What makes a guy like Keith Allen keep the faith? No man in North Carolina works any harder to produce superb barbecue, and the fact that he hasn’t reaped the financial rewards or basked in the praise afforded some other restaurateurs has never deterred him from his single-minded purity of purpose. No shortcuts. “This business of cooking barbecue has to be done a certain way — it has to be done right,” he insists. “When we get so that we can’t do it the right way, we’ll just pull the name off the sign and go home.”
Allen stands about six-foot-three and has the shoulders of a frontiersman, broad enough to carry the burden of doing what others will not in his pursuit of excellence. Almost any barbecue man will tell you that the hickory wood required to slow cook pork to perfection is increasingly hard to find. Allen came to that realization many years ago, so he started searching for the wood and cutting and hauling it himself, a brutally demanding labor of love that continues today. That still leaves the chore of reducing the pile of hickory logs he accumulates out back — tree trunks, really — into pieces small enough to work with.
“We split it ourselves,” Allen told me on my first visit. “With what,” I wanted to know, “a log splitter?”
“Yeah, this is our log splitter right here,” Allen chuckled, picking up a steel wedge and a maul — a cross between an ax and a sledgehammer. See who we’re dealing with here? A guy who cuts and splits his barbecue-cooking wood by hand. And once it’s split, he gathers it up by the armful and carries it twenty or thirty feet to the big fireplace between the two pits, where the forty-inch sections burn down into coals suitable for shoveling periodically beneath the cooking meat. Allen has had help at certain times with this task and has done it by himself at others, but it has always been done the same way.
Keith Allen has the most aggressive barbecue-chopping style I’ve ever witnessed. Working with insulated, rubber gloves, he carries the shoulders from the pits to the kitchen and quickly strips steaming-hot meat from five or six shoulders at a time, until he has a pyramid of pork chunks perhaps three feet across and a foot high. Seizing two machete-shaped cleavers called “lamb breakers” — slightly longer and narrower than the usual barbecue-chopping implements — Allen plants his feet in a wide stance and begins chopping with both arms in a rapid, rhythmic cadence, never slowing or faltering until the entire mound of meat has been turned into chopped barbecue ready for seasoning. Whether from weight lifting or years of handling the heavy steel cleavers, Allen’s arms and shoulders are thickly muscled. It takes him only a few minutes to chop an entire day’s supply of barbecue.
His old-fashioned methods have made him a North Carolina barbecue icon.
Allen & Son Barbeque
6203 Millhouse Road (at N.C. Highway 86)
Chapel Hill, N.C. 27516
Lunch and dinner, Tuesday-Saturday
Our State offers thanks to John F. Blair Publisher for allowing us to reprint Bob Garner’s stories of North Carolina’s classic barbecue spots.
See the rest of Our State’s barbecue tour:
Bridges Barbecue Lodge
Little Richard’s Barbecue
The Pit Authentic Barbecue
Short Sugar’s Pit Bar-B-Q
The Skylight Inn