In the foggy half-light of dawn, a cloud of smoke billows into the early morning Carolina air as a sleepy, soot-covered cook shovels crackling embers of oak beneath hefty iron grates. As the coals turn to dust, he’ll scoop and shovel again, again, and again, just as his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather did before him. In these parts of the country, this sort of daybreak ritual can mean only one thing: barbecue.
Barbecue is a technique that was born centuries ago from two civilizations—the Native Americans and the Spanish. Native American tribes that inhabited the south Atlantic shore of the United States were masters of wood-roasting meats. They developed a technique using a combination of fire and smoke that kept meat juicy and tender through hours of cooking while infusing each bite with succulent smokiness. In the 1500s, the Spanish introduced pigs to the western hemisphere, and they flourished, especially in the Southeast.
Unlike cattle, pigs have a high birth rate (a female pig often produces 20 or more piglets a year) and are easy to raise. Years of cultural exchange meant the Native Americans’ early barbecuing technique and the Spaniards’ skill in raising pigs merged, and the beginnings of Carolina barbecue as we know it was born.
Today, barbecue in the Carolinas is like gumbo in Louisiana—it’s a big deal, and everyone does it differently. Towns so small they’re devoid of a single stoplight have become must-visit destinations on culinary trails, and pitmasters who learned how to roast pigs on South Carolina back roads have won prestigious awards. If you ask any culinary expert, they’ll tell you that barbecue is in its heyday. But it’s the generations-old families sticking to their roots and recipes who hold the foundation.
In the eastern parts of North Carolina and northeastern South Carolina, whole hogs cooked over oak hardwood dominate the scene, and the sauce (a thin pepper-spiced vinegar sauce) adds an unmistakable twang. It’s typically mopped onto the hog during cooking or poured onto the meat once it has been chopped while more rests on dining tables to be added to any diner’s heart’s content. This style of barbecue, with its primitive cooking method and simple sauce, is thought to be the mother of all Carolina barbecue.
Head westward to the Piedmont region, and you’ll find less whole hog and more pork shoulders cooked over hickory. Similar to its eastern counterpart, the meat is coarsely chopped and tossed in a sauce, but with one major kicker—ketchup.
Heinz ketchup was introduced in 1876, and while the easterners stuck to tradition, those on the western side of North Carolina experimented with the tomato-based condiment for a reddened, slightly sweet-tasting sauce. As you continue to the state’s western border, the sauce is often found to be heavier on the ketchup and lighter on zingy vinegar. These western North Carolina ’cue cravers even go as far as to add ketchup to their coleslaw, resulting in a dish aptly named red slaw.
While South Carolina has the same pattern (tomato-based to the west and vinegar-based to the east), the central part of the state is known for its mustard-style barbecue. In the mid-1700s, thousands of Germans immigrated to present-day South Carolina. With them came mustard. Thinned with vinegar and seasoned with pepper, this tongue-tingling concoction adds a zesty bite to pork.
There may be no physical barriers separating vinegar sauce land from its tomato-touting neighbor, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a Carolinian without a favorite. What’s the best? There isn’t one.
For pitmasters like Sam Jones, it’s all about tradition.
“You can say, ‘We have the best barbecue in Georgia,’ and there are 20 million Texans that’ll line up and headbutt you over it,” says Sam. “It’s all based on where you’re from. Your favorite food is something, whether you realize it or not, that is very much tied to an experience you had.”
Sam grew up in Ayden, North Carolina, in a true barbecue family. His grandfather Pete Jones started the legendary Skylight Inn BBQ back in the summer of 1947, when Pete was just a teenager.
“Back then, it wasn’t just a barbecue joint,” explains Sam. “They sold everything. Imagine an 18- or 19-year-old kid running an establishment. Anything went, but among everything they did and sold, whole hog was always the foundation.”
Whole hog was how Pete was taught to make barbecue, and it wasn’t easy. It was daily backbreaking labor of carrying and flipping a massive pig, chopping wood, and shoveling coals. But to Pete, it wasn’t barbecue if it wasn’t a whole hog cooked over hardwood. To him, barbecue was about tradition and simplicity. And through years both tough and successful, they’ve held to that. At Skylight Inn BBQ, you won’t find any heritage pork or organic produce. They use commodity hogs, and they’re not ashamed. They’re proud to serve their North Carolina-style whole hog barbecue to the people who have been eating it for the past 70 years.
“At Skylight on any given day, you can look in that line and there’s a sanitation worker, a plumber, a physician, and an attorney,” says Sam. “If we decided we were going to go to heritage pork, that’s a 300-percent food cost increase just on the pigs. We just lost the sanitation worker and plumber. You can’t get so lofty that you take the food away from the people who invented it. Our family was just as poor as they could be growing up.”
After going off to school and swearing away a life in the barbecue business, Sam returned home and developed a newfound pride and joy in Carolina barbecue. Years following his grandfather’s death in 2006 were tough for the family and business, but Sam helped steer the multigenerational business back on track with his youthful fire and nuanced approach. He traveled, met other pitmasters and restaurant owners, and learned what it takes to run a successful restaurant in today’s age while holding onto the heritage that his grandfather embraced so many years ago.
“My grandfather’s generation squeezed the nickel as far as it would go,” he explains. “The food back then was good, but it wasn’t consistent because we didn’t know any better. From slowly traveling and meeting people, we’ve learned some things.”
In addition to helping run Skylight Inn BBQ, Sam opened his own joint, Sam Jones BBQ, in 2015, with plans to open his second later this year. Offering more options than just chopped whole hog barbecue, Sam Jones BBQ represents a new age of barbecue that today’s pitmasters are delving into.
“When you think of barbecue, we are relatively new,” says Matthew Register, owner of Southern Smoke BBQ in Garland, North Carolina. “Someone who stood in line at another old-school barbecue joint isn’t going to come here and say ours is the best. But we have people come in and say they haven’t had barbecue like ours in 30 years. It’s just all about your interpretation of it.”
Matthew grew up eating eastern North Carolina-style barbecue, where whole hog and vinegar sauce reigns supreme. But at Southern Smoke, Matthew cooks pork shoulder over oak and offers other regional sauces like tomato-based western North Carolina sauce, South Carolina mustard sauce, and even Alabama white sauce. He’s not trying to copy the businesses that have been smoking for centuries, but rather, put his personal spin on time-tested techniques.
“I’m never going to walk into a wood-cooked place where they’ve spent time splitting their own wood, burning coals down, and smoking and say a bad thing about it,” says Matthew. “We’re all so different and distinctive in what we do. Some are whole hog and crispy skin. Some of us are barbecue-focused but really put a lot of focus on our sides. At Southern Smoke, we’re incorporating farm-to-table and changing our menu often. We complement each other, but we’re different.”
When it comes to Carolina barbecue, two things hold true: pork and hardwood rule. But it’s the longstanding family businesses and fresh, vibrant newcomers that continue to grow and spread the tradition of barbecue throughout the region.