Evolution 2014: Food

July 29, 2014 • 1:03 pm

by Greg Mayer

As I noted in a previous post, the Evolution meetings this year (a joint meeting of the Society for the Study of Evolution, the Society of Systematic Biologists, and the American Society of Naturalists) were in Raleigh, North Carolina. From a culinary point of view, North Carolina is known for its barbecue. There are many different kinds of barbecue, and North Carolina boasts of two different styles: eastern, which uses a vinegar-based sauce, and western, which uses a sweeter tomato-based sauce (the latter being more similar to the sorts of barbecue found widely across the US). I didn’t actually know about the western kind, but was looking forward to the more distinctive eastern vinegar-style.

I asked the bartender at Brewmasters Bar late one night where he would suggest to go for barbecue, and he recommended Clyde Cooper’s, so a day or so later I set off there for lunch with a couple of colleagues. The place was packed, and not just with convention goers, but a significant local clientele. I started with a lemonade

Clyde Cooper's, Raleigh, North Carolina.
Clyde Cooper’s, Raleigh, North Carolina.

and ordered the chopped barbecue sandwich, with fries and Brunswick stew as my sides. I had the cole slaw put on the sandwich (which is the style in Washington, D.C.; I didn’t catch if this is the Raleigh preference, but they did ask if that’s how I wanted it served).

Clyde Cooper's, Raleigh, North Carolina.
Clyde Cooper’s, Raleigh, North Carolina.

The side selection was not quite what I hoped for: my favorite Southern sides are okra and fried pickles, which were not on the menu. One of the colleagues I was lunching with is from from Asheville, NC, so I asked if they made fried pickles in NC and he said yes, they do, and he didn’t know why they were scarce in Raleigh. We did get pork skins and hush puppies.

Clyde Cooper's, Raleigh, North Carolina.
Clyde Cooper’s, Raleigh, North Carolina.

The other barbecue place that I was able to try out (also recommended) was The Pit, a slightly higher class joint a block or two west of downtown, which I visited with two other colleagues for lunch. I ordered the chopped barbecue plate. They did have okra here (top right), but still no fried pickles, so I again got the Brunswick stew (plus hushpuppies).

Barbecue at The Pit, Raleigh, North Carolina.
Barbecue at The Pit, Raleigh, North Carolina.

I enjoyed both places, but I found the barbecue superior at The Pit. Both were quite tasty, eastern NC, vinegar-style barbecue, but The Pit’s had a much better texture– at Clyde Cooper’s it was kind of mushy, while at The Pit the meet had a more shredded texture– like it was pulled off the bone, rather than macerated. The hushpuppies were also superior there. The Brunswick stew was much better at Clyde Cooper’s, though. The Pit is a bit pricier, but only by a couple of dollars.

Some, such as the NC Barbecue Society, claim bbq was invented in NC, but the truth is more interesting. “Barbecue” is from an Arawak (or Taino) Indian word from the West Indies, “barbacoa”, referring to a way of smoking seasoned meat. The meat was placed on wooden racks, called “boucan”, and the Europeans who took up this method were called “boucaniers”. Down on their luck sailors of various nationalities used to hang out on the Ile de la Tortue off the north coast of Hispaniola, and visit the main island to catch or steal Spanish cattle to take back to Tortue for smoking. When the Spanish authorities tried to crack down on them, they took to extending their raiding and defending themselves with bigger ships– hence the origin of the West Indian buccaneers. Their piratical– and culinary– habits spread throughout the New World, for the latter of which we can be thankful.

23 thoughts on “Evolution 2014: Food

    1. I would also highly recommend On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers for a colorful depiction of boucanier life.

      Please don’t be put off by the Johnny Depp film of the same name, which, while nominally based on the book, takes very little from it except the name.

  1. Interesting history on the origins of bbq. I’ve made “barbacoa” from Mexican cook books, but it isn’t smoked; it’s braised with a chipotle tomato sauce so the smoky flavor comes through. Very tasty tacos!

    I love both styles of bbq, but when it comes to pulled pork sandwiches with coleslaw, I prefer the vinegar style.

    Never heard of Brunswick stew. What’s in that?

    1. Mexican barbarcoa should be made with goat meat, according to my Mexican American friend (whose family has been in southern CA — under the same name — for almost 500 years.)

      1. Yeah, in one of my books IIRC it says goat or lamb or beef- in that order of preference. I made it with leg of lamb. Can’t readily get goat here though…at least I haven’t found a place. Might need to get it from a private farm. There are many people who raise goats around here; I think mostly as pets though.

        1. Real mexican barbacoa is made with lamb. Usually the whole lamb is cooked in a hole on the ground. Hot coals and some very large and very hot stones are put at the bottom of the hole. The lamb, along with chillies and spices, is wrapped in roasted maguey cactus leaves, which soften the meat as it is slowly cooked (braised) overnight, after covering the hole with leaves and soil. A clay pot is set under the lamb to receive the juices which produced a really cood lamb consome. The stomach is filled with some of the lamb’s offal and spices and cooked along the meat (sort of like a barbacoa “haggis”).

        2. One advantage of having Somalis living in Minneapolis: You can easily find (halal) goat for sale. If you can locate a Mexican store, they usually either have goat, or can easily get it.

