When national Democrats come to North Carolina they seem to think it’s a good idea to mention barbecue, and even maybe to eat some. Apparently they’ve heard that barbecue is a big deal in our state. But the devil is in the details, and they usually get those wrong.
When Al Gore was campaigning here in 2000, for example, he knew enough to stop by a big political barbecue. But a friend of mine who traveled on his campaign bus says he knew the state was lost when Gore got off the bus and put his suit jacket on.
Just so, when Michelle Obama announced in 2011 that the next Democratic convention would be held in Charlotte, she listed “great barbecue” as one of that city’s attractions. But actually, it’s not: Charlotte is a well-known exception to the North Carolina rule. Even the city’s mayor was puzzled; he said that Charlotte has good barbecue, but the only great barbecue he’d eaten in Charlotte had been “brought in on a truck.” The Charlotte Observer, not usually averse to boosterism, published an editorial headlined, “Charlotte = great barbecue? Who knew?”
In 2016 Clinton continued this tradition of barbecultural cluelessness.
It would have been so easy for her to play the barbecue card with a visit to, say, Wilber’s Barbecue in Goldsboro, where Wilber Shirley, one of the greats of North Carolina barbecue, is also one of the last yellow-dog Democrats. This is a man who has a picture of FDR on the wall of his restaurant.
There’s a photograph of Wilber on the web holding a Barack Obama bobblehead, “show[ing] the President around the smoke house.” He had to settle for the bobblehead because the real Obama has never actually come to his place. The president prefers a place in Asheville that serves ribs (with blueberry-chipotle sauce!). He probably does like ribs – he’s from Chicago, after all – but trying to score barbecue points with North Carolina voters by eating ribs is like John Kerry’s asking for Swiss cheese on his Philly cheesesteak, or Sargent Shriver’s going to a tavern in an Ohio mill town and saying, “Make mine a Courvoisier!”
Clinton didn’t go to Wilber’s either. She ate her barbecue at a place in Charlotte called the Midwood Smoke House.
Whoever sent her there didn’t help her. It’s true that the food at Midwood is tasty, and its barbecued meats are cooked 100 percent with wood, which is commendable. But eating there is not the way to show the voters that you’re in touch with what one might call “Deep” North Carolina.
First of all, it’s in Charlotte (see above). And it’s not just that Queen City barbecue is something less than great. The problem is that when many North Carolinians hear “Charlotte,” they think of big business, “gentlemen’s clubs,” and traffic jams. Moreover, there’s a generalized suspicion that Charlotteans regard the rest of us as – well, as a basket of deplorables. This suspicion is fed by comments like one from a reader who wrote the Observer to say that “Charlotte has always suffered from an image problem, and it will only change when people separate ‘North Carolina’ and ‘Charlotte’ in their minds.”
So, for starters, Hillary ate her barbecue in the wrong town. Moreover, she ate it at a trendy place in a trendy neighborhood, with an “executive chef” named Matt, a place that gives its bar equal billing with its barbecue, with a menu offering not just pork barbecue, but also barbecued ribs, brisket, burnt ends, prime rib, ground chuck, sausage, chicken, and salmon, served with your choice of sauces: “eastern North Carolina vinegar,” “South Carolina mustard,” a Kansas City-style “Midwood signature,” and “spicy habañero.”
You often find this pick-your-meat, pick-your-sauce, International House of Barbecue approach in places like Charlotte that are full of newcomers from many different barbecue traditions, or none, but it is not the Tar Heel Way. The one-true-faith North Carolina approach is exemplified by the Skylight Inn in Ayden, where Sam Jones says, “When you come here, it’s not what you want, it’s how much of it.”
To many of us, barbecue from everywhere feels like barbecue from nowhere, and for all the political good it did her, Clinton could have skipped the smoked meat altogether and gone to a tapas bar.
I’m sure that Donald Trump knows as little about North Carolina barbecue as Hillary does, but he got better advice. Somebody told him to go to Stamey’s Barbecue in Greensboro, a venerable place that advertises its “Old Fashioned Barbecue.” Somebody even told him what to order -- according to WFMY-TV, he had “a glass of sweet tea, chopped BBQ, hushpuppies, slaw, and cherry cobbler with ice cream” – and his campaign was rewarded with a photograph, widely circulated, that showed him posing with the restaurant’s staff, a fine, smiling cross-section of North Carolina working people, pretty much the kind of folks who turned out on election day to put him over the top.
I’m not saying that Hillary could have won by eating at Stamey’s, but would it have hurt?
John Shelton Reed's books include Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue and Barbecue: A Savor the South® Cookbook.