Installment No. 3 by Wyatt Dickson
Fishing and hunting were an inseparable part of my childhood. Annually changing currents and hunting seasons gave rhythm and meaning to my life in North Carolina.
My earliest memories are of summers at Topsail Beach, where I spent long afternoons casting a spoon to bluefish chasing bait, wading through shallow sun-warmed tidal pools and fighting with the sand — forever pooled in the mesh lining of my madras bathing suit. When I wasn’t at the beach, I could be found soundside, dangling a fish head from a string wrapped around a piece of driftwood over the edge of a dock. When I’d caught enough crabs for dinner I’d keep going, netting and releasing crab after crab just to catch them again.
Winter meant frigid morning air rushing into my lungs as a boat hurtled across the Pamlico Sound in darkness, ferrying me to a box on stilts above the water where I’d sit for hours, shoulder to shoulder with my younger brother and two best friends, waiting for ducks that might or might not fly. Hour after hour, we’d stare at the horizon while listening to a local guide tell old stories, in a salty language and accent that seemed almost ancient. From there, I learned beauty was dawn breaking over still water.
Fall was for dove hunting in Gray’s Creek. Perched on a bucket between rows of sunflowers twice my height, I’d wait for the first dove of the year to fly over, knowing for the longest time, as my father did, that I wasn’t yet strong enough to shoulder and swing the heavy shotgun.
I fell in love with barbecue after a day of dove hunting.
One afternoon, behind an equipment shed near the hunting field, I discovered a dozen hunters and a few youngsters crowded around a greasy pig cooker. A pair of tired dogs napped under a truck. In various shades of khaki and olive, the men pulled long strands of tender pork and gluttonously fed. Fat and barbecue sauce occasionally dripped down a beard or mustache.
I remember seeing an opening and inserting myself between two men in front of the smoker. My chin drew about even with the lip, and I could only see the mahogany globe of ham. Someone yelled for a milkcrate, and the fellas on either side lifted me by the arms and slid it under my feet. From this vantage point, I knew why a spot at the smoker was so hard to come by.
Butterflied and on his back, the pig’s skin was a lustrous amber, encrusted with crispy, salty bits. Half the pig had already been pulled and devoured. The man who I guessed was in charge — his shirt was the greasiest and he appeared to have been there the longest — showed me how to pull the second half. He gave me a taste of the long stringy belly that melted on my tongue, some rich smokey shoulder, and tender delicate rib meat. He showed me all the delicious little bits in the feet and on the pig’s face. Behind that barn, on that milkcrate, elbow deep in barbecue, I was on top of the world.
At first blush I suppose I was attracted to barbecue for the same reason I’m attracted to pizza or cheeseburgers: it’s yummy. As I got older, though, I realized barbecue is special. Barbecue is civilization.
In its earliest incarnations, the slow cooking of whole beast over a wood fire was a communal activity, the collective sharing of human effort and resources. It takes a community to kill and cook an animal, and it takes a community to eat one. We find this in cultures around the world, in a cinder-block pit in eastern North Carolina or wrapped in banana leaves and buried on a beach in Thailand. We humans are social creatures, and this community meat thing is a cultural anchor.
In North Carolina, the tastes and the smells of barbecue are tightly tied to childhood memories, important events, and people we love. With one bite, even one whiff, barbecue can transport you to another place and time.
It’s the smudgy screen door clogged up with dust and grease. It’s the woman at the counter who took your order as a boy, now listening to your son order his first sandwich, extra slaw, the way your father and his father ordered theirs. It’s your family reunion and your best friend’s wedding, a tailgate at your alma mater and a fire department fundraiser. It’s a hot meal after a cold morning of hunting. It’s a night of fire and friends, bourbon and naps, shared effort and shared reward. It’s mountain hollers and cotton fields for miles.
Being a barbecue man is both an opportunity and a responsibility. I want to be a steward of the food that in many ways defines who we are, and I believe our state’s most revered cuisine has suffered over the years as the pork industry shifted from small-scale farming to contract-based factories. By cooking only pasture raised Heritage breed pigs, I have an opportunity to show folks here what we’ve lost, and that we can get it back. I’m not doing anything novel, just doing things the way we’ve always have, but I feel connected the land and to the people of this state in a way I never expected.
Like the truest love, barbecue is ever-present, everywhere. It evokes a place and defines it. It’s at home on the state’s most humble table, and its fanciest. It belongs to everyone.
Barbecue represents everything I love about North Carolina, and I think that’s why I’m a barbecue man.
Wyatt Dickson is the “Barbecue Man” behind PICNIC in Durham, NC – one of the newest whole hog barbecue joints, recently praised in Time Magazine and Bon Appetit. His devotion to authentic wood-smoked barbecue can be traced from one stump speech to another. The son of a Fayetteville, NC judge and North Carolina Senator, Dickson’s youth was spent at pig pickin’s, surrounded by talk of politics – both about candidates and the age-old debate over eastern vs. western North Carolina barbecue.
For Dickson, North Carolina barbecue means oak-smoked, locally raised, whole-hog– that’s picked, never chopped.
It’s a revival of the pig pickin’ – once a fixture of community and backyard gatherings across the state — and the impetus behind the inaugural NC Barbecue Revival. The weekend long event, Oct 28-30, will celebrate whole hog barbecue and bring recognition to its past, present and future, as well as to the importance of high quality hogs.
This three-day event at Green Button Farm includes an intimate, champagne-paired dinner at Ryan Butler’s modern farmhouse featuring Local Provisions’ Chef Justin Burdett, classes on pie, hog butchery, the history of barbecue and bourbon, and of course, a pig pickin’.