    2. I’d never heard of it before either, but I was quite taken with the cup I had at Clyde Cooper’s. Its a vegetabley (lima beans, corn, etc.), tomato-base stew, with meat– Clyde Cooper’s mentions chicken, The Pit mentions turkey, but there might also have been some of the pulled pork in there, too. Original recipes for it called for rabbit, possum, squirrel and that sort of “bush meat”.


  2. Memphis, TN, where I live, is another BBQ capital in the US. We have some amount of hostility towards NC faux-BBQ. Our sauces are tomato/brown sugar based, but we’re known for dry rubs, too, which are sometimes described as Memphis-style BBQ.

    I haven’t seen any vinegar-based sauces in town.

  3. Some years ago I visited a friend in Raleigh
    He had lived in Texas and warned me about the NC barbecue. It is what it is and is OK.
    I live near Austin, TX, and my understanding and experience with barbacoa is that it is the cheek meat off a cow and is usually a bit greasy. It is commonly served in Mexican style restaurants here.

    Barbecued goat is the best. I raised goats as a kid, and we ate a few. We always had barbecued goat at our family reunions. One time the goat didn’t taste quite right and we didn’t eat much. My uncle confessed that he had forgotten the family reunion, and sold all the goats. He barbecued a couple of lambs, but we did not care for them.

    You can get barbecued goat at the Cooper’s BBQ in Mason, TX if you get there early before it is all gone. I’ve heard of it being available at a couple of other places, but can’t confirm.

    1. I lived in Austin in the late 1980s. There was a place with BBQ goat (cabrito) a bit east of I-35. Had some mounted goat heads on the interior walls. Good sized place. You could have a dance in there. Looked like a pole barn. Can’t think of the name but maybe within 10-12 blocks of 35 and between 6th and 12th Streets. Really good.

  4. Are fried pickles just store-bought dill pickle slices that are battered and fried, or is there something special about the pickling process?

  5. I drove through the fairgrounds on my way to the dump during the county 4-H fair two weeks ago and saw many goats; there were exactly zero at the last fair I attended as a 4-H kid in the ’60’s. I haven’t been around farms much since then, only noticing on visits there are few small one’s any longer, hence dying small towns like the one I grew up in.

    I mentioned the goats at the fair, and a couple of pastured herds I drove past nearby, to a cattle guy who told me the families showing goats at fair often don’t raise cattle but want their kids to work with animals, and the price of a calf is twenty times or so that of goats. He thinks the meat market for these animals is centered mainly in communities of immigrants from cultures where goat is a primary menu item, and a few small holders pasture as many as dozens of goats to service these markets.

    Chickens and other fowl were plentiful at the fairgrounds, too, and I’m told many town kids raise these birds and show them now thanks to the recent wave of community ordinances encouraging backyard egg operations. There was still some cattle, about the same amount of horses (a lot), but the chickens and goats are a colorful addition.

    Nothing to do with barbecue, I confess, but a gyro in Greece is made with goat and nothing else and tastes fabulous. I never have learned the green herb that is used to flavor those. You can haz them hush puppies, grits, and floured/fried okra, and my share too, Greg. I love collard greens and ham, and barbecue w/coleslaw, and sweet potato pie, but the rest of it …

  6. Nice report Jerry.

    I love BBQ so I seek it out whenever I’m down South, or even when I cross the border from Canada into the States, since you folks tend to do BBQ much better. It’s always hit and miss, I find. I’ve been to some bbq buffets that have been raved up, only to find the quality was pretty poor and it was more about how much you got to eat for the buffet price.

    When I was visiting downtown Chicago recently I really wanted to get out to Smoque for BBQ. It seems the most highly rated BBQ place in Chicago. Would you agree?

    (We tried Chicago Q restaurant which was right near where we were staying, and it was pretty good).

    FWIW – not that I likely have any food tips you don’t already know about – when we go to South Carolina, most recently Myrtle beach, the highly rated Big Mike’s was really authentic with great portions, killer peach cobbler desert, and ridiculously low price.

    But the best soul food/low country cooking I’ve ever had was at Page’s Okra Grill nearer Charleston. Chicken fried steak, shrimp and grits, big menu, mindblowing “house-made cakes” to finish off. It’s what set the bar for my first real southern food experience and I personally haven’t been able to find something that duplicates it.

    (I’m in Toronto and in the past 6 years bbq has become all the rage, with bbq joints popping up everywhere. It seems everyone offers a pulled pork sammy these days).

    1. Greg wrote this report, not I. I fancy myself somewhat of a BBQ aficionado, though, and, the best in Chicago used to be near me, and then moved to the ‘burbs: Uncle John’s. The next best is still near me: Barbara Ann’s. All the great BBQ places in Chicago are black-run, and on the South Side. Smoque is ok but lacks the truly great speciality of Chicago BBQ: rib tips. It may be highly rated because it’s in a white neighborhood so many tourists go there, but nothing can touch Uncle John’s. Though I haven’t been there since it moved, it’s still suppposed to be good.

      Best BBQ in the US is of course a matter of taste, but I’d go for the City Market in Luling, Texas.

      The best BBQ places I’ve been to in NC are Wilber’s and Allen & Sons, the latter conveniently located near Durham/Chapel Hill. On Friday they make banana pudding with vanilla wafers–a classic BBQ-joint dessert. Their Q is to die for, as is the fried okra.

      1. Ah, sorry, I didn’t notice Greg wrote this one. (Thanks Greg!!).

        It’s helpful to read your take on Chicago BBQ, as I hope to visit there again sometime. I’ll be saving your reply for future reference when we go to SC as well. Thank you.

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