Photographs by Baxter Miller
Garland is one of those eastern North Carolina towns that some might say is on the way to nowhere. Perhaps best known as home of the Brooks Brothers oxford, folks are turning onto Hwy 701 towards Garland for a new reason: barbecue. Matthew Register, real estate agent turned barbecue man, has thrown his in hat into running for one of the state's newest and best barbecue joints. But it’s not just any old barbecue, it’s barbecue done the old way - cooked slow and low over oak wood.
Matthew, who opened Southern Smoke BBQ just a few years ago, takes great pride in his hometown, his barbecue and his unconventional approach to sides (think ratatouille or pozole). This pride was obvious when we first met this past year at the Barbecue Experience Dinner during Wide Open Bluegrass. Matthew, who’s about as down to earth as you can get, had appeared on the Today Show earlier that day, and for good reason. He’s good at what he does and loves what he’s doing. Meet Matthew Register.
Just this morning, you took the stage with Al Roker for the Today Show. Tonight at Wide Open Bluegrass, you’re back for a third year at the Barbecue Experience dishing out a taste of Southern Smoke. What’s this experience like for you?
The first year of the Bluegrass Festival, 2013, we got contacted by Goodness Grows in North Carolina and they asked, ‘Would you represent Goodness Grows in North Carolina and sell your barbecue sauce?’ I was so excited. Looking back, it was was so funny. We had no help. It was me and my dad the first day, and then me and my wife and a buddy of mine the second. We stayed from like 9 in the morning until 9 at night. We were just trying to just sell our sauce — just trying to get somebody to say, ‘that’s really good.’ We were in the process of opening the restaurant. So, it is very surreal [to be here now].
It hit me this morning when I stood on the stage for the Today Show. I looked down Fayetteville Street and looked at all those vendors setting up and thought, that was me three years ago. You can’t put that experience into words, the emotion that I felt. I wasn’t like I won a Pulitzer Prize this morning. I mean I was just on the Today Show, but to me that’s still huge. The only other person I can remember being from Eastern North Carolina on the Today Show is Vivian Howard.
I’m just a guy from Garland that cooks barbecue. When I was sitting up all night long by myself cooking barbecue, I couldn’t envision being here today. I just wanted to open a place that I could serve wood cooked barbecue, and stay open and try to help our town a little bit.
Why did you decide to open Southern Smoke in Garland?
People ask me all the time, ‘Why Garland? Why not go to Wilmington or even go to Clinton?’ Well, why not Garland? That’s where I live. That’s where I’m going to live forever. That’s where my kids are going to grow up. So why not try to do something to bring good light to the town.
Why a barbecue restaurant?
When you look on the barbecue map there’s like 500 barbecue places in North Carolina. But, you can’t name the 10 places in Eastern North Carolina that still cook with wood. That’s the scary thing. Every town has a barbecue place but nobody’s cooking with wood anymore.
What’s so special about cooking on wood to you?
Because that’s who we are. Historically, that’s how it all got started. That’s how we got known as a barbecue state. That’s how we cook. But we live in a microwave world, and I get that. And I don’t fault people for cooking it other ways. I’m not going to turn my nose up at somebody else’s barbecue. Either way, barbecue is not easy. There is nothing easy about putting a whole animal on and cooking it until it’s just that right temperature. It’s not a hamburger. You can’t just go patty it out and fix it. If you screw up, you’ve just lost 13 hours. There’s no going back.
As a father, I looked at my kids and wondered, what’s it going to be like in 20 years, are they even going to know wood cooked barbecue?
Take us to the beginning. How did Matthew Register become a barbecue man?
It started in my backyard. When John Shelton Reed wrote “the book,” The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue, that changed me forever. I bought that book when I was just getting into barbecue and it changed me. It changed the way I looked at sauce, and the way I thought about how barbecue should traditionally be cooked. From that point on I was addicted.
Jessica, my wife, her grandfather was in the barbecue business in the 50s and 60s. They cooked in old pits, shoveling coals. I started leaning on him and showing a lot more interest in barbecue. Before he died, I remember sitting with him and writing notes down. So, when you eat our barbecue — the way it’s chopped, the way it’s sauced, that’s him. It’s sad he’s not here to see it. But I know he knows. That’s where it all started.
The restaurant, Southern Smoke, opened three years ago this May. People had started calling me all the time — ‘Can you cook 10 pounds of barbecue for me?’ ‘Can you cook a pig for us?’ All of a sudden, I was like ‘Wait a minute, we might can make a go of this.’
We joke about it now but when we opened, I wanted to sell 50 sandwiches a day, two days a week, and do a little bit of catering. At that time I was still working in real estate and thought this would be a good little side income. And when it took off, it took off. And now I don’t do anything with the real estate because I don’t have time. It’s been quick. Typically barbecue is one of those things if you haven’t been in business for 20 years, you’re not doing anything.
How would you describe your barbecue?
I’ll tell you what I want you to taste: a little bit of smoke, a little bit of pork, and a little bit of the sauce.
We don’t do any injections. No rubs. I just don’t think that’s how traditional barbecue should taste. I don’t want it to be over sauced. I sauce barbecue very lightly because that’s something Jessica’s grandfather said. One, let people add the sauce because you can’t take the sauce out. Two, if you’re served barbecue with a lot of sauce it, they might be trying to hide something from you. A lot of times, I get fussed at because I don’t put a lot of a sauce on my barbecue but I don’t want any extra flavors.
