“I had ordered some food from there, and the barbecue was pink,” she told the dispatcher, according to audio of the 911 call obtained by The Washington Post.
The dispatcher sent an officer to the restaurant to handle the matter.
In the weeks since Raleigh police worked the case of the pink meat, Clyde Cooper’s Barbeque has defended its pulled pork, even marketing itself as the home of the “infamous pink bbq” and creating “PinkBBQ” merchandise. Others agree that customers shouldn’t be frightened by pink-colored barbecue — what aficionados call the “smoke ring” — even if it can at times alarm the uninitiated.
Dana Hanson, a North Carolina State University associate professor and an expert in meat science, said myoglobin, a protein that supplies oxygen to the muscles of nearly all mammals, is at the root of what happened at Clyde Cooper’s. In non-barbecue cooking, heat “denatures” myoglobin in fresh meat, turning it from red to pink and then brown to hockey puck.
“That’s the whole premise of when you order a steak at varying degrees of doneness, from rare to medium-rare to well-done,” Hanson said. “That’s the myoglobin pigment going through this normal denaturation during cooking.”
But barbecuing can mess with meat’s straightforward transformation along that color scale, Hanson added. Barbecuers often smoke their meats, usually doing so by burning wood that contains thousands of chemicals. One of those, nitric oxide, binds to myoglobin in the presence of heat to lock in the red or pink color — no matter how long the meat cooks.
Once upon a time, that “smoke ring” was a “badge of honor” for barbecuers and a signal to savvy customers, Hanson said.
“It’s the visual cue to know that that product is true barbecue and has been exposed to smoke,” he added. “There was a time that that was a measure of quality.”
Safe to say, the Clyde Cooper’s customer who tried to return her lunch of barbecued pork didn’t think so.
Ashley Jessup, co-owner and manager of the downtown Raleigh institution, said the woman ordered, paid for and received a plate of barbecued pork shoulder toward the tail end of the lunch rush on Nov. 1. About 10 minutes later, she returned to the register, telling Jessup’s mother and fellow co-owner, Debbie Holt, that her meat was undercooked.
Holt looked at the plate.
“She snickered a little bit, and she said, ‘Honey, that’s because it’s smoked. It’s smoked pork, and it turns pink whenever it’s cooking,’ ” Jessup said.
Undeterred, the woman insisted the meat hadn’t been cooked enough, even as other customers interjected, backing up Holt. Jessup, who had been working on the restaurant’s catering orders, stepped in, allowing her mother to serve other customers. Jessup said she googled images of “smoked barbecue” on her phone in a vain effort to convince the woman that the pink coloring was a byproduct of the smoking process. Because of that, the meat would remain pink no matter how long they cooked it.
The woman went outside. Although they denied her a refund, as a consolation, Jessup and Holt dispatched a server to give the woman some chicken she’d requested. They thought the matter was settled.
About 10 minutes later, Jessup saw an officer pull up and worried about what mayhem had brought him to her door. After getting out of his cruiser, he talked with the “pink barbecue” customer.
“Wait, it can’t be,” she recalled thinking.
When the officer asked Jessup what had happened, she gave him the short version. He didn’t say much in response, Jessup said, adding that he was inside the restaurant for less than a minute. Then “he walked out — kind of has a little smirk on his face.”
The officer talked with the unsatisfied customer for a couple more minutes, got in his cruiser and drove off. The customer left, too, and Jessup figured that was the end of it.
But hours later, the woman left a Google review of the restaurant. One out of five stars. “Worst customer service I ever had in my life. Barbecue was very pink and had lots of fat in it.”
Jessup took to Clyde Cooper’s Facebook page to defend her restaurant. The customer’s review has since been taken down, but the woman told WRAL she didn’t regret calling the police and is considering filing a lawsuit against Clyde Cooper’s.
For now, Jessup and her customers are embracing the “pink bbq” fame. Patrons are dropping off gifts: pink flowers, a bottle of Pepto Bismol and a pink pig stuffed animal. Nearly all of Clyde Cooper’s social media posts contain the #pinkbbq hashtag.
“You kind of have to be like, ‘Well doggone, this is the best publicity we’re going to get, so let’s keep on with it,’ ” Jessup said.
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