Conversations with Charles Stamey - Designing a New Pit
This is the third part of my reflections on my conversation with Charles Stamey, patriarch of Stamey's BBQ.
One of the main differences in Ed Mitchell style whole hog BBQ is the technique of "banking the fire". As far as I know, only Mitchell students bank the hog. The act of banking a fire is to get your wood fully burned down into coals and then shut off all but the barest source of oxygen so that the temperature will decrease and hold steady for a long time. Keeping true to the North Carolina tradition, the "pit" used by Ed & Co is really nothing more than a box with a cover. The metal hog coffins are popular all around North Carolina and most party stores will rent them out if you want to cook a hog.
One of the big interest we talked about was my designing a new style of barbecue pit that would be uniquely Carolina in flavor and reproducing Ed's cooking style. Stamey was very interested in how Ed was doing his cooking, as his process requires less tending than they do at Stamey's. He was especially interested in my design and says he's looking forward to seeing it.
There's several philosophical guidelines in which I'm designing my pit.
#1 Carolina flavor.
Carolina flavor is that of embers and hog juices. The fat drips on to coals and smokes back on to the meat. In the Carolinas the flavors have to be a delicate balance between a roasted and a smoked flavor. A pork chop tastes roasted but not smoked, a slice of ham tastes smoked but is definitely not roasted. That is the profile you're looking for.
The way that commercial smokers are designed now is based off of a Kansas City/Texas flavor profile. Gas powered smokers burn wood for flavor but that's a completely different flavor than the subtle flavor of wood embers. There are many who claim that there is basically no flavor imparted to the meats with embers, which I strongly disagree with. Open up any North Carolina pit and you'll be hit with a strong punch of hickory and oak.
So my pit is going to aim for that Carolina flavor by combining the dual hits of hog juice and blue ember smoke.
#2 Off Center Chambers
One of the major reasons that traditional pits have to be tended to is the danger of grease fires. Because this isn't like Texas offset smoking, the danger is always there. A pit needs to be designed where you're able to get the heat and blue smoke into the meat without the coals being exactly under the meat. Many whole hog open pit practitioners also shovel their coals on the side. Huge names like Sam Jones and Larry Hite do not shovel the coals underneath the animal any longer. If there was an benefit to it, the risk-adjusted return just simply isn't worth it.
#3 Fire Banking Option with Embers
Mitchell disciples like those at The Pit in Raleigh use Pits designed by Ed. These are designed to cook with both wood and charcoal. I believe that one can be designed that will be able to solely cook with wood. Same banking technique minus the charcoal.