Meet the Barbecue Men Who Are Breathing New Life Into a Nearly Lost Southern Tradition
Drive north out of Durham on US-501, and the cityscape dissssipates into long stretches of road flanked by open pasture and an ever-widening horizon. Just a few miles up the country road, in Bahama, North Carolina, a few of the most talented barbecue cooks in the South are gathering together for a weekend honoring the centuries-old tradition of cooking animals over slow-burning coals—barbecue. In these parts, on the eastern side of North Carolina, the term barbecue is historically understood as whole hog cooked over wood, as it is in parts of South Carolina and West Tennessee. Before barbecue restaurants were a thing, and before it was a food trend to follow, gatherings like this one were part of the social and cultural fabric of rural communities. On this occasion, a more contemporary concoction dubbed the North Carolina BBQ Revival is about to get underway.
The intention of the weekend is rooted in celebration of an emblematic Southern tradition; though the greater triumph belonged to the barbecue cooks involved, a promising crew of individuals dedicated to fanning the flames of a culinary tradition that nearly got snuffed out.
“This way to whole hog.”
My car snakes up the gravel driveway toward Green Button Farm, the weekend’s host site. Past a glassy pond and a few itinerant cattle, I pull up to a sprawling renovated farmhouse. Green Button Farm is home to Ryan Butler and his wife, Alicia, who supply pasture-raised hogs to Triangle-area restaurants, including Durham barbecue joint PICNIC. The surrounding land belongs mainly to their passel of sustainable hogs, and a thirty-eight-acre conservation easement protected by the Triangle Land Conservancy. On this morning, Green Button Farm is abuzz.
To my right is a healthy patch of woods, cordoned off for the heritage-breed hogs that roam the property. Butternut squash and half-eaten pumpkins are strewn across the autumn floor, flecked with grass and littered with leaves and sticks—a pig’s paradise. The hogs are as varied as their terrain; some are fair and marked with big black spots. Others wear mahogany on their front and back ends, belted with a band of white fur around their chubby middles. They poke and prod and snort with happy contentment, while others forage or nap in the tall grasses that grow along the fence.
Adjacent to the farmhouse are signs that read “this way to the whole hog,” and “follow the smoke.” I abide and walk toward a steady plume rising into the morning air. It’s 9:30 on a cool October morning and the sun is already high in the sky. I find Elliott Moss, whole-hog maestro of Asheville’s Buxton Hall Barbecue, already hard at work. He shuffles between large cast-iron cauldrons and pots that bubble with the makings of a vegetable-centric lunch. A witchy cauldron filled with farro sits atop a cinderblock, which frames the wood-burning fire lit inside a long trench about sixteen inches deep. He’s waiting for some hog stock to add to a big pot of white gravy, which will grace the fermented grits he intends to serve later.
Moss grew up around barbecue in his hometown of Florence, South Carolina. Son of a welder and witness to countless municipal cookouts at the local firehouse, he is well acquainted with the communal powers of barbecue. An accomplished chef in his own right, Moss became enamored with barbecue because of the fire. “This is why I do it,” he says, stoking the coals. “This is the draw. It’s like life, you gotta keep it going. You gotta feed it, tend to it, care for it,” he says.
Of course it’s back-breaking work too—one of the reasons for the disappearance of many barbecue houses over the last few decades. Cooking whole hogs is a laborious, time-laden task that asks much of its cooks—shoveling coals, flipping heavy carcasses, and keeping hours fit for the undead. Then there’s the cost of wood and of the hogs themselves. Many of the old places shuttered in the face of rising costs, while others changed the method, switching to gas cookers to ferry convenience.
At Green Button Farm, a different ethos prevails, driven by a desire to uphold tradition and honor deep passions. Wyatt Dickson, barbecue man for PICNIC in Durham, is committed to using sustainable hogs for his modern barbecue operation. Since the first time he cooked a pig that spent most of its life “doing pig stuff,” he decided that he would never cook commodity hogs again. PICNIC prides itself on its pigs, which come solely from Green Button Farm.
Just then, in a flurry of activity, the quiet morning transforms and the North Carolina BBQ Revival roils into gear. A slew of pickup trucks roll onto the grounds to unload the day’s provisions. Large steel barrels receive the wrath of the drill before getting fitted with rebar—a burn barrel christening.
