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Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue
Book Review

Holy Smoke book cover
Great Barbecue Book

Holy Smoke! It’s about time someone wrote a book on North Carolina barbecue, and the title is perfect: Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue . This barbecue book by John and Dale Reed is a new BBQ testament, packed full of loads of great information covering food, people and places across North Carolina.

I was excited to hear about Holy Smoke and even more excited when I got my hands on a copy. It was everything I hoped for and more. Although it's a regional book, it is the kind of book that anyone who appreciates good barbecue can sink their teeth into.

Holy Smoke is kind of a history and scrapbook combined. There are, of course, recipes as well. You can read the book like a novel and appreciate the research that went into capturing all these wonderful barbecue stories and also flip here and there and enjoy the various sidebars. There’s a section on how to make smoked barbecue and then some sauce recipes and recipes for sidedishes like slaw and hush puppies.

Crossing the Line – And Loving it in North Carolina

The authors, John and Dale, admit up front that they were not North Carolina born and bred. That’s OK. You can’t help where you’re born. And, they’ve lived in North Carolina since the 1960s. I think we can claim them. In fact, I’m sure of it. Anyone who loves NC barbecue is “good people.”

Plus, I must confess that I’m not North Carolina born either. My Dad was in the Navy, and I was actually born in Pensa Cola. We left there when I was six weeks old. After moving around for a few years, we settled in North Carolina when I was four years old. I don’t remember living other places prior to moving here, but technically I’m a Florida girl (but have only seen sunny Florida twice since infanthood).

The Kid Who Loved Que

William McKinney also contributed to Holy Smoke. William founded the Carolina Bar-B-Q Society as a student at UNC-Chapel Hill. Well – small world. My son just went off to Chapel Hill in August, and now I need to tell him to hunt up the Barbecue Society folks. Since my kid has dropped 20 pounds in just one semseter, I think he could use a little smoked pork. William actually lives in Virginia now, but I’m sure he crosses the line pretty often to get some real barbecue. Maybe he can stop by UNC and point my son in the right direction for some barbecue.

Birth of Barbecue

They may talk more barbecue in Kansas, but they can’t claim birthrights. The Reeds trace the history of barbecue in their book, and North Carolina is where barbecue got started.

Actually, it’s likely that the roots of barbecue in the United States go back to Germany and the early pioneers to the coastal area. That’s the theory of Dr. Gary Freeze, a North Carolina historian. In another of those twists of fate, I happen to work one floor above Gary. I flagged him down this week and told him that I saw his name in Holy Smoke. We got to chat a little about barbecue which is always a fun way to pass a few extra minutes in the afternoon.

Real Barbecue

If you want a heated discussion in North Carolina, bring up politics, religion, or barbecue. There are even party lines within the state of North Carolina when it comes to “real” barbecue. There are two major camps – east and west. East is the coastal region. West is actually the piedmont. In the mountains of North Carolina, who knows what that stuff is they sell as barbecue to tourists.

The main differences in the barbecues are that eastern barbecue is more often whole pig and vinegar sauce sans ketchup. The western (or piedmont) barbecue is often shoulders, and many of the sauces have a little ketchup.

The first barbecue was probably served in Salisbury, North Carolina according to the Reeds, since the rail lines ran through town. Lexington went hog wild for the western style, and western barbecue is often called Lexington style barbecue. In Salisbury today, some barbecue joints lean more eastern and some more western. And, then there’s Keaton’s (out in the middle of the woods in western Rowan County) which is known most for barbe-fry chicken which is a whole different ball of wax (but certainly worth the drive to check it out).

On the Side

It really is all about the meat when you’re talking barbecue, but the standard is that the pork is slow smoked (over hard wood) and then chopped and served on a bun – just a regular old white bun. Sprinkle liberally with the house sauce. Then you top that off with slaw.

In the east, they serve up Brunswick Stew on the side. That’s some great stuff, but I consider that a separate meal.

And, somewhere along the line, it became customary to offer hush puppies with barbecue. The Reeds figure that was borrowed from the fish camp restaurants, but hush puppies work well with barbecue.  While everyone was arguing about barbecue, they were sure borrowing that hugh puppy idea and running with it. Unfortunately, many barbecue joints just deep fry frozen hush puppies, and that’s not so great.

Do You Have What it Takes to be a Barbecue Master?

The Reeds do suggest trying a shoulder for starters. They do include the directions for doing a whole hog. The thing there is that you’re talking about a hunk of meat in the neighborhood of 100 pounds. Whew. I think I’d have to rent a crane. In any case, it’s fun to read about how to do a pig, and I may try a whole one some day when I have some big guys around to help. And - a bunch of people to help eat all that barbecue (though barbecue does freeze well).

In the Meantime . . .

If you’re still just dreaming about slow smoking some meat and impressing all your friends, then you’ll appreciate the section of the book about good barbecue restaurants in North Carolina. One tip I loved as far as finding great barbecue joints in North Carolina (and have always done) is checking for a wood pile. I didn’t think to check the wood pile for spider webs though, so I got a laugh out of that. I suppose it would be possible to fake out some, but if the pig is done over gas, then that smoke flavor is missing. That . . . I would notice.

Put Holy Smoke on Your List to Buy or to Give to Barbecue Fans on Your List

Holy Smoke is one of the best barbecue books I’ve ever read, and I check a lot of them out.  It is well researched, well written, lively, fun, and is packed with regional flavor. I read my copy from cover to cover and still flip around and enjoy rereading various sections. Holy Smoke is one that will stay in my kitchen shelves and will be checked over and over.

Several folks I work with have asked to see my copy, so I’m sticking that in my backpack to take along this week. One student is from Lexington, and he was asking about Holy Smoke. A lady down in computer services wanted to take a look. I figured I better read the whole book before I took it to work where I will probably loan it around for a few weeks.  I love to share great books, and this is one of the best I’ve seen in a long time. Two thumbs up and big shake of barbecue sauce!


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