We've been hearing a lot of scary stories lately about the impending demise of Southern barbecue: beef and pork prices spiraling ever higher, restaurants replacing wood-burning pits with gas-fired ovens, petty bureaucrats determined to douse the coals once and for all.
I think there's a lot of smoke there but not much fire. Each week brings plenty of optimistic tales, too, like the one about the farmer, the chef, and the barbecue man. They're teaming up to open Picnic, a new restaurant in Durham, North Carolina, and I met two of them recently when they came down to Charleston to cook a whole hog for a private event.
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Wyatt Dickson is the “barbecue man” (he hates the term “pitmaster”), a trade he sort of stumbled into during college. He ate lots of eastern North Carolina-style barbecue growing up in Fayetteville, but he had never cooked it until he went off to the University of North Carolina and joined a fraternity.
“One football weekend we wanted a pig,” he says. “I had cooked a very good steak the night before, so I said, ‘I’ll do it.’”
Most novices start out with smaller, easier to manage cuts, like shoulders and brisket. “I really didn’t know that was an option,” Dickson says. “I went and got a whole pig and rented a cooker.”
“The first few pigs were a little rough,” he admits, but he soon became the go-to barbecue man for his friends and family.
Two fortuitous events pushed him even further toward the older style of cooking. The first happened not long after he graduated and headed off to work in New York, leaving behind his 21st birthday gift, a gas-burning hog cooker. “The custody of that went to my little brother,” Dickson says, “who was also at UNC. He didn’t clean it too well.”
That Christmas, Dickson came home to visit, and his family decided to cook a hog. “We had the most incredible grease fire I’ve ever seen,” Dickson says. “So the cooker went in for a few repairs.” He took the opportunity to have a fire box put in the back so he could retire the propane tanks and start cooking over wood.
A few years later, Dickson moved back to Chapel Hill, ostensibly to attend law school at UNC, but he ended up launching his own catering business instead. One day he was asked to cook for a fundraiser using a pig donated by Lantern Restaurant in Chapel Hill. It was one of the heritage breeds that chef Andrea Reusing gets from Chapel Hill Creamery, raised on the whey leftover from making cheese.
“They’re butter-finished hogs,” Dickson says. “It was the best pig I ever cooked.” He was finished with factory-farmed commodity meat.
Now Dickson is working to adapt that throw-back style to the demands of a large-format restaurant. For his pits, he’s turned to BQ Smokers of Elm City, North Carolina, who are fabricating a giant version of their vertical direct smoker that will be large enough to cook three 225-pound hogs at one time.
“It’s completely insulated,” Dickson says. “Steel with two inches of insulation.” Pit probes and meat probes connect to a computer, which can open and close air intake portals to maintain an even temperature. “It allows us to not have someone there feeding the fire overnight,” Dickson says. “We can put it to bed at midnight and let it cruise until 5:30 or 6:00 am when the morning guy comes in.”
He’s planning to serve it pig-picking style, with the entire finished hog displayed in a glass case and the meat pulled to order. For now, Dickson says, he has no plans to cook chicken or brisket. “I got no business doing that,” he says. “That’s like barbecue at the airport.”
For the food that goes alongside, chef Ben Adams—a veteran of fine dining kitchens at McCrady’s in Charleston and Piedmont in Durham— is blending down-home and upscale influences. “It’s kind of like a meat-n-three sort of menu with some small plates,” Adams says. “We’ll do Brunswick stew and things like that in the barbecue tradition . . . but also delicious, clean, light field pea and corn salad type stuff.” And, he’ll transform leftover barbecue into rillettes and other charcuterie so nothing goes to waste.
And of course the barbecue will be made from heritage breed pigs, which is where the third partner, Ryan Butler of Green Button Farm, comes in. Butler raises Berkshires, Tamworths, and Durocs in various crossbred combinations about ten miles outside of Durham. “They’re great barbecue pigs,” Dickson says, and they've received rave reviews at special events, especially from older guests. “They say, ‘This is what barbecue tasted like when I was a child.’”
Old North Carolina traditions—pastured-raised hogs, cooked whole over wood and pulled at serving time—are meeting up with high-tech cookers and fine dining sensibilities: it’s old-school and very up to date at the same time. To me, it’s another hopeful sign that Southern barbecue has many fine years left ahead of it.
Picnic will be located in North Durham, North Carolina. The farmer, chef, and barbecue man are looking to be open later this fall.