Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue

By John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed with William McKinney

University of North Carolina Press

316 pages


It’s not too much of a stretch to say you can count all the barbecue books worth keeping on one hand. Each year enough titles are published to fill an entire aisle at Barnes & Noble, but despite thousands of sauce recipes and grilling tips and cute bits of barbecue lore, almost all are heavy on spice but woefully light on meat.

Fortunately, there’s a new one worth adding to your bookshelf: Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue.

The book is true to its title, offering up a wide range of information about every aspect of North Carolina barbecue. The first section (“The Lore”) provides the most authoritative history to date of the state’s barbecue tradition, including its roots in Colonial times and the evolution of the famous divide between the Eastern North Carolina style (with its whole hogs and spicy vinegar sauce) and its Piedmont rival (with pork shoulders and a touch of tomato in the sauce).

The second section (“The Food”) serves up everything from recipes for hushpuppies and banana pudding to instructions for cooking a whole hog in a backyard pit. The final section (“The People”) tells the story of North Carolina barbecue in the words of its foremost practitioners, taken from interviews with 10 of the state’s foremost pitmasters.

The Reeds are Tarheel loyalists. They have little truck for barbecue on the south side of the Carolina border, which they dismiss as “scary mustard stuff” without even mentioning hash. But such blasphemy is more than offset by abundant photographs of historic and contemporary barbecues and delightful side trips to address topics such as the origins of sweet tea, Texas Pete, and liquid smoke.

Throughout, the Reeds and William McKinney remain barbecue fundamentalists, especially on the subject of cooking with wood instead of gas or electricity. They’re ardent defenders of the Tarheel State’s traditions against the depredations of modern commerce and convenience. They’re also acerbically funny. All told, Holy Smoke is a valuable addition to the barbecue lover’s bookshelf.

Stay cool. Support City Paper.

City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.