Thursday, December 18, 2008

Barbecue with 'single-minded devotion'

This article from the Los Angeles Times is almost a year old, but it bears reading again.

"The moon was high over the loblolly pines when Keith Allen arrived for work at 2 a.m. He built a fire of hickory logs, and a plume of rich blue smoke creased the black night sky.

"When the fire had produced glowing red coals, Allen shoveled them into a pit below two dozen hog shoulders on a metal rack. For the next nine hours, he shoveled more coals, stoked the fire, and turned the shoulders as they cooked a ruddy, smoky brown.

"Long after first light, he was still at it. With a cleaver in one hand and a knife in the other, he chopped the pork with a rhythmic whump, whump, whump. Then he plunged two gloved hands into the steaming meat to mix in a homemade sauce of vinegar, salt and red pepper.

"And that, for purists, is the long, hard, wearying way of making genuine pit-cooked Eastern North Carolina chopped barbecue. ...

"Only 20 to 30 barbecue restaurants among hundreds in the state still cook with wood, says Bob Garner, author of two books on Carolina barbecue. 'But nobody does it to the degree Keith does – he’s one of a kind,' Garner said.

"Allen’s painstaking methods – cutting his own hickory, manning the fire for hours, chopping his own meat and making his own sauce – have their roots in a time-honored process. Pigs have been roasted over wood coals in North Carolina since the 17th century.

"The process evolved generations ago into the hickory-smoked, seasoned and chopped pork dish known as North Carolina barbecue. (Sauce in the eastern part of the state is vinegar-based; in the west, it’s tomato-based.)

"But purists say the delicacy is being compromised by modern shortcuts. That’s why holdouts such as Allen are so significant, Garner said.

" 'He pursues it with a single-minded devotion,' Garner said. 'That’s his niche, and he’d be a fool to change now.' ..."

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