WUNCJuly 3, 2023
Ed and Ryan Mitchell: Eastern North Carolina whole hog barbeque at its best | By Leoneda Inge
The book begins, “Pit-cooked whole hog barbeque is the last vestige of Southern barbeque.” If you had to put a name on this last vestige continuing such a rich tradition, it would be Ed Mitchell of Wilson, North Carolina.
It does not matter if he’s cooking at the Pinehurst Barbecue Festival or the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party in New York City, it seems everybody has heard of Ed Mitchell and his vinegar-based whole hog barbeque.
Even the late celebrity chef and world traveler Anthony Bourdain made his way to Wilson to taste the pit master’s cooking.
“During my travels, I hear about a joint called Mitchells where they proudly specialize in whole hog barbeque,” Bourdain said on his Food Network special, “Triangle of BBQ.”
“And when you’re talking about Eastern North Carolina, you’re talking about nose to tail; everything but the squeak.”
Ed Mitchell, 77, has been featured and celebrated in books and documentaries. He proudly sits in the Black BBQ Hall of Fame and the American Royal Barbecue Hall of Fame. This summer, Ed is traveling the country with his son Ryan Mitchell promoting their new book — Ed Mitchell’s Barbeque. It is full of history, stories and Mitchell family recipes. The reviews were good at a recent gathering in Chatham County.
“I had some barbeque, I had a deviled egg, fried green tomatoes, potato salad, coleslaw and a little cucumber salad,” said David Hamilton of Charlottesville, Virginia. “I love barbeque for all the reasons: the sense of tradition, history, cross-cultural.”
A crowd of folks got the chance to eat right out of the Mitchells’ new book at a Father’s Day whole hog celebration at Fearrington House in Chatham County. They devoured the barbeque, fried pork skin or cracklin’, washing it down with watermelon sweet tea.
That is where I had a chat with Ryan Mitchell. These days, Ryan is the business brains behind his father’s brand. The East Carolina University graduate moved back home after a banking career to run the business and continue the family legacy.
Leoneda Inge: “One story that I enjoy, I would like for you to talk about, is how your father started selling barbeque. How it was a mistake, well, nothing is a mistake. You all were just cooking for your family and somebody came by and said, ‘Wait a minute I see some barbeque. You’re not selling that?’ The next thing you know, you have to cook for everybody in Wilson.”
Ryan Mitchell: “True story, true story. For context, my grandfather passed away in 1991. He and my grandmother ran a little corner store right there on 301 Highway, selling fresh meat, cheeses, cold drinks. When my grandfather passed, my grandmother’s method of grieving and her form of therapy is cooking. She feeds people. I don’t care if two people are coming to the house, she’s going to cook like all you guys are coming to the house. On this particular day, we were deciding to just have family dinner at the supermarket. We cooked the hog, a small hog just for myself, my uncles, her and just a few other relative that were going to stop by.
“Before we put the chains on the door, there was a gentleman to come in and said he was in there to buy some beverages and he saw a small pail of barbeque left on the meat counter. He said, ‘You selling cooked food now?’ My dad was like, ‘Naw man that is just left over dinner that mom made.’ My grandmother said, ‘Just give him a sandwich.’ He pays for his juice and other stuff and heads up down the street back into the neighborhood. From two blocks on, he tells different people, ‘the Mitchells got barbeque!’
“And the next day around lunchtime five people show up. And then the next day ten people show up. And then the next day 20, 30 people keep showing up for barbeque. Mind you, we have zero permits to be cooking food.”
Inge: “What I like about that story is we live in a state that doesn’t always like to admit how many enslaved people they had here. I think at one time the population of Wilson definitely was more African American than it was white mainly because somebody had to pick all that tobacco. Where there is tobacco and people picking tobacco, there are some hogs over there cooking all day as well. It’s just an art form I am just glad your family and generations can replicate because you know your history.”
Mitchell: “Wilmington gets left out of the conversation as far as slave imports as it compares to Charleston. But Wilmington was a huge port there. So, Wilmington, the influence of the early Portuguese and French colonies there, as it relates to how our ancestors learned to speak and how they were adapting to the English language. Q-u-e is the first documented African American spelling of barbeque. Q-u-e relates to whiskers to tail. So that is the Portuguese influence. They call it ‘plantation creole’ during that time.”
Inge: “The way that your family cooks barbeque, that’s got to be probably the most expensive way to cook the barbeque or the hog. I would like you to chat a little bit about today’s economy. Because I’ve also read if you don’t have a lot of good sides in a barbeque joint then you’re not going to make it. The sides almost have to become center stage because that meat is expensive, hard to come by and you are going to have to charge more for it.”
Mitchell: “True. You know the labor piece of it as pit masters, the popularity of being a pit master has become synonymous with ‘chef’ and ‘executive chef.’ It’s a creation of a title now. You just can’t get these dudes working in a smokehouse anymore for $5 an hour like they used to do, and put out good product. You know the young adults and young minds are a lot more conscious about how they are taking care of themselves, feeding themselves. Their eating patterns are a lot different. So if you’re running a business you don’t have 120 sitting down at lunch with a line out the door like you used to. Because they’re working from home. That cycle of how you cook barbeque and get it out the door is totally different than how it was 20 years ago.”
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