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Posted at 8:00 AM ET, 02/ 8/2011

Smoke Signals: An open letter to Michelle Obama

By Jim Shahin
obamas and barbecue_opt.jpg The First Lady could use a North Carolina barbecue primer. (AP photo by Alex Brandon)

Dear Ms. Obama,

Never having written a letter to a First Lady before, I'd like to begin by saying that I'm sorry to have to write this.

I suspect you must be a little confused about what happened last week. After all, you only intended to compliment the food of Charlotte, N.C., when you announced the city as the host of the 2012 National Democratic Convention.

Who’d have thought that something so seemingly inoffensive as touting the city’s “great barbecue,” as you said in your prepared statement, would set off a mini-firestorm?

First to fire, of course, was Fox. The snarky headline on its Fox Nation blog post took a swipe at your healthy-eating initiative with the words, “Not Known to Be Diet Food, Michelle Obama Hails ‘Great Barbecue’ in N.C.”

The Fox item-ette went on to say that, “Studies show a barbecue meal weighs in at around 2,500 calories…”

Studies -- plural. Fox didn’t cite any of those studies, but apparently they’re out there and have reached a consensus about the caloric catastrophe otherwise known as barbecue. My question is: Are these studies referring to the Texas Three-Meat Belt Buster with potato salad, slaw and pinto beans?

Because they sure aren’t referring to classic North Carolina barbecue. When you approach the counter at, say, the Skylight Inn in Ayden or, well, almost any 'cue joint in the state, and order barbecue, it's understood that you are requesting a pulled-pork sandwich.

I looked up the calorie count for pulled pork and found it's 326 for one recipe that includes brown sugar (which a lot of North Carolinians don’t use), 330 for Wegmans pulled pork and 283 for an oven-roasted version with ketchup and adobo sauce, which, it not being wood-smoked, isn’t really barbecue at all, but I just thought I’d throw it in there.

So, where Fox and its unspecified experts are coming up with 2,500 calories is anybody’s fair-and-balanced guess. You want to add hush puppies, beans, fries, cornbread, whatever, go right ahead. But you aren’t counting barbecue calories. You’re counting side-dish calories.

No doubt, Ms. Obama, you noticed, as I did, that worse than Fox’s reporting was the photo it ran with the story. It showed a sauce-slathered pork rib! Let's see, what did I just say a few paragraphs above? Oh, yeah: Barbecue in North Carolina is pulled pork.

Any idiot who knows the first thing about barbecue knows that. Well, I guess except for the idiots at Fox.

But it wasn’t just Fox that had some sport with your announcement. The ‘cueosphere got fired up, too. The Charlotte Observer editorial board was mystified by the compliment and said so in “Charlotte = great barbecue? Who knew?”, and USA Today called you “trapped in the barbecue wars" (although its tone was much more sympathetic and supporting).

The most damning criticism came from John Shelton Reed, author of the widely praised, "Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue" (University of North Carolina Press, 2008), who told the Associated Press: “Complete the sentence: As a barbecue town, Charlotte is one, not what it used to be; two, like Minneapolis for gumbo; three, good enough for Yankees; four, not far from Shelby.”

Shelby, known for its barbecue, is a short drive west of Charlotte.

Believe me, I know how rough and tumble the barbecue wars can be. I’ve survived more than a few of them myself.

So, I’d like to first offer a small bit of advice, then make a modest proposal.

The advice: Never say anything about barbecue unless you know what you are talking about and are willing to back it up. Barbecue folk are kindly, but they’re prickly. You mention a restaurant, a town, even an entire state, and some contingent will charge you like crazed bulls.

My proposal? You and I take a barbecue tour through North Carolina. We’ll eat some sandwiches and learn the difference between whole-hog/vinegar-based-sauce eastern North Carolina and shoulder/tomato-sauce western North Carolina. We'll even distinguish between so-so and great barbecue.

It may not help politically, but you’ll love the eats.

Let me know what you think. I’ll wait for your call, and in the meantime, I’ll clean out the cooler. You’re definitely going to want to bring some back to the president.


Jim Shahin
Smoke Signals columnist and barbecue busybody

By Jim Shahin  | February 8, 2011; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  Smoke Signals  | Tags:  Jim Shahin  
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Barbecue is great diet food! Just pass on the sugary sauce, ditch the bun, lay off the corn bread and macaroni and cheese, and have water or a diet soda to wash it down. It's the sugar and all those starchy carbs that are the killers. Meat and fat are good for you. (Preferably, locally pastured hogs, not the CAFO type.)

Posted by: euclidarms | February 8, 2011 10:26 AM | Report abuse

"Never say anything about barbecue unless you know what you are talking about and are willing to back it up."

Now, if we could just apply this philosophy to ALL politicians and ALL subjects..... (Yeah, yeah, I know, we didn't elect Michelle, but she put herself out there as a self-appointed food preacher, so....)

Posted by: LNER4472 | February 8, 2011 12:00 PM | Report abuse

Just FYI, they did eat at 12 Bones in Asheville last spring when they visited Billy Graham, so they know the barbecue basics.

Posted by: BlueDevil78 | February 8, 2011 12:51 PM | Report abuse

At least she knew barbecue is a noun.

Posted by: ronjaboy | February 9, 2011 8:48 AM | Report abuse

Yes, they did eat at 12 Bones in Asheville. But we Tar Heels call that a rib place, not a barbecue place. And 12 Bones is known for its blueberry-chipotle sauce. Enough said.

Posted by: goober1 | February 9, 2011 10:01 AM | Report abuse

I get the feeling that some of you are North Carolinians. If I'm right, you got any recommendations for great 'cue joints I should hit next time I'm there? - Jim

Posted by: jimshahin | February 10, 2011 10:29 AM | Report abuse

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