North Carolina’s most important emergency is not the next federal government shutdown. Nor is it a fake national emergency on the nation’s southern border.
No, our state’s real emergency is a real threat to its dominant position in the world of barbecue.
Forget for a moment about our family spat over whether Eastern or Lexington style barbecue is better. We can fight cheerfully among ourselves about that question forever. According to barbecue expert John Shelton Reed, there isn’t even much difference between the two — especially if it is real barbecue. Real barbecue, he says, must be cooked and smoked over real wood coals. Otherwise, Reed says, it is not real. It is, rather, “faux ‘cue.”
The immediate challenge to our favorite food comes from CBS’s “The Late Show” host Stephen Colbert. He is a South Carolina native who usually makes his living coming up with new ways to make fun of President Donald Trump. Last month, however, he resurrected his barbecue war against us.
Making a joke about the good news that a missing three-year-old Craven County boy had been found, he said the bad news was that the boy was now condemned to a lifetime of eating North Carolina barbecue. He has called our barbecue “a sauceless, vinegar-based meat product” and compared the vinegar to toilet cleaner.
Back in 2004, Colbert grossly chewed a plug of tobacco on his show. When he spit it out, he said he was adding it to “my chaw juice or, as they call it in North Carolina, barbecue sauce.”
He held up a plate, which he said was “as close as we can get to North Carolina barbecue, it’s just shredded cardboard soaked in vinegar.”
Responding for North Carolina, Gov. Roy Cooper tweeted, “Those are fighting words. Vinegar and tomato have their place — y’all have a mustard problem.”
An unsigned comment from BH Media in the Winston Salem Journal cleverly summed up Colbert’s situation with North Carolinians: “You’ve pulled North Carolinians in, Colbert. You may have stepped in some pit.”
But Colbert says he is ready for our attacks. “I welcome your vinegar-stained letters, you poor flavor-deprived bastards.”
If you want to send him a vinegar-stained electronic message, you can write him here.
Or you could write him a “thank you” note. Tell him we appreciate the attention. Even his crazy nonsense helps spread the word — and we welcome the competition. If folks from South Carolina and other states driving home on I-95, I-85 or I-40 stop at some of our classic barbecue eateries and sample the product, I think they will forget about the Colbert craziness.
But there is a larger problem:
We are losing some of our best barbecue places.
Last month the massive Bill’s Barbecue near I-95 in Wilson closed after more than 55 years in business. Its founder, Bill Ellis, retired in 2015 and died in 2017. Even when Bill’s 850 seats were full, visiting its bountiful buffet was like a warm family meal. But keeping it going proved to be too much for his widow.
A few weeks earlier, Allen & Son near I-40 and I-85 north of Chapel Hill shut its doors. For many years, owner Keith Allen worked early and late to chop the hickory wood and manage the slow-cooked fire that brings pork shoulders to perfect eating condition. “Southern Living” praised Allen & Son and made it one of its “Top Picks” in southern barbecue joints.
Colbert’s sassy comments might annoy us, but the loss of these classic barbecue institutions and the threatened loss of other treasured restaurants is our real crisis.
Note: If you have a favorite barbecue restaurant that you could not do without, write me a note explaining and describing why. In a few weeks I will share all comments with those who write and with Mr. Colbert. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org