Ed Mitchell out of jail, back in business
Posted on Mon, Dec. 03, 2007
Barbecue comes with a twist
Recipe includes free-range pigs, prison time and a rich heritage
By Martha Waggoner
Associated Press Writer
On a plate of barbecue prepared by pitmaster Ed Mitchell, you'll find more than meat and two sides.
Oh, sure, there's the barbecue: meaty, succulent, crunchy with cracklin' and popping with vinegar. Eastern North Carolina perfection.
But there's also a slice of barbecue history: Mitchell learned his art of cooking a whole hog from his elders. And there's a taste of barbecue's future: a meal he wants to make from free-range, hormone-free pigs rather than the cheapest feed lot animals available. Also included is a story: Mitchell is back working the pit only after spending time behind bars for tax evasion.
Surely such a meal qualifies as fine dining.
Not convinced? Then check out those sides: Brunswick stew with caramelized barbecue pork belly, jalapeno cornbread crackers and Russian red kale. And off to the side of the fancy space in downtown Raleigh's warehouse district, a "pig bar" where diners can sample delicacies from the entire animal.
"I felt with the population as large as it is and as diverse as it, that maybe we can eat a plate of barbecue with something besides a glass of iced tea and coleslaw and boiled potatoes," Mitchell said.
More than two years after his arrest on suspicion of embezzlement led him to close Mitchell's Ribs, Chicken & Barbecue in Wilson, the 61-year-old pitmaster whose culinary degree came from "Mother Doretha's University" is back with "The Pit." Working with Raleigh developer Greg Hatem, he's running an upscale restaurant serving a cuisine made famous in tar-papered shacks.
For Mitchell, as with all other masters of the eastern North Carolina style of barbecue, that means cooking a whole pig instead of just a pork shoulder. His barbecue is a blend of the different textures of the hog, melded into one flavor by a vinegar-based sauce.
"When you have a chance for all of that to hit your palate, then you really have a true taste of barbecue from the traditional state," Mitchell said.
Mitchell grew up fixing meals for his two brothers and other relatives on a wood stove, under the direction of a demanding teacher - his mother, Doretha.
"I used to hate it when mother would teach me how to do these things and tell me, at a certain time, I'd better turn that stove on and put that pot on, you'd better not scorch these beans, you'd better not overcook the collards," he said.
He eventually started to head out with the men when they left for all-nighters to cook pigs. He was 14 when he cooked his first pig solo. .
He left home for Fayetteville State University, earning a degree in sociology before starting a career at Ford in Boston. His father's death in 1991 brought him back to North Carolina, where he fell back into fixing barbecue.
It was while running his restaurant in Wilson that he announced plans in 2003 to build a network of small farmers to breed free-range pigs with the right taste for his 'cue. Mitchell believes his tax problems stemmed from those plans, which Edge said could pose a threat to industrial hog butchers by proving you can profit from a pig raised on a pasture.
In 2005, Mitchell's closed after authorities charged him with embezzlement. He pleaded guilty to lesser charges of tax evasion and served a 30-day jail sentence on weekends.
He still hopes to reopen Mitchell's Ribs, Chicken & Barbecue, but for now is focused with Hatem on transforming a cool, modern interior of the previous restaurant into a brightly furnished barbecue palace.