Barbecue Caught in the Crossfire?

For shame, Big Pig.

The NC Pork Council has gone and done a real no-no–they’ve messed with puppies. More specifically, they’ve used their political might to block a bill that would ban “puppy mills” because they oppose its supporters, the Humane Society of the United States.

My sources inside the Hog Industry say this is the first in a string of hard lines the group is planning to take–the next being against flowers, babies and ice cream.

Chances are, when you’re going against the Humane Society, you’re not on the…how should we say it…humane side of the issue. The swine industry based their objections to the puppy bill on their suspicion that the Humane Society may next try to guarantee livestock such luxuries as being able to stand up in their cage and fully extending their limbs. I mean, what’s next–terrycloth robes?!! With embroidered initials?? (<—sarcasm)

I’ve spoken with old-timers who swear that the swine tastes different these days because the hogs are different. Not being able to stand up will do that. That’s another part of the barbecue heritage we should strive to protect.

In the article’s comments, a few people talked about boycotting pork and one even suggested boycotting barbecue. That’s where this rabbi gets off the train. Don’t punish hard-working restaurateurs for the sins of their suppliers.

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17 Responses

  1. I remember being impressed when I first learned that Ed Mitchell was using “free range” hogs at The Pit. Any idea if other joints are taking the same approach, or is the prevailing philosophy that smoking it low and slow makes even the cheapest meat delicious? I can’t foresee boycotting barbecue, but I can see choosing one restaurant over the other based on where/how they source their meat. (BTW, have you tried that Fickle Creek smoked sausage? Insanely good, very local, and humanely produced).

  2. I’ve been impressed by Mitchell’s approach to sustainability for a while, but haven’t heard of others matching his commitment. Anyone else?

    I do see how using “free range” swine is a hard move to make for restaurateurs. You’ll pay more and the customers may not notice. But I do think the tide is turning where you can get people willing to pay a buck or two extra for it.

    And yes, I’m a big fan of Fickle Creek sausage and brats…

  3. Personally, I’ve not seen a hog farm where the pigs were so confined they couldn’t stand up.

    One word of caution…authentic NC bbq isn’t cooked with the low & slow method used in other regions.

  4. bbqguru,

    I’m perplexed. What method do you consider authentic for NC if not low and slow? Moreover, why do you think that?

  5. NC bbq isn’t cooked low & slow…it’s cooked hot & fast by bbq standards. Cooked directly over coals at temps well above 300 degrees. That ain’t low & slow.

  6. Authentic NC bbq is cooked over direct coals at a fairly high heat by many people’s “bbq standards”. Low & slow usually means anywhere from 200-275 degrees with 225-250 being the sweet spot. NC bbq is typically cooked well above 300 degrees…say from 325-350+. That is hot & fast cooking.

    Low & slow usually means 12+ hours for a small cut like a pork butt…while traditional NC cooking will have a whole hog ready in nearly half that time.

    Smoking food with the low & slow cooking method renders something completely different than you get in North Carolina. We don’t smoke & we cook hot and fast. The light smoke flavor you get with NC bbq is simply coincidental to the cooking method.

  7. I definitely would prefer old-timey pastured pork at barbecue joints, but I suspect patrons would have to pay more than a buck or two extra for it (the chopped pork plate at the Pit is $12, for instance). It’s one thing to use heirloom pork in a fine-dining restaurant where you’re charging 20 to 30 bucks for an entree and there are so many other costs (food and otherwise) in the mix. At a BBQ joint, the pork costs have to be one of the biggest drivers.

    I hope other pitmasters do take up the cause, though.

  8. bbqguru, perhaps we’ve been going to different spots. :-) I think the standard in NC is cooking right in that sweet spot of 225-250 — certainly below 300. No less an authority than Holy Smokes recommends that range in its prescription for both shoulders and whole hog. My own practice is to do shoulders at 225-250 for as long as it takes to get the internal temp up to 190 or so — usually about 8 or 10 hours.

    I don’t know at what temperature Lexington Barbecue does their shoulders (I don’t think they know either — I’ve been in the hallowed ground of their pits and did not see a thermometer, but YMMV on that) but I believe they told me their shoulders are on the coals for about 12 hours. Grady’s BBQ down east told me they keep their whole hogs over the coals for about 12 hours, too.

    I dunno. That seems low and slow to me.

  9. Lots of NC pit masters getting to work between 2-3am to get the coals started. Not much time from there until lunch.

    Like you said…YMMV

  10. Gents, I’m glad you’ve agreed to disagree. And thanks for teaching me the very useful YMMV.

    @Robert, the other thing to keep in mind with the Pit’s prices is that its Raleigh rent is probably double that of any other barbecue joint (outside of Clyde Cooper’s). And yeah, $12 is expensive. But I like to think about what I pay for a lunch sandwich assembled before my eyes (in 30 seconds) and then think about how much more work goes into making real ‘cue than a sub.

