It’s been said that the only thing better than a crab cake sandwich, is an Eastern North Carolina BBQ sandwich (GQ, 2006). As a born & bred Marylander with Tarheel roots, it’s impossible for me to rank those two. I know I crave them equally when the temperatures start to rise. I also know there is nothing as powerfully hunger-inducing as the aroma of slow-cooking pork!
My father’s family can trace our lineage back to pre-Revolution times, starting with William Leigh who settled just outside of infamous Jamestown, Virginia around 1608. His direct descendants have stayed in the Eastern VA and Eastern NC region for generations, including my current relatives living in Windsor and Edenton, NC. I share all this to say that this particular food and sense memory is one that vibrates my core and pulls at my gut. I know my ancestors prepared and ate this food, and that enslaved hands were also responsible for its creation and perfection. It’s a food that I have an almost sacred relationship with — that goes beyond traveling hours for a bite or tending a hot grill in the hot sun. This recipe and process necessarily provides you with plenty of time to meditate on your inheritance.
It wasn’t until I was older that my family started making this regularly at home. Since it’s so labor-intensive, we usually bought the barbecue from one or two Dobson-approved restaurants. The one I most fondly remember was Lane’s Family Barbecue in Edenton, NC (RIP). Down the street from the Cotton Mill where my Great-Grandmother worked, and around the corner from where my Grandmother was born, this humble establishment was tightly bound up in our family rituals. The order was: 3-4 lbs of barbecue, 2-3 lbs of coleslaw for topping, collard greens, hush puppies, and Cheerwine or Root Beer. The pit-cooked barbecue was mouthwateringly vinegary and I distinctly remember a preserved chili pepper heat, both balanced by the creaminess of the coleslaw and the soft & sweet bun. Our style of barbecue is chopped (not pulled) which gives you textural contrast and hits of fat, burnt ends, and juicy meat. I did not get anywhere near to pitmaster perfection this time around, but I do believe this is the best sandwich I’ve had this summer.
I love pork in all forms and I love Eastern North Carolina BBQ. The piquant flavor of this vinegar-y style makes me want to eat more and more of it. Marisa's version was no exception. It was not as tender as I would've liked but I appreciate how the preparation could be eaten in a potato bun, in a salad, and even with lavash. I only wish I ate it with some proper sides of mac & cheese, french fries, and hush puppies!
The Dobsons + Eastern North Carolina BBQ
4-6 lb pork shoulder, humanely raised from a local farm (I recommend Liberty Delight)
2-4 cups of apple cider vinegar
2-3 tbsp brown sugar
2-3 tbsp of red pepper flakes (or if you have some homestyle canned chili peppers, use those!)
Note: This is barely a recipe — it’s more of a process. I know there are much more knowledgeable people out there making this (including my own brother!) but I’ll share how I did it this time.
Start air-drying the pork shoulder the night before and consider salting. Cut deep diamonds into the fat cap, being careful not to cut past the tissue. Rub about a tbsp of kosher salt over the whole shoulder and let it sit in the fridge overnight.
Prepare and light the grill around 9am for a 5pm dinnertime (if you have a smoker, use that instead!). Let the coals or wood die down until you get a temperature of about 250*. While your grill is heating/cooling, prepare your mop (vinegar sauce).
In a small saucepan, simmer the vinegar. Add sugar & pepper flakes, and stir until dissolved. Taste and adjust to your liking.
Using tongs and a gentle touch, lay the shoulder on the grill with the fat facing up. Soak well with the mop, making sure to get in between the diamonds. I used thick paper towels and cooking chopsticks to mop (I am 1/4 Japanese after all!) but I’ve seen others use porous rags, or you can actually buy a specific BBQ mop like this.
Mop the pork shoulder every half hour for roughly 4-6 hours until it smells amazing and the flesh gives to your touch. Take off heat and let rest.
Grab a large, sharp cleaver and chop it up! Pour any remaining mop onto the pork and toss to combine. Serve with creamy Southern-style coleslaw and on soft white bread buns or Hawaiian-style rolls. These sandwiches go particularly well with corn on the cob, pickles, Crab Chips, and cheap beer.
This Memory Kitchen Series is a creative collaboration between Marisa & Jamie. Each month, one of us will cook a recipe entirely from memory (no long phone calls to Mom, no recipe cards, no cookbooks, no Googling!) and the other will review the dish. The recipe that follows is exactly what’s pictured (all photos by Jamie Sumague, of course!). We have no idea how it will turn out when we start, so expect a few disasters along with the occasional triumph.