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
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).
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.
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).
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.