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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Barbecue done in rare form

Quick doesn't cut it with a North Carolina pit master, who says: `Do it right or get out of the kitchen.' And forget that bottled sauce.

January 31, 2007|David Zucchino | Times Staff Writer

Blackwood Station, N.C. — THE moon was high over the loblolly pines when Keith Allen arrived for work at 2 a.m. He built a fire of hickory logs, and a plume of rich blue smoke creased the black night sky.

When the fire had produced glowing red coals, Allen shoveled them into a pit below two dozen hog shoulders on a metal rack. For the next nine hours, he shoveled more coals, stoked the fire, and turned the shoulders as they cooked a ruddy, smoky brown.

Long after first light, he was still at it. With a cleaver in one hand and a knife in the other, he chopped the pork with a rhythmic whump, whump, whump. Then he plunged two gloved hands into the steaming meat to mix in a homemade sauce of vinegar, salt and red pepper.

And that, for purists, is the long, hard, wearying way of making genuine pit-cooked Eastern North Carolina chopped barbecue.

Not many people do it this way anymore. Most of the state's barbecue restaurants have switched to gas or electric cooking, which is cheaper, faster and cleaner. Most now chop North Carolina's signature meal with electric grinders and season it with bottled sauce.

Allen, a tall, silver-haired, second-generation barbecue cook, insists that barbecue that isn't cooked in a pit over hickory coals and chopped and flavored by hand isn't really Carolina barbecue. He devotes most of his waking hours to that ideal.

Five days a week, Allen works from 2 a.m. to well past dark, preparing every bite of barbecue served at Allen & Son, a small roadside joint on a winding highway north of Chapel Hill. When Allen takes a day off or goes on vacation, the restaurant closes. He won't let anyone else make his barbecue. He never sits down for a meal of barbecue -- not even his own, preferring to keep his palate pure for taste-testing.

"What you're chasing is that flavor," he said, pronouncing it "flay-vuh" in his silky Tar Heel accent. "If you don't do it right, you won't get it."

ONLY 20 to 30 barbecue restaurants among hundreds in the state still cook with wood, says Bob Garner, author of two books on Carolina barbecue. "But nobody does it to the degree Keith does -- he's one of a kind," Garner said.

Allen's painstaking methods -- cutting his own hickory, manning the fire for hours, chopping his own meat and making his own sauce -- have their roots in a time-honored process. Pigs have been roasted over wood coals in North Carolina since the 17th century.

The process evolved generations ago into the hickory-smoked, seasoned and chopped pork dish known as North Carolina barbecue. (Sauce in the eastern part of the state is vinegar-based; in the west, it's tomato-based.)

But purists say the delicacy is being compromised by modern shortcuts. That's why holdouts such as Allen are so significant, Garner said.

"He pursues it with a single-minded devotion," Garner said. "That's his niche, and he'd be a fool to change now."

The best Carolina barbecue consists of lean chunks of succulent pork, with no fat, gristle or "crackling," i.e., cooked skin. It has a smoky, tangy and slightly acidic taste. The pork is served on buns or with cole slaw and hush puppies, then washed down with sweet iced tea.

"Barbecue" is a noun here, not a verb. Some Tar Heels spell it "barbeque," or just "que." It's a staple at church dinners, business conferences, private parties and even some wedding receptions.

North Carolina, which calls itself a "vale of humility between two mountains of conceit" (Virginia and South Carolina), is proud of barbecue's origins among the lower classes. According to Garner, the first to cook it were slaves and poor farmers, as hogs were cheaper to raise than cattle.

In recent years, barbecue restaurants have switched from wood because gas and electricity save time, money and effort, Garner said. Wood also produces smoke and soot.

Garner says he's sampled some excellent Carolina barbecue cooked with gas or electricity, but it doesn't have the distinctive hickory-smoked flavor.

Allen tastes every batch of barbecue that comes off his chopping block. He seeks that biting, smoky flavor he says only a properly maintained hickory fire can impart over many hours of cooking.

"I think about barbecue like some people think about wine," he said. "The good stuff? You know it when you taste it."

Allen says the unique flavor comes from pork juices dripping onto hot hickory coals during the first five hours he cooks the shoulders meat side down. During the four hours the pork cooks skin side down, he says, the skin "acts like a frying pan and catches the juices and seals them in."

BARBECUE lovers from almost every state have eaten at Allen's restaurant since it opened 37 years ago. Some customers have flown in private jets from New York and California just to eat there, Allen says, and food celebrities Martha Stewart and Rachael Ray have featured his barbecue.

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