  11. Okay, I was trying to stay out of the fray here but I can’t help myself. BBQ Dave is correct that true NC barbecue–i.e, whole hogs or shoulders cooked over wood coals as practiced for generations but not nearly as often as it should be in this age of propane/electric cookers–is very much a low and slow cooked tradition. If you go to any of the remaining traditional joints in NC–B’s, Wilber’s, Wink’s, Fuzzy’s, Bridge’s, Lexington #1, Allen’s, Grady’s, etc.–you will find temperatures quite low and cooking times quite long. T
    hat said, it is true that out of the thousands of so-called “barbecue” restaurants in NC merely dozens still cook the old way. That’s a shame but it’s not grounds to claim that real NC BBQ is cooked “hot and fast.” But maybe bbqguru is simply saying that NC joints have mostly abandoned real BBQ, which is absolutely accurate.

  12. I’m not going to argue with anyone, but tradition is as tradition does. Two of the “traditional” wood and/or coal burners listed above by Mr. LeSwine are not as described. I’ll not mention names…but one pitmaster from the examples above doesn’t start his coals until 2am…he’ll tell you that. Another one of the above will tell you that they get a whole hog through the cooking process in 7-8 hours. Touting these places as traditional while at the same time saying “hot & fast” isn’t traditional is a tad contradictory.

    I do know one traditional pitmaster that will lay a hog out for 12 hours…but that’s a 190# specimen (the hog, not the pitmaster)

    My grandfather has been cooking whole hogs for well over 60 years. For the family we’re usually doing 80-100# hogs. If he’s out there cooking for more than 6 hours, that man is a heap upset.

    This isn’t a “I’m right, you’re wrong” thing. I just respectfully disagree with some of the facts listed above.

  13. bbqguru, thanks for the additional information, it’s interesting. So, what are your definitions of “low and slow” versus “hot and fast”? I am having a hard time wrapping my BBQ-filled brain around how 7-8 hours over wood coals doesn’t count as low and slow. I’m not saying that to be flippant, I am truly curious as to where one draws the line on what counts as hot & fast, since we are obviously not talking chargrilling at 500 degrees. Also, do you think there is any difference in taste for those who cook hot & fast versus the truly old way if both are using wood coals?

  14. At the end of the day it’s still low & slow, but many folks don’t see it that way. I’d say, and this is just my opinion, that the line is drawn around the 300 degree mark. Below that and everyone will agree that it’s low & slow…above and you’ll start to have folks across the country start to disagree with the higher temperatures.

    Hot & fast, as I refer to it, comes from the competition circuit. Some teams are cooking at higher temps (in the 300 degree range) with great success. In reality, they are discovering what we in North Carolina have always known. “Hot & Fast” is just terminology that I’m borrowing from these folks. At the end of the day it’s still bbq.

    I’ll give you a look into how low & slow works for whole hog bbq as I used to work in a bbq restaurant who cooked using this method. We would put our hogs on the gas fired pit around 9 at night where they cooked until the morning when the pit guy arrived. At that time he started burning coals and got the traditional pits going. The hogs would be taken from the gas pit and placed over the coals…for two reasons. 1) to get the slightly smokey flavor we all enjoy & 2) to crisp the skin. You see, the skin will not get crsipy over a low temperature like 225 degrees. You really need a higher temp…and the direct heat doesn’t hurt either.

    I also worked at another bbq place that cooked at 225 degrees with indirect heat for the entire cooking process. Never a hint of crispy skin.

    325-350 degrees…crispy skin every time.

    Hope this helps. I’d love to answer any questions you may have.

  15. And I actually think the “old way” was more of the hot & fast…or at least hotter than what most folks these days consider low & slow temperatures. I just don’t believe most folks understand how hot a small amount of coals can be. It would be an interesting experiment to find out…don’t you think?

    The ambient temperature of a large pit might actually register lower than the radiant heat rising from the coals. “Might” being the operative term here…as I really don’t know myself.

    The “old way” means having no thermometers. We really don’t know what the temperatures were. All I know is how the older men in my community have cooked since I was old enough to actually take notice of such things.

    If anything has evolved, I believe the cooking temperatures have gotten lower throughout the years instead of the other way around. But that’s just me…and most folks would probably tell you that I’m “just a little different” anyway. LOL

  16. bbqguru, thanks for explaining what you meant, it’s an interesting discussion. hopefully we’ll hear from some others about your question of whether temperatures have gone down over the years, that’s definitely worth exploring!

  17. I remember as a child, my father and friends shoveling a lot of coal trying to get the pig cooked. Typically they ended up cooking in their converted oil drums most of the night. Then one day in 1986 they put their heads together and created a wood/charcoal cooker that could easily reach and maintain 350. They weren’t out to create a fast and hot cooker, they wanted one that would look good, clean easily and last long. They were shocked when they realized they had cooked a 140# hog in less than seven hours. Once they got used to their “microwave cooker”, they never looked back. I learned on that cooker at 350 degrees, and it is the same cooker I use today. I even cook shoulders, whole chickens and thanksgiving turkey on my charcoal drum cooker at 350. I guess it is more about what you’re used to and comfortable with than anything else.

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