Smoke on the Water a cultural experience for Nashville BBQ aficionados

Published 6:49 pm Friday, October 27, 2017

An attorney, an orthopedic surgeon, a businessman and an artist and professor — it seems an unlikely crew, but there’s one thing that unites them all: barbecue.

They are the Exalted Brotherhood of the Holy Smoke, a group of friends and barbecue aficionados from Nashville, Tennessee. Their love of barbecue is so great, they make pilgrimages to destinations renowned for barbecue — Austin, Memphis, Kansas City, Birmingham; they’ve been there and tasted that.

“We make a group decision of where we think we can find interesting barbecue,” said one of the Brotherhood, Don Fels.

Barry Buxkamper, Fels, Rob Stein and Irwin Venick found it at Smoke on the Water last week after a chance encounter with NC Pork Council certified barbecue judge Brownie Futrell at B’s Barbecue in Greenville. Futrell saw the Exalted Brotherhood of the Holy Smoke T-shirts, started a conversation and ended up invited the group to a whole-hog experience on the Washington waterfront.

“We were actually going to go to the state fair, oddly enough, but then we met Brownie, and he convinced us to come to Washington,” Fels said. “You know, anybody that’s in a place buying barbecue at 10 in the morning — that’s our kind of guy.”

WATCH AND LEARN: Smoke on the Water judge Brownie Futrell (in the foreground) and other Smoke on the Water judges give the Brotherhood (background) an education in barbecue judging. (Vail Stewart Rumley/Daily News)

The Brotherhood flew into Raleigh on Thursday; lunch was at Allen & Son BBQ in Chapel Hill, followed by dinner at King’s Barbecue and Chicken in Kinston. Friday morning, they were at B’s Barbecue; that night, dinner was at the Skylight Inn in Ayden. But Saturday, they left their hotel in Goldsboro at 6:30 a.m. to drive to the Washington waterfront to witness the judging of Smoke on the Water and experience North Carolina championship barbecue.

“It was just really exciting to be a part of it. Everybody, the competitors and the other judges, were just so warm, so welcoming, so gracious, that it literally made the trip,” Fels said.

Their trips aren’t solely about barbecue, however. The men make a point to seek out local culture — in Kansas City, for example, they visited the National World War I Museum, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the American Jazz Museum. In eastern North Carolina, they took a trip to Tryon Palace in New Bern. In eastern North Carolina, however, the real cultural experience came as the Brotherhood trailed SOTW judges throughout their duties, sampling gas-cooked and coal/wood-cooked barbecue, according to Fels.

“That was the best cultural experience so far because we learned so much from all the judges,” he said. “It was a great day.”

According to Fels, the Brotherhood’s general consensus was that the whole hog competition was “terrific” and eastern North Carolina’s vinegar-based barbecue is “really good,” which is high praise coming from a group that travels far and wide to sample, and regularly engages in rousing debates about, pork and its many barbecue varieties.

For Exalted Brotherhood of the Holy Smoke members, what they take away from their culinary pilgrimages is not just about taste. It’s about a place and an unparalleled barbecue experience, just like the one they unexpectedly found in Washington.

“We had such a good time that we literally would think about making a return trip next year, just to go to Smoke on the Water,” Fels said.