A leading lady in the grilling world, Elizabeth Karmel teaches, writes cookbooks, contributes to magazines (her work has been featured in Fine Cooking, Bon Appétit, Saveur, and more), and runs her own website, GirlsAtTheGrill.com. But she’s also known for her myriad talents in the slow-cooking department — you might call her the grand dame of barbecue. Ironically enough, though, the North Carolina native is best recognized for spotlighting Texas-style ‘cue in New York: She was the executive chef of Hill Country Barbecue Market (30 West 26th Street, 212-255-4544).
But now, Karmel is leaving Hill Country to go back to her roots — she’s launching a new, online Carolina barbecue shack that will deliver straight to your door.
Starting on Saturday, November 1, Karmel is rolling out Carolina Cue To-Go, an internet barbecue emporium offering North Carolina-style barbecue with her own twist; she’s combining eastern Carolina whole hog and her western-style vinegar sauce, essentially creating a Carolina-style of her own.
Karmel grew up eating western-style barbecue, which is characterized by slow-smoked pork shoulders or Boston butt, pulled and served on a classic hamburger bun (no seeds), with Carolina red slaw. Forgoing the mayo, the shredded cabbage is kept moist with the same sauce that is used on the pork. It’s a blend of vinegar with just a hint of ketchup — hence the name (and color) of the slaw.
In the eastern part of the state, barbecue was traditionally part of family or community affairs; it was frequently served at weddings, funerals, and other special events. The entire animal is slow-cooked, chopped up, and topped with vinegar-based sauce (minus the ketchup). The slaw drops the barbecue sauce and gets the ubiquitous mayo treatment.
Over the years, Karmel has cultivated an appreciation for the whole hogs favored by her eastern counterparts. She prefers the rich flavors and feel from the balance of fattier and leaner parts. “The texture is completely different,” says Karmel. “It’s more unctuous and nuanced. The sum is greater than the parts — that’s the perfect definition for that saying.”
For Carolina Cue To-Go, whole hogs are barbecued over hickory wood, then pulled and evenly mixed. The pork is sold with containers of her signature Lexington-style sauce, a complex blend of apple cider vinegar, ketchup, white and brown sugar, red chili flakes, and a combination of white and black pepper. “It’s more much complex,” says Karmel. “It gets layer and layer of flavor from real apple cider vinegar — it gives a nice fruity tang. I think it can’t be beat.”
The online shack is offering the barbecue for $14.99 a pound or in ready-to-go kits. The Piglet ($49) constitutes about eight servings (depending on how high you pile the meat); it comes with two pounds of pork, a pound of cabbage, a package of buns, and one 16-ounce bottle of sauce. Likewise, the Super Sow ($89) accommodates 16, and the Boss Hog ($129) serves 24.
Everything is processed in a USDA-certified facility. It’s delivered overnight or two-day, with dry ice, in tamper-resistant plastic containers and vacuum-sealed packages. All the meat is delivered in one-pound portions — so you don’t have to eat it all in one go. It can be reheated from frozen or thawed and heated afterward.
“One of the things I really want to promote is heat-and-eat entertaining,” says Karmel. “If people want to host a barbecue, it’s really authentic, but you don’t have to cook an entire pig.”
Karmel is also curating Southern artisanal products. She has sourced and branded white corn grits from a water-powered gristmill in North Carolina, along with an onion-free hush puppy mix she calls sweeties. Both retail for $5.99 for a two-pound package. “In North Carolina, a traditional side dish to accompany barbecue is hush puppies,” say Karmel. “These are really easy. You add water, let them sit for a half-hour so the batter develops, and deep-fry.”
Carolina barbecue merchandise (think hats, T-shirts, tools) will also be available, as well as signed copies of Karmel’s Taming the Flame.
Although Karmel says she was ruminating on this concept for about the past half-decade, it really sprang into action this summer at the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party. Unable to make it back to home as often as she once did, Karmel couldn’t wait to get a taste of her friend Ed Mitchell’s eastern-style grub. One bite and she was instantly transported to the Carolinas and her childhood. “That one bite propelled me into business,” says Karmel. “There was a line three hours long for his sandwiches. I knew I wasn’t the only one with the craving.”
With the new venture, Karmel is no longer playing an active part in Hill Country, but rest assured, her original recipes will still be served. She will miss the restaurant, but she plans to spend more time working on cookbooks — she has one in process, but is tight-lipped about the specifics — and other ventures. “It’s bittersweet when somebody decides it’s time to move on, on the one hand, but I’m super excited,” says Karmel.
Carolina Cue To-Go’s first shipment will go out on Wednesday, November 5. Karmel is offering a promo code for a free gift for Village Voice readers, CCTGVV. Visit carolinacuetogo.com on Saturday, November 1.
Follow Sara Ventiera on Twitter, @saraventiera.