“I FEEL LIKE GOOD BARBECUE SHOULD BE EVERYBODY’S” —BRYAN FURMAN
Bryan Furman, owner of B’s Cracklin’ BBQ in Savannah and Atlanta (along with wife, Nikki Furman), arrives and starts moving racks of ribs to a vertical smoker. Furman, a former welder, broke the mold when he stepped onto the barbecue scene in 2014. Though he honors tradition (his grandparents raised hogs in South Carolina back in the day) and cooks by feel alone, Furman wanted to be different. “I believe that barbecue is about learning everything. I don’t just focus on one thing. I want to serve good brisket, good chicken, and good pork.” His passion lies in the process and his repertoire extends across regions, from South Carolina hash to brisket, whole-hog barbecue, and a sweet-tangy peach-mustard barbecue sauce. Furman even uses a traditional Texas-style Lang smoker for his whole hogs. “I feel like good barbecue should be everybody’s,” he says.
On an adjacent smoker, Tyson Ho of the Arrogant Swine in Brooklyn rubs a whole lamb with a heady mixture of sichuan peppercorns, fennel seed, olive oil, vinegar, and chiles. Though lamb is his dish today, Ho runs the lone establishment in New York committed to serving Carolina-style whole-hog barbecue.
Ever present in the clan of barbecue, and shepherd of tradition, is Mike Moore, founder of the Blind Pig Supper Club, who hails from Wilson, North Carolina. Moore grew up watching his uncles and grandfather cook hogs over wood. He holds fast to those roots and dug into them last year when he helped open Old Etowah Smokehouse, a whole-hog establishment in Etowah, North Carolina. Though he owns no brick-and-mortar currently, his Blind Pig Supper Club events often honor traditional foodways and live-fire techniques. More than that, his behind-the-scenes guidance is like that of the Holy Spirit.
Beneath a small tent, a crowd gathers to help John Lewis deseed a batch of dried red chiles. He brought the chiles to pass the time while his Texas-style brisket cooks nearby on his custom smoker, a piece that he constructed and welded himself. Lewis comes from the pedigree of Austin barbecue cooks who brought Franklin’s and La Barbecue to national acclaim. Last June, he opened his namesake restaurant, and singlehandedly introduced the Lowcountry to the flavors of Texas barbecue in Charleston, South Carolina. In the staunch world of barbecue, where the regional demarcations are practically seared into county lines, bringing the flavors of one place to a different locale was once unheard of, but not so these days.
On that afternoon, a crowd gathers around the pit to watch Dickson and third-generation barbecue man Sam Jones hoist two Green Button hogs into the primitive trench for an all-night cook. Jones is whole-hog personified. His family built the legendary Skylight Inn in Ayden, North Carolina, in 1947, and it has become a destination for the barbecue devout. Jones carries the torch for the Eastern Carolina whole-hog style of barbecue, and expanded on his family’s legacy in 2015 when he opened Sam Jones BBQ, his eponymous whole hog palace in Winterville, just up the road from Ayden.
As the day wears on, throngs of attendees feast on a smorgasbord of live-fire treats from barbecued mullet to fire-roasted oysters and Lewis’ Texas hot guts, a Lone Star sausage delicacy. But the crowning meal comes tomorrow. On this evening, the sky spackled with a thousand stars, the weekend’s barbecue men and a crowd of enthusiasts gather around the flames of the burn barrel and bonfire to revel in the night air, just as myriad others have done across history.
Jones holds court by the fire, shovel in hand, dispensing his arsenal of stories and one-liners, a talent measured in time spent by a burn barrel. He even has time to jump into his secondary role—he’s the fire marshal in Ayden—when the bonfire needs taming.
The next day, crowds gather for the grand finale, a whole-hog feast, christened “barbecue church.” Indeed, it’s a blessed affair. A tumult of activity encircles the cooks as they carry the hogs from the trench to the serving table, an apt Sunday procession. Hungry eyes watch as Dickson, Jones, Furman, and Ho stand shoulder to shoulder and tear into the supple, slow-cooked flesh to serve the masses.
During Barbecue Church, Rien Fertel reads a passage from his book, The One True Barbecue
Though time and place had changed, these men honor the primal tradition from which barbecue came—that of meat, man, and fire. No television show, fancy injections, or high-tech piece of equipment can substitute for such elemental magic. True barbecue tests the mettle of the barbecue cook and prevails because of it.
Revivals, says Sam Jones, are meant to accomplish one of two things: getting you where you used to be, or getting you where you need to be. By weekend’s end, there is no doubt that whole-hog barbecue and its progressive compatriots are, in this moment, exactly where they need to be.