A walk out back behind Allen & Son quickly tells you it’s no typical barbecue joint. Keith Allen, the owner, takes his barbecue seriously. Large brick barbecue pits on either side of a sizeable firebox billow with gray smoke. Watching eyes water from the foggy air, but Allen is unfazed.
It’s 7 a.m. and the sun is slowly starting to rise, Allen’s face is damp from standing in front of the firepit and chopping Hickory logs all morning. You can tell he’s used to it. He’s just a cook doing what he has been for 50-some years now. That’s the way it is, and the way it will be.
Or will it?
For over a century, North Carolina has been known for its thriving pork industry. So much so that it’s developed its very own barbecue debate. And for most North Carolinians, they’re raised on this controversy — tomato or vinegar-based sauce?
But that debate just might be changing. Cities and towns are being urbanized, and the small, close-knit niches of N.C. aren’t so small anymore. In turn, this is changing the way people view, eat and debate barbecue.
Allen could be one of the last barbecue traditionalists, someone who will die sticking to his barbecue beliefs. He’s owned Allen & Son for 47 years and started working in the barbecue business at 19. Four days a week he wakes up at 2 a.m. to make sure his barbecue is cooked the “proper” way.
“The only thing that makes my barbecue more special than anybody else’s is that I’m willing to cook the wood to cook the meat. So the meat interchanges its flavors with the wood,” Allen said.
“Everybody’s got a sauce. It’s the cooking technique that’s really the key, and this is the way it was done for hundreds of years before they found out it was easier to turn electricity on or gas. And once they figured that out, everybody quit working.”
His Chapel Hill restaurant is outside of town on the other side of I-40, away from the hustle and bustle of university life.
Most of the other barbecue restaurants in the Triangle are located closer to city centers, places where the population is fewer locals and more people from all over the country.
Because of this trend, a lot of restaurants are adapting their menus to fit this changing demographic — thinking less about the barbecue itself and more about the customers.
But not Allen — that’s not his priority.
“I have a lot of customers in particular,” Allen said. “I wouldn’t be out here in the country if I wasn’t able to survive … Once you cross I-40 coming this way, there’s not much here. (If) it wasn’t good enough, people wouldn’t drive here. I’m not trying to be convenient.”
For Allen, barbecue has been a way of life. But for Andrew Moore, owner of Crossties Barbecue in Carrboro, he didn’t open his restaurant because he was raised on smoked meats. He opened it because he was getting a lot of catering requests for barbecue from his other restaurant, Venable.
“It kind of chose me,” Moore said about the barbecue business. “We had Venable first and then the mall approached us about reopening a restaurant in the Southern Rail space that they had acquired. And so I kind of looked at the space and I thought barbecue fit that property very well.”
Adding to that changing demographic in the Triangle, Moore is from Colorado. He doesn’t practice the same traditional barbecue ways that Allen values so dearly.
“I thought, ‘Why don’t we include things from all over the country?’” Moore said. “And make it a barbecue place where you can sample barbecue from all over.”
At CrossTies, customers are offered lightly seasoned barbecue that they can pair with four different sauces — there’s everything from Eastern Carolina-style to an Alabama white sauce, with others in between.
There’s no barbecue debate there. Anyone can choose any sauce they please. And one would think Allen, a decades-long barbecue expert, would disagree. But he doesn’t care about the sauces. He understands that everyone has different preferences despite what he prefers.
“Everybody has got their own choices. There’s a thousand and one sauces … brisket, beef, really heavy tomato-based sauce,” Allen said. “But everybody grows up thinking, even in your home that you couldn’t beat your grandma’s, your mother’s cooking, your hometown restaurant you grew up with. That’s your flavors.”
So why does the N.C. barbecue debate even exist?
Maddy Sweitzer-Lamme, a UNC-Chapel Hill senior who wrote her honors thesis on barbecue and culture in the South, said the reason the barbecue debate blew up in the first place was because North Carolinians worried about preserving their local barbecue identity.
“People like to say that they’re different, right?” Sweitzer-Lamme said. “To argue that you’re right and that your home whatever is better, is just kind of a universal experience. Regional food (traditions) are part of how we define where we’re from and who we’re connected to. And it’s a way of drawing a line in the sand and saying who you are.”
But the demand for barbecue is higher than ever, and that’s changing the way it’s being produced and served.
According to a 2015 database, there are more than 14,000 barbecue restaurants across the United States. Barbecue restaurants make up two percent of the total American restaurant landscape.
With this, many other types of barbecue are starting to spread across N.C., with influences from Texas, St. Louis, Kansas City, Jamaica and other places. While they are more recent additions and not necessarily a part of the area’s cultural history, they are still impacting the state’s newer generation of barbecue eaters.
Dan Ferguson, the owner of The Original Q-Shack in Durham, doesn’t serve local barbecue. He serves his customers Texas-style barbecue, which focuses less on pork and more on brisket. His sauces are also treated as a secondary element.
When asked, Ferguson didn’t even know there was an N.C. barbecue controversy, and he’s been in Durham for more than 15 years.
“That’s not how I look at anything,” Ferguson said about the debate. “A lot of things can be done really well, and I respect everybody’s barbecue whether it has tomato product in it or not. If the barbecue is good and it’s smoked good, just because it’s different from what you grew up around doesn’t mean it’s not good.”
So barbecue continues to evolve, and everything accompanying it — the businesses, the customers, the conversations — does too.
There is Allen the traditionalist. Moore, the modernist. And Ferguson, the rationalist. These restaurants show us that the factors used to identify a great barbecue venue are dated — along with whatever is left of the N.C. barbecue debate.
“The whole vinegar-tomato debate is not (a) debate. I walk into every single barbecue place I go into, and I go into a lot. I go in not looking for a debate, but looking to see if their barbecue is good or not,” Ferguson said.
“Just because it’s different doesn’t mean it’s a debate. Just because it’s different, I go in with an open mind. I think that’s what’s missing. I think people are missing going into places that are different from what they grew up with — with an open mind.”