Other than cooking on wood, what separates Southern Smoke from the other 500+ barbecue joints in North Carolina?
I want to be traditional barbecue but non-traditional sides. It’s like our Instagram says, traditional Eastern North Carolina barbecue with slightly off-centered sides. I want my grandmother to fuss at me a little bit when I cook something that isn’t exactly like something that she used to cook. If not, I’m not pushing myself and I’m not pushing the boundaries. Now, has everything worked, no. But, one of the most rewarding things is me pushing people outside of their comfort zones. For customers to come in and not even know how to pronounce something, and then come in again and ask when it’s going to be on the board again.
Tell us more about those sides.
I wanted to be a little different barbecue-restaurant-wise. I wanted to be more chef-driven. I wanted to call the local farmers and say ‘What do you have this week’? And instead of cooking squash like my grandmother cooked, let’s figure out a different way to do it. Or let's do a cabbage dish like she did, but add bacon, white wine, and garlic, and bring some different flavors.
[Folks here] looked at me like I was crazy. Why are we doing ratatouille in a barbecue restaurant, that you can’t even sit down in? People are sitting on the tailgate of their truck eating a barbecue sandwich and ratatouille or pozole. But why not? That’s always my question when we hit a barrier. Why can’t we do it? Why can’t we serve these things from a barbecue place?
People have caught on. When we first started there were some things that went in the trashcan but I just kept right on. And now, whatever the special is, whatever is new on the board that day, it’s the first thing that sells out.
We did a green Thai onion this spring. My dad looked at me and was like ‘You’re not going to sell that. Nobody in Garland is going to buy that.’ We sold out in the first 30 customers. It was gone. That’s very rewarding. That’s cool.
Why do you think barbecue is so special to North Carolinians?
We are so emotionally tied to barbecue. If you’ve eaten at a certain place for 30 years you’re going to think it’s the best in the world. I’m not going to change that. You got some families who’ve eaten at the same place for generations and there’s no way that customer is going to walk into my line and say, ‘This is better than that.’
That’s the cool thing about barbecue. There is no one best barbecue in the world. There’s not. You can’t bring somebody who is from South Carolina or Austin to Eastern North Carolina, and them like it better than what they know.
Barbecue is also about the people who cook it and the amount of hours they put into it. If you don’t love it, don’t get in it. I tell people that all the time. You may like cooking a pig for your friends on the weekend, but go do it for six days a week like some of the guys have done for 50 years. Think about Wilbur Shirley. Think about that. I mean he’s fired pits for 40, 50 years and has done it the same way forever. That’s amazing to me.
What has Southern Smoke and the publicity meant for Garland? Have you had moments in the last few years when you’ve felt your food is bringing life into the town?
We are trying to be an asset to the community. I’m not just in there trying to make a dollar and go on. We want people to be proud of being from Sampson County.
When we opened I wanted to see the garbage guys sitting beside a lawyer and doctor, and now we’re seeing that, and that’s cool. For someone to get in their car in Halifax and drive to Garland to eat at a picnic table and get in their car and drive back home [from an hour or two away]...now, there’s no better feeling than that. Or having old-timers walk in and say ‘I haven’t had barbecue like this in 30 years.’ I mean, that’s it for me. That’s the most humbling thing, ever. All the press and all the publicity is great, but those kind of things, there’s nothing like that. That makes me proud.
When something like the Today Show happens, you see the pride. That’s one thing Eastern North Carolina has lost. That’s one thing about Vivian Howard. She’s brought a spotlight to Eastern North Carolina. And if somebody wants to deny it, they are wrong, and I’ll tell them they are wrong.
I hope to see more restaurants open, or somebody open a new antique store, or a kid who grew up in Garland and went off to college, say ‘Wait, if he can sell barbecue sandwiches and make a living in Garland, why can’t I come back and do what I do in Garland?”
People move away from small towns. Everybody moves away and moves to Raleigh. There are no young families here anymore. But now we are starting to see a little influx of them coming back. Look at Kinston seven or eight years ago and look at it now.
So... how do we get to Garland?
My restaurant isn’t even on the main road so you have to look as you’re coming into town, we have spray painted signs that say wood cooked barbecue. The town hates them but I’m not going to take them down. We have people traveling down 701 and they stop just because of those hand-painted sign.
North Carolina Pork Belly and Sweet Potato Hash Recipe
Recipe by: Matthew Register, Southern Smoke BBQ of North Carolina
3 cups diced sweet potatoes
2 cups diced pork belly (1 inch pieces)
1/4 teaspoon ginger
1 tablespoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
2 tablespoons parsley
Pinch of sea salt
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Cover diced sweet potatoes in a baking dish and roast for 30 minutes until tender but not fork tender. When finished, set aside.
Heat skillet to medium heat, and place the pork belly onto a non-stick pan. Pan fry for about 5 minutes or until the porkbelly starts to brown.
Add brown sugar and sweet potatoes. Continue cooking for 4 minutes until sweet potatoes become tender.
Add ginger, cinnamon, brown sugar nutmeg, parsley and sea salt to the skillet. Mix all ingredients and cook for 2 minutes.