Last week, the eastern half of North Carolina held its collective breath for three long days while waiting to hear some good news about little Casey Hathaway. The three-year-old New Bern boy disappeared while he was outside playing at his grandmother’s house last Tuesday afternoon. Police officers, trained K-9s, and volunteers searched and re-searched wooded areas until the boy was found on Thursday night, cold and wet, but otherwise OK.
Hathaway told his mother that a bear kept him company while he was missing, and what, exactly, do you say to that? Stephen Colbert mentioned Hathaway during a segment on The Late Show, but he just had to drag North Carolina barbecue too. “A little boy found in North Carolina, that is such happy news. But in a tragic twist, he will have to spend his life eating North Carolina barbecue,” Colbert said. “I welcome your vinegar-stained letters, you poor flavor-deprived bastards.”
North Carolina has two distinct styles of barbecue: there’s Lexington-style, which is made from pork shoulder and seasoned with a sauce made from ketchup, vinegar, and pepper, and there’s Eastern-style, which uses the whole hog, and a vinegar and pepper sauce. Since Colbert mentioned vinegary fingers, everyone who lives west of, say, Burlington is smiling to themselves, secure in the knowledge that he’s not talking about their pulled pork.
But in the eastern part of the state, Colbert’s comments were met with raised eyebrows and indignance. As WRAL reported, North Carolina governor Roy Cooper quickly responded to Colbert on Twitter. “Those are fighting words, @StephenAtHome,” he wrote. “Vinegar and tomato have their place—y'all have a mustard problem.” (It’s worth noting that Colbert grew up in South Carolina, a sad, misguided place where perfectly good BBQ is often ruined with a jaundiced looking mustard sauce.)
Fourth-generation barbecue pitmaster and James Beard semi-finalist Sam Jones also weighed in. “[E]veryone has the right to be wrong,” he responded to Cooper. “I guess @StephenAtHome just needs to be reminded he’s not really an authority on NC BBQ. Just let me know when you’re ready to educate him.”
And Greg Hatem, the owner of The Pit restaurant in Raleigh, NC, had a similar opinion. “For 350 years, people in North Carolina has been perfecting the art of cooking a whole hog and then seasoning it with vinegar and spices,” he told MUNCHIES. “You really can’t get too bent out of shape over someone who comes from a state where they put mustard on their barbecue. It does make me wonder if he uses ketchup on his filet mignon. When you know how to cook great barbecue, all you need is a little vinegar and spices to kick up the flavor as opposed to a bunch of ketchup or mustard to bury it. If you don’t know how to cook good pork, you cover it with sauce.”
Hatem said that he’d be willing to pack up his pig cooker and take it to the Ed Sullivan Theater, to teach the host what’s what. “We’d love the chance to cook him a hog and show him what he’s missing,” he said. “We think Colbert is amazing when it comes to his commentary, but he can use a little work when it comes to his culinary.”
And Wyatt Dickson, the pitmaster at Picnic in Durham, was willing to give Colbert shit right back. “We think Stephen is just stirring the pot, trying to get our proverbial goat,” he said. “South Carolinians like to say their barbecue is better, just as they like to pretend their state university is on par with ours. It’s fun to joke about, because it’s just so preposterous.”
When Craven County Sheriff Chip Hughes was asked about Casey Hathaway’s claim that he hung out with a bear for three days, he was noncommittal. “I don’t know if that meant he saw a bear [or] if a bear embraced him, or what it meant,” he told WCTI. “I thought it was a very cute story and if that’s what helped that child survive through this, you know what, I’m to going to embrace that story that came from a three-year-old, to his mom, to us.”
But...how does the bear feel about North Carolina BBQ? And how would it feel about eating Stephen Colbert?