Meat may be the undeniable core of American barbecue, but as long as American barbecue is part of the pantheon of southern cooking, it will not stand alone. From the saltine crackers and pickles of Lockhart, to the lard-fried potatoes (you heard me) of Kansas City, to the barbecue slaw of Lexington, the side dishes served with barbecue are often as exciting as the main course. I indulged in this fact on my recent trip through the Carolinas, looking forward to the $2 servings of local flavor that flanked each serving of smoked pork.
As with pork, beef and sauce, barbecue sides can be deceptively diverse. The Brunswick Stew I sampled at Stamey's Barbecue in Greensboro, North Carolina, was but one bowl in a culinary tradition reaching from Virginia to Georgia. According to one local legend, the first Brunswick stew was born in 1828, when Jimmy Matthews of rural Virginia concocted a stew made from butter, onions, stale bread, spices, and squirrels he had just aced on a hunting trip.
Tracking the origins of the stew through this story and others emanating from counties and towns named Brunswick in Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia, Saddler Taylor of The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Volume 7: Foodways places these recipes in the literal melting pot of African American and Native American foodways in the antebellum U.S. "Brunswick stew resulted from synthesis of shared food traditions," and depending on where you order it, Brunswick stew now counts any variety of meat and vegetable among its ingredients.
I wasn't surprised, then, to find that Brunswick stew varies within state borders. The stew I ordered at Stamey's in Greensboro was something of a vegetable soup, with whole beans, vegetable chunks, and shreds of meat sitting in a mild broth.
That mixture paled in comparison to the stew at Allen and Son in Chapel Hill. Teeming with the satisfying, ultra-savory flavors of slow-cooked pork and tomato, Allen and Son's stew had been cooked down to the point where every shred of food converged into one rich, umami-laden substance. While fans of chunkier, heartier stews can celebrate in the fact that the Brunswick umbrella has their tastes covered, I'll have this bowl in mind for many a future stew debate.
Even Allen and Son's stew, however, should be ashamed in the presence of the Allen family's hush puppies. After reading Chichi's glowing report on these deep-fried wonders, I made a point of including them on my Carolinas agenda.
Fried and baked cornmeal is a North Carolina regular, appearing alongside barbecue trays in the form of corn bread, corn sticks and hush puppies throughout the state. While always welcome, these sides are almost never transcendent; hush puppies in particular tend to be too dry to wolf down without a splash of Texas Pete.
Redefining the form, Allen and Son's spherical hush puppies have a crunchy-on-the-outside, moist-on-the-inside texture not too far from really great falafel. In place of Middle-eastern spice, however, is the subtle sweetness of corn. They're simple, refined and absolutely addictive—good enough to merit a visit on their own, but more often served alongside a barbecue sandwich.
Even in a report on side dishes, I'd be remiss to exclude that very sandwich, a legend among University of North Carolina students. A step away from the pulpy, pork-shoulder barbecue I had just revisited in Lexington, the hickory-smoked chop here is chunky and uneven, with a smoky, porky flavor deeper than that of its brethren to the west. Dressed with a very light, slightly sweet, mayo-based slaw, Allen and Son's was among the more satisfying sandwiches of my five-day barbecue binge.
South Carolina's barbecue hash, like Kentucky's burgoo, is the Palmetto state's response to Brunswick stew, and it's just as localized. While the New Encyclopedia broadly defines hash as "a stew made from pieces of roasted meat of any kind, cooked down with onions, herbs and vinegar water," it notes a different variant of hash for each of South Carolina's three regions:
"Hash from the Lowcountry consists of several de-boned hogsheads, supplemented with organ meats like pork liver, cooked in a stock that favors tomato and ketchup. Vegetables can include onions, corn and potatoes. Hash from the midlands consists primarily of higher-quality cuts of pork, onions, and a mustard-based stock. Finally, Upcountry hash is largely beef-based, with no dominant ketchup, vinegar, or mustard-based stock." —The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Vol. 7
I've had the good fortune of tasting barbecue hash from all three of these categories, and so far my favorite has been the sweet-and-savory rendition served from the buffet bar at Sweatman's Barbecue in Holly Hill.
Served over rice—a traditional South Carolina cash crop, and the most common serving base for barbecue hash today—the Lowcountry-leaning hash at Sweatman's seemed like the American South's take on Japanese curry. The stewed mixture of pork, potato, tomato, onions and liver tasted of pure comfort, with a gritty/silky texture that some would call slop. Heavenly, stuff-your-face-until-you-are-precisely-what-you-eat slop.
Though I had paid $10 for an all-you-can-eat barbecue buffet platter, I would have happily forked over that much for the chance to experience this magical taste of Hog Heaven. Sweatman's hash—along with Allen and Son's hush puppies, Lexington Barbecue's red slaw, and every other side dish along the way—did just as much to finesse the smokehouse's signature. In the end, it's delicious details like this that define road trips through the South.
About the author: James Boo has been a Serious Eats contributor since 2010. Working as a freelance journalist, he is also the founder of Real Cheap Eats and a documentarian. Check out his food-and-travel blog, The Eaten Path, for more journeys to the real meal.