Michelle Obama was just trying to be nice.
Nobody told her that saying something about barbecue in North Carolina always unleashes a bunch of crazy talk from a lot of people who have strong opinions. But only a few of them know what they are talking about.
In case you missed it, Mrs. Obama made a short statement about Charlotte to mark the city’s selection as the site of the 2012 Democratic Convention: “Charlotte is a city marked by its Southern charm, warm hospitality and an ‘up by the bootstraps’ mentality that has propelled the city forward as one of the fastest-growing in the South. Vibrant, diverse and full of opportunity, the Queen City is home to innovative, hardworking folks with big hearts and open minds. And of course, great barbecue.”
“And of course, great barbecue.”
It was that last line that got all the tongues wagging.
There was a race to be the first to say that Mrs. Obama had it all wrong, because Charlotte, the critics assert, is not a barbecue town.
Even the Charlotte Observer jumped in to respond, rudely to her, writing, “Huh?!?!” The Observer says that Mrs. Obama may “know a lot about haute cout[u]re in Chicago, but she doesn't know hushpuppies about Charlotte's culinary scene.”
Not so fast.
I am no barbecue expert. But I did find out a few things about our state’s favorite food doing research for “Interstate Eateries,” my little book about home cooking places near the big highways.
First, there is a lot more to North Carolina barbecue than the Lexington and Eastern styles that you hear so much about. I love both kinds and would go out of my way to stop at Wilber’s in Goldsboro for the Eastern or Lexington #1 for classic Lexington style.
But the Democratic visitors to Charlotte next year will not have to travel so far to get a variety of good pork cooked over smoking coals. In fact, the Old Hickory House Restaurant in Charlotte is one of the favorites I included in my book. As far back as I can remember, I have enjoyed watching and smelling the meat cooking on a brick oven inside the restaurant. Although the chopped red barbecue in heavy tomato sauce that they serve is not exactly Lexington style, the Old Hickory style is plenty good enough for Mrs. Obama to brag about.
Here is another thing I learned: Most North Carolinians’ favorite barbecue is the kind of barbecue they grew up eating.
It is for me, too.
I grew up in Mecklenburg County and played football at North Meck with Tommy Oehler, whose dad made a name for himself cooking pigs for the Mallard Creek Church fundraising barbecue event each fall. Mr. J.W. Oehler, Jr. also built a pretty good catering business on the side. I got to eat a lot of his product, but never enough.
So for me the best barbecue in North Carolina is on the northeast side of Charlotte. On the fourth Thursday in October every politician for miles around comes there to the Mallard Creek Church Barbecue just for the chance to shake hands with some of the more than 20,000 people who drop by to enjoy the fellowship and eat what they believe is Charlotte’s, North Carolina’s, and the world’s best barbecue.
If some of the Democratic convention visitors want to sample the product, they can contact Donnie Oehler (Tommy’s brother), who caters and hosts private parties in a big barn near the church’s barbecue site.
Now that this argument is settled, North Carolinians can go back to debating less important things like school assignments and funding, the state budget crisis, health care, video poker, and who has the best basketball team in the conference.