A lot of romance surrounds barbecue, and a lot of romantics.
It’s a world where wood, fire, smoke and time combine to create something as complex as any food in the world, yet something that also feels at home on a paper plate.
It’s a culture in which what one considers barbecue – be it ribs, brisket, pulled pork or chicken – reveals as much about where a person is from as his or her birth certificate. And that’s before adding the sauce, which can pit one part of a state against another.
Is Clayton pitmaster Jerry Stephenson, who went to East Carolina 30 years ago to play football but wound up playing rugby, one of those romantics? Well he is, and he ain’t.
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Stephenson and his sister, Roxanne Manley, are the two-time grand champions of this weekend’s Peak City Pig Fest, a 48-team competition in nearby Apex that awards $10,000 in winnings.
Their team, “Redneck Scientific,” finished runner-up the first two years and took best overall in the last two, in what Stephenson calls one of the top three barbecue competitions in North Carolina.
Barbecue loves its folklore, from storybook beginnings to legendary smokers passed from one cook to the next. The son of farmers, Stephenson grew up in Eastern North Carolina, and from a young age, he was baptized in the barbecue culture of the region, where whole hog with vinegar is king. He said whole hogs were cooked for funerals and weddings and described Thanksgivings of pulled pork and oysters, with turkeys cooked for sandwiches the next day.
“I was hanging out as a young kid, and as it is on a farm in Eastern North Carolina, if you’re standing around, you’re going to be put to work,” Stephenson said. “My dad let me start shoveling the coals from the burn barrel, and eventually I was cooking myself.”
Whole hog, Stephenson said, was born out of what was available in Eastern North Carolina, and its signature sauce came from needing something to cut through all that fat. Brisket might reign in Texas, but it will never rule over Stephenson.
“For me, Eastern North Carolina barbecue will always be the best,” Stephenson said. “Someone from California will never get it. The hogs back in the day had so much fat you needed the vinegar. Then the vinegar mixed with the fat formed an emulsion. Someone in California or wherever is never going to understand it.”
North Carolina barbecue, though, is changing, Stephenson said. The old guard remains, the Sam Joneses and the Wilburs, but whole hog is more of a rarity these days, he said, and sauces are becoming much more than vinegar.
“The state of North Carolina barbecue is that it’s kind of in a transitional period,” Stephenson said. “People are more willing to step out of the box and not do whole hog barbecue.
“It’s now more based on flavor profiles from different regions mixing together. Everyone has their individual take, and that’s the thing that appeals to me. JoCo is written on everything we do. When I used to cook those whole hogs, I was proud to do it. But I’m also damn proud of what we do now.”
Stephenson said he’ll do about 23 competitions this year, plus run a catering business and keep his day job as a general contractor, though he said a restaurant concept is in the works for later this year.
He competes on the Kansas City Barbeque Society circuit, which sanctions the Peak City Pig Fest and hundreds of other events across the country. Over the next two weekends, barbecue will take Stephenson to South Carolina, then to Tryon south of Asheville, up to Washington, D.C., then to Apex and then back to Washington. He said his truck has about 250,000 miles on it.
In the world of barbecue competitions, Stephenson parks next to teams naming their smokers “War Machine” or “Black Beauty.” His are “Baby Girl” and “Lil Sis,” named for his sister and daughters. The trailer that pulls everything he calls “Mom.”
“Mom takes care of us,” Stephenson said. But the romance kind of ends there; it’s a job after all. When Stephenson has his smokers lit and everything set, he goes to bed, no need to camp out and babysit a few hundred pounds of meat through the night. The farmer’s blood in him wakes him up at 5:30 a.m., and then he works into the afternoon, preparing pork, ribs, brisket and chicken and hoping his name is the last one called.
“I’m not trying to hit a home run in every category,” Stephenson said. “I just try to have the best overall barbecue. I don’t cook for awards. I cook to win.”
Drew Jackson; 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson