You can raise the price on North Carolina pork barbecue. You can put brisket on the menu. You can even sell chicken from the most traditional pig-purveying huts. But a wine list at a barbecue joint? For The New Yorker, that is a modern-day deal-breaker.

At least that’s how Calvin Trillin ends his early November piece on the state of Tar Heel ‘cue. Those other tweaks are within reason, notes Trillin, but he and his traveling companion, UNC professor John Shelton Reed, can find little excuse for the selection of fermented grapes at Durham’s The Pit”an effort to do authentic barbecue in a trendy setting.” It’s simply “wrong,” Reed notes.

Trillin’s 4,000-word exploration of the state’s smoked meats ticks through all the requisite tropes: He illuminates the smoldering divide between the shoulders topped with a ketchup-heavy sauce, endemic to the state’s west, and the east’s pulled, chopped and vinegar-drunk recipe. He indulges unapologetic nostalgia for old methods and mores, essentially serving as a mouthpiece for an organization working to maintain them. And, of course, he makes a college basketball joke.

But in diving headlong into efforts to preserve North Carolina’s atavistic approach, Trillin overlooks thoughtful attempts to reimagine our beloved barbecue in a changing South in ways that do more than add expense and extravagance. In fact, to my mind, he missed some of the best barbecue in the state, even if it’s not barbecue at all: soy, smoked low and slow, pulled apart by hand and drenched with a vinegar-based sauce. It is a regional delicacy, reinvented for reasons beyond upscale dining.

Caroline Morrisonthe head chef and co-owner of The Fiction Kitchen, blocks away from Raleigh’s own Pitgrew up in Roanoke Rapids, a mid-size town wedged between the Virginia border and the Carolina coast. She ate the pulled or chopped pork of her region at tiny restaurants and family pig pickings until she became a vegetarian early in college. But she missed the smoke and chew of the barbecue, prompting a backyard mission to re-create it.

The process took years, but her barbecuenow served at The Fiction Kitchen with a heaping mound of slaw, a pillow-top potato cake and a side of savory greensis perhaps the pièce de résistance of her restaurant. It’s her heritage, reimagined for her life.

Perhaps on his next trip to North Carolina, Trillin will visit. Here’s hoping he doesn’t mind the sake selection.

INDY: You grew up eating pulled pork in little North Carolina restaurants. But when did you realize it was such a regional delicacy?

CAROLINE MORRISON: It was elementary school, when we went to Texas. One of my dad’s Vietnam buddies said, “We’re gonna have barbecue.” He just meant putting stuff on the grill. It didn’t have anything to do with what kind of animal it was, or what kind of sauce it was. He was just barbecuing.

And then I went to college at Cullowhee in western Carolina. There was a smokehouse nearby. You had four different sauces that were on the table to put on your brisket or different cuts, either cow or pork. There was a mustard-based sauce, a tomato-based sauce, a vinegar sauce and a hot sauce. And they had Texas Pete. They were calling it all barbecue. The first year, I spent a lot of time at the smokehouse. I really liked the textures, the smoked flavor, and I liked the idea of slow, low cooking.

But you became a vegetarian shortly thereafter, right?

I passed out in the hallway in college with wing sauce all over my face, after devouring wings all over the bone. I decided I needed a lifestyle change after a case of Anheuser-Busch and wings.

I had started to think about the impact on the environment. Steak was one of the biggest things I ate when I was younger, but I said, “I don’t think I need to eat this animal to survive anymore. How can I eat to survive without feeling bad about eating a cow?” The cafeteria was not making vegetarian stuff, so I had to come up with a plan to sustain myself. I just felt that I would feel better about myself. Passing out like that, I was just in a bad place. Part of it was habits, like eating chicken. It’s just so accessible and easy to eat crap food and not think about how the animal was treated or what happened to the animal during their death or their life.


When did you start cooking?

I tried to make fun stuff in my dorm room using the microwave. Then, when I graduated from college, I started working at Lilly’s and Cup A Joe in Raleigh. At Lilly’s, because there are so many ingredients, you could start playing around. I started cooking more at home, and I started to think, “Oh, vegetables, they’re fun, but I miss the textures and memories of meat.” So I started working on a biscuits-and-gravy recipe.

