In his new book, "Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation," Michael Pollan makes a confession: although he's spent his career extolling the virtues of eating fresh, local and organic food, he has put little time into cooking it at home.
To remedy this, he went on the road to meet food masters across the country, learning the fundamentals of fermentation, baking, braising and grilling. That last one led the man who told us to "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants" to eastern North Carolina, the mecca of whole-hog barbecue.
"I liked how elemental it is," Mr. Pollan said of that style of barbecue. "It's a whole pig, wood fire and time -- that's the whole recipe."
Below are edited excerpts from a conversation with Mr. Pollan on eating his way through the barbecue belt of eastern North Carolina.
Q. Where was your first stop for whole-hog barbecue?
A. Skylight Inn in Ayden, N.C. It's a very funky place. Back in the '80s, National Geographic did a tour of great barbecue joints and declared the Skylight Inn the capital of American barbecue, so they went ahead and put a capitol dome on top of the restaurant, which doesn't even have a skylight -- nothing about it makes sense.
But the barbecue is delicious. I knew I was getting close before I actually found it because of the smell of, I guess, pig fat and wood fire. Their pit is a cinder-block room about the size of a two-car garage. They're cooking with vast amounts of oak wood, shoveling coals into the pit, and the pigs are splayed across the grate above. The prices are mind-bendingly cheap, $3.50 for a barbecue sandwich, when you consider what goes into cooking a whole hog for 20 hours.
Q. Where else did you go?
A. The Pit in Raleigh, N.C. This style of barbecue is wonderful. It has very little sauce. You throw in apple cider vinegar, salt, sugar, and red pepper flakes. What's special about it is that you crisp the skin -- make crackling -- and chop that into the meat, which combines all cuts. The crackling gives you a texture that's surprising, like intense shards of flavor -- bacon gives some idea of what it's like, but only an idea.
It's important to point out that Ed Mitchell, the pit master when I visited there a couple of years ago, is no longer there. He's opening a new restaurant, Ed Mitchell's 'Que, at the American Tobacco Campus in Durham, N.C., in the fall. My attraction to Ed was the fact that he was using sustainable pork.
Most of the barbecue in the South -- there are a couple of exceptions -- uses commodity meat. It's the most ordinary, industrialized meat, though I hasten to add that even the worst pork, if you cook it for 20 hours, tastes fantastic. It kind of belies certain principles that I hold.
Q. How do you uphold your food rules on the road?
A. I break most of them. It's very hard to eat the way you do at home when you're traveling, always eating out. But I've developed a couple of rules so I don't eat so badly. For breakfast, I always have oatmeal at a hotel, never do the breakfast buffet. When we're faced with a variety of food, we eat more. If you're just eating oatmeal, you'll get full and you'll stop. But if you introduce a new food, you will discover you have more appetite that you didn't have.
Another general rule that I had to break for this trip: Unless I have reason to believe that they're serving sustainable meat, I go vegetarian or eat seafood. The odds are you're getting feedlot meat. You have to assume that, unless the chef is specifically talking about his grass-finished beef or pastured pork. And look on the menu for the names of specific farms, not meaningless generic pastoral terms like "farm eggs," which means nothing.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.