookers to traditional brick pits to truly old fashioned pits dug into the ground.
- A room that is full of barbecue memorabilia, from vintage signs to placemats from barbecue joints across the state extant and extinct alike.
- An exhibit focused on the history of traditional NC barbecue sides and drinks, from cornbread to slaw, Cheerwine to tea.
- Rotating exhibits on other parts of North Carolina history that have a close connection to barbecue–tobacco auctions, textile mills, politics, blues musicians, you name it.
The Museum of North Carolina Barbecue should feature events that appeal to everyone: lectures from “barbecue academics” like North Carolina’s own John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed; classes on cooking barbecue and sides; officially sanctioned barbecue judging classes sponsored by the North Carolina Barbecue Society and others; informal “pass the hat” bluegrass and blues jam sessions, as well as ticketed concerts by local and national performers; film screenings; readings from authors writing about barbecue; and much more.
The Gift Shop
It’s pretty much a law that all museums mus feature a gift shop and The Museum of North Carolina Barbecue is no exception. The Pork Palace gift shop will sell pig-themed trinkets of all kinds from piggy banks to keychains to cookie jars, as well as the usual collection of museum logo t-shirts and other gear. But what will separate this gift shop from the pack will be the Local Flavor section. In this part of the shop you can choose a bottle of sauce/dip from among a selection of dozens of BBQ joints across the state. You can also buy souvenir buttons, t-shirts, bumper stickers, and other merchandise from your favorite joints across the state.
What museum would be complete without a cafe? The Hickory Pit cafe will serve barbecue cooked the traditional way over wood-fired pits. The cafe will be operated by a pitmaster who is an employee of the museum and who is available to mentor aspiring BBQ restaurateurs or just regular folks who want to spend a few days learning to cook ‘cue right. The pitmaster will prepare both whole hog Eastern-style ‘cue and pork shoulder Lexington-style ‘cue. To make the cafe a key part of the museum’s educational programming, as much of the barbecue cooking process as is possible will be visible to the public so people can watch the preparation, cooking, chopping and saucing. And, of course, The Hickory Pit will offer the usual array of sides to complement barbecue–Eastern and Lexington slaws, hush puppies, corn sticks, greens, etc.
This is where the rubber meets the road, literally. Choosing a great location for the museum should be easy, but it will undoubtedly become a tricky issue what with this whole East v. West barbecue tradition we have going in North Carolina. So, the museum will have to be in between where allegiances are split and traditions coexist. Good access to Interstate highways is key to draw in out of state visitors who might only have time to make a quick side trip. Yet a fairly rural location would add to the museum’s charm and would mirror NC’s barbecue history. A place like Hillsborough might be perfect–a long-running barbecue festival in place, neutral territory in the barbecue wars, a small historic downtown with rural areas nearby, and easy access to I-85 and I-40 as well as many of the state’s population centers.
What would the museum look like? I imagine two large buildings arranged west to east, with each building shaped like some of the state’s largest barbecue restaurants (think Stamey’s, Lexington #1 or Ralph’s) or perhaps a brick textile/tobacco mill, and connected by a courtyard entrance that could host concerts, weddings and other special events. A “curb service” parking area near the back of the museum would offer the chance to order food from The Hickory Pit cafe.
In the future, when this museum is well established there could even be an attached B&BBQ (Bed & BBQ) lodge for overnight visitors.
The Museum of North Carolina Barbecue will cost a good deal of money to build and operate. But if there is anything in the world that can motivate individual North Carolinians to put their money literally where their mouths are, it’s barbecue. All you need to do is attend a fire department, church or political fundraiser featuring BBQ plates to know what I mean. And there are plenty of institutional candidates to kick in funds: state government through museum and economic development funds, local government from the county/town selected for the museum site, the NC Pork Council, major pork producers, the Golden Leaf Foundation, the Cheerwine corporation, NC-based foundations and successful BBQ restaurant owners.
I’m certainly not egotistical enough to believe I’m the first person to think of creating a barbecue museum in North Carolina. Indeed, a Google search reveals an idea proposed in 1993 by the local Chamber of Commerce to create a Lexington barbecue museum, but it doesn’t appear to have turned into reality. Better yet, just last month students from Western Carolina University–ironically, located in a part of the state virtually devoid of barbecue tradition–designed an exhibit focused on our state’s barbecue culture. The exhibit, entitled “Feeding the Social Fire: Slow-cooked Culture through North Carolina Barbecue,” is on display through mid-October at the the university’s Mountain Heritage Center.
I have not seen any mention of a barbecue museum plan as ambitious as the one proposed here. I’d love to hear from those of you who are in the know as to whether this idea as been proposed before, and what you think of it. Please share this post with others and use the comments section of this post as a forum for brainstorming on the museum concept. I truly believe that we can move this idea forward and turn today’s hazy, smoky barbecue museum dreams into tomorrow’s hickory-kissed reality.