I realized there’s some things that, maybe down the road, I’d be able to get right, but I wasn’t going to get it for a long time, like the bite of casing when you eat a kielbasa. One of the big things when I was young, growing up at the State Fair, was eating Polish sausage with peppers. That bite is from intestine. It’s a great total use of product from whoever invented the reason to do this, and it was a necessity at that time for life. But it’s not a necessity now for my life. At the same time, it would be fun to try to figure out a vegetarian version of that, so I could have that in my life again.

How soon did that process start with barbecue?

Barbecue was definitely something that was first on my agenda. I was taking any product that I thought I could smoke and blending different brands and types of wood and wood chips to get that exact smoke factor that was going to bring out the sweetness, the pepperiness. I had the barbecue sauce down alreadyblack pepper, garlic, crushed red pepper, apple cider vinegar, brown sugar. I also knew what I wanted in texture. It was a matter of finding the right product that could give me the texture.

How do you smoke it?

It is just the old-school way of smoking to try to keep the temperature down, though I didn’t have a big smoker. I wasn’t having to smoke something as big as a whole hog, but I didn’t want to cook the product to death really quickly either. I would just soak my wood chips and wrap them in aluminum foil and put some holes in it. Then I’d get a perforated hotel pan, put the wood chips in the hotel pan or the bottom of the grill and then put whatever product I wanted in the perforated pan.


What products did you try?

I used tofu. I used tempeh. Some people use jackfruit, but I was trying to stay away from canned items. I wanted it to be a local product, and then I ran into Delight Soy in Morrisville. I used to work for the North Carolina Soybean Producers Association, teaching farmers how to use soy products like tofu and tempeh. I began realizing that Lila Chung from Delight Soy was, as much as she could, using North Carolina soybeans. And it had a great texture.

But her patties were just too thick. They would smoke too quick. Just like with pork, all the products I found would, when it’s ready, get that smoked crust. Her nuggets were just thick enough where I could smoke it the right amount of time.

I tried to put it in the food processor to chop it, but that was not right. I got it out while it was warm, got the hot gloves on and started pulling it apartthe same thing as pulled pork. That produced the texture I wanted, and then I poured the barbecue sauce over it: “Oh my God, this is it.”

In my experience, other people tend to react to it the same way, even forgetting that it’s not meat. My dad, who has been eating Eastern North Carolina barbecue for more than six decades, says it’s maybe the best he’s ever had.

I grew up eating fatback, pulled pork, fatback biscuits, collard greens-and-ham hocks, green beans-and-ham hocks. Now my family, if they are going to a pig picking, ask me for my barbecue. My brother is pretty high up in the National Guard, and he just organized his unit’s get-together of everyone who has ever been in the unit. One of the older guys who was in the unit is a vegetarian. He told my brother he couldn’t eat meat. “I can take care of you,” my brother said. He got two gallons of our barbecue, and people said it was better than the other barbecue. The good old boys had been cooking their pig all day, and then he walked in with this? And it was better?

Some people wonder why vegetarians are so obsessed with working so hard to mimic the flavors of meat, something they’ve given up. Why is it important for you?

I see it as a nostalgia factor. If I can create something that pleases my palate and makes my conscience feel better, I don’t see the harm. I have no problem saying I used to eat fatback. When I was a kid, that’s what we did. And I have no problem saying that I liked it. But it doesn’t mean I want to eat it now that I can think more about what I put in my body. Liking something and knowing its reality, I want to create it again without doing harm.

In this town, a lot of people don’t know how to cook vegetables. There’s been change, but three or four years ago, even the vegetable sides weren’t that great. So if you were a vegetarian and you went out to eat with people, you ended up getting overcooked vegetables most of the time, or bland. What we’re doing here is allowing a space where a vegetarian can come, eat off the whole menu, and they can bring their carnivore friend, who will also be happy. It provides a way for omnivores to come in and have a meat-free meal of something that’s approachable. And if someone’s a vegetarian and thinks like I do, it re-creates a childhood memory. That feels good.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Pulled porkless”