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Southern Comfort 

Barbecue is the food of the masses

When the stock market started going south last year, food writers around the nation began citing consumer preference for comfort foods. Forget sea urchin sushi, bring on the Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Recent events have sent many of us in search of the security of home cooked meals. Comfort foods are typically those foods which trigger happy associations. But many food journalists write about the comfort foods you could get at a diner on Route 22 in northern Jersey.

What is the culinary comfort to the soul of a Tar Heel? Barbecue, our food that binds. We are part of the Barbecue Belt. We eat barbecue in restaurants, at church picnics, fundraisers, political rallies, and in private homes. Historically barbecue has been the food of the Southern masses, without regard to occupation, class, or race.

If you moved to Charlotte during the past decade, you probably have noticed "Barbecue Today" signs springing up in front of churches and gas stations. "Barbecue" does not mean the method of cooking. In this part of the country, it means pork, preferably cooked in a pit, and probably by men. Southern barbecue is linked to the forced relocation of West Africans into the South via the Spanish-speaking Caribbean islands. Barbacoa is Spanish for the technique of roasting meat in a pit.

Cooking techniques and sauce differ widely across the South. This past July, Matthews-based Harris Teeter introduced a line of HT Trader barbecue sauces. These include Eastern, a vinegar based sauce; Carolina, a mustard based sauce similar to the sauce from Maurice's Piggy Park in West Columbia, SC; Memphis, a sweet molasses base sauce with smoke; Kansas City, a rich, tangy sauce primarily used on beef; and Lexington, a vinegar and tomato sauce. Harris Teeter sells these products, which retail for $2.99, in all their stores, from Virginia to Florida. According to Karen Humanik, category manager for Harris Teeter, the Memphis style is the most popular among consumers, including here in Charlotte. She notes, though, a strong regional preference in the coastal communities for the Eastern styled sauce and in South Carolina for the mustard based sauce. However, the best selling barbecue sauce at Harris Teeter is North Carolina produced Bone Suckin' Sauce, a Lexington-styled smoky, tomato-apple cider-vinegar sauce sweetened with honey and molasses.

For those uninitiated in the finer points of NC barbecue, Bob Garner wrote in North Carolina Barbecue: Flavored by Time that barbecue here is clearly superior: "It's the only kind of barbecue in which the meat itself is the centerpiece rather than the smoke, the pepper or the sauce. North Carolina pork, barbecued to perfection, has a natural rich, sweet taste that is delicately flavored by smoke -- not overcome by it like something dragged from a burning house."

Two types of barbecue exist in North Carolina, Eastern and Lexington, although one could argue for a third mountain style. Eastern barbecue was traditionally found from the coast to Raleigh. This style sauce contains no tomatoes, sugar or molasses. During the 17th century, this barbecue sauce was seasoned with peppers and oysters. Eastern barbecue meat is drier than Lexington because the whole pig is used, including the leaner white meat. In addition, many restaurants employ machines to mince the meat, rather than pulling or chopping by hand. Machine mincing further dries the pork.

Lexington barbecue -- or Western Style -- is found between Tryon and Raleigh. The city of Lexington, just a 45 minute drive from Charlotte on I-85 North, depending on the orange barrel condition, is the unofficial barbecue capital of North Carolina. Besides having more barbecue restaurants per capita than any other city in the state, Lexington has developed a unique style of barbecue. Lexington barbecue uses pork shoulders rather than the entire pig and is cooked for long hours over hot hickory (sometimes oak) coals. The chopped meat is mixed with dip, a thin vinegar-tomato sauce, and topped with a dip-based, not mayonnaise-based, slaw. Further, it is possible to order an "outside brown" cut of meat that consists not of the skin but the crusty, well-browned meat.

Charlotte has only a handful of barbecue restaurants, and these are split between Eastern style, such as Bill Spoon's, and Lexington. Within the past few years a few of the older barbecue houses have closed.

Soon to open, however, is a new kind of barbecue restaurant. In December the 160-seat Southern Comforts will open on East Boulevard. Shayne Lewis, a Le Cordon Bleu trained chef and former co-owner of The Meeting House, is opening this venture with restaurateur Dennis Thompson. According to Lewis, the restaurant's concept is "upscale barbecue." He explains that they were disappointed in the quality of barbecue in Charlotte. He adds, "It seems to me they (the barbecue restaurants) were relying on the sauce."

Lewis plans to serve a variety of barbecue which will be slow cooked in a smoker, over pork fat soaked chips to ensure a richly flavored meat. Pork will be pulled, not chopped. With the pork, Lewis will serve an Eastern-styled sauce. Lewis, who was born in Dallas, also intends to serve Texas-styled dry-rub beef brisket and Memphis-styled barbecue with a thicker, smokier tomato sauce. Classic sides, such as macaroni and cheese, will be updated. Entree prices will range from $12 to $18.

Lewis and Thompson are not the only restaurateurs looking to the Southern culinary past to create a future. Tom Sasser of Harper's, Mimosa Grill, and Upstream, has been considering opening a barbecue place in Charlotte. Sasser says, "Actually it was Louis Osteen's idea. (Osteen is a Charleston-based chef.) It is an idea we are considering." If Sasser follows through, he envisions a casual "on the level of a Harper's" type barbecue restaurant.

Caterers are also heeding the pig call. Todd Townsend, owner of Townsend's Gourmet Cuisine, 2410 Park Road (704-348-4400), opened a separate catering arm Hog Wild. Says Townsend, "My wife suggested that if we were going to be serving barbecue we might put some people off if we answered the phone with the word 'Gourmet.' She was right, of course, and Hog Wild has been very successful." Townsend caters to large crowds at Lowe's Motor Speedway, corporate functions, and private parties.

Several years ago, I became concerned about the future of barbecue restaurants since the product is labor intensive and more recent local fire codes prevent construction of new barbecue pits. Fortunately, barbecue is seeing a culinary rebirth, and will assuredly be a source of comfort through these uncertain times and beyond.

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