Why North Carolina BBQ is so misunderstood

Jelisa Castrodale

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Usually when a state’s legislature has to vote on a bill to name an official state something, it’s an easy ‘aye’ that establishes, say, the bolo tie as the state neckwear or determines that some assorted Allosaurus bones are now the state fossil. It’s not that simple in North Carolina, especially when it comes to barbecue.


Over a period of two days in February 2006, the state House of Representatives and the state Senate both declined to pass a bill that would’ve made the Lexington Barbecue Festival the Official Barbecue Festival of North Carolina. Why? Because that might’ve implied that Lexington barbecue was the state’s official style of barbecue – and the eastern half of the state would’ve responded with a endless string of unprintable words.

Although North Carolina is often listed beside Kansas City, Memphis and Texas as one of the four states with its own iconic style of BBQ, the truth is, this state serves two distinct kinds of ‘cue on paper plates or in cardboard trays. The unending argument over whether Lexington-style or Eastern-style is the best largely depends on which side of U.S. Route 1 you’re on – and which sauce you support might be a bigger deal than what letters are typed on your voter registration card.

For the uninitiated, Eastern-style barbecue involves meat from the whole hog – “everything except the squeal,” if you wanna get all Upton Sinclair on it. It’s roughly chopped and flavored with a vinegar-based sauce. Lexington-style, which is also known as Western-style or Piedmont-style, is sliced or chopped pork shoulder. Its sauce is often called “tomato based,” which is a slight exaggeration: it’s more accurate to call it a vinegar sauce that has been flavored with either ketchup or tomato sauce. Eastern ‘cue comes with creamy white coleslaw, while Lexington has a mellower, matching red slaw and, if you’re in the right place, both of them will be served by someone with an accent thicker than the sauce.

So which style came first? As a Lexington-style loyalist, I hate to acknowledge that it probably involved vinegar. John Shelton Reed, an esteemed sociologist and co-author of Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue, told Our State that his theory suggests that barbecue as North Carolinians know it probably originated in the Caribbean. Historians have written about island barbecues dating back to the 1500s and, when pigs were introduced to the islands, pork became the go-to meat. Reed suggests that either Caribbean-born slaves or Haitian refugees brought this style of cooking to North Carolina. When something acidic was needed to flavor the sauce, they had to settle for vinegar, because lemons – their preferred ingredient – didn’t grow anywhere in the state.

Reed also believes that Lexington-style barbecue was introduced to the Piedmont region by five men with German ancestry. When they moved south from Pennsylvania, they tried to replicate a sweet-and-sour, vinegar-ish pork dish that had been served in parts of Bavaria. And the choice of shoulder cuts like picnics or Boston butts was purely out of convenience: between the World Wars, when barbecue was sold from street carts or out of tents, it was easier to transport a single shoulder than an entire pig.

“I don’t want to say [Eastern style is] ‘the truest’ because I don’t want to take sides in that dispute, but it is the original, that’s for sure,” Reed told Our State. He has also suggested that the differences between the two styles is “slight and subtle,” but if you sit in Lexington Barbecue (known locally as The Honeymonk) or in the Skylight Inn and say those words out loud, you might be asked to leave before you finish your sweet tea.

The one thing that seems to unite both sides is the Campaign for Real Barbecue (which Reed is also involved in). The group’s objective is to identify and honor ‘authentic’ barbecue restaurants that still slow-cook their meat for ten-plus hours over hardwood coals, and haven’t opted for the easy way by using gas or – GASP! – electricity. “Wood smoke defines Real Barbecue,” the Campaign’s website explains. “Without it, one has merely roast meat – ‘faux ‘cue.’”

So far, the Campaign has only identified about 60 joints who do things the traditional way, which is only around 10% of the total number of barbecue restaurants in the state. Why? Because being traditional is also slow and expensive.

According to the Washington Post, not only do restaurant owners have to buy all of that wood (usually oak or hickory), they also have to hire a pitman to stay up all night, tending the fire in the smokehouse.

“[The] biggest thing I’ve learned is just how much work goes into making something that seems so simple,” one Winston-Salem food critic wrote. “Most of the state’s top pitmasters arrive at work long before the sun rises to start chopping wood and cooking meat, dedicating entire lifetimes to the trade. Their hard work goes unnoticed by most, but it doesn’t go unappreciated, as busy parking lots across the state will attest.”

Meanwhile, the State legislature took more than a year to reach a lukewarm compromise to pass that “official” bill. In 2007, the Lexington Barbecue Festival was named “The Official Food Festival of the North Carolina Piedmont Triad,” and everyone in the House went home feeling like they’d remained impartial in the ‘cue debate.

That’s OK, I don’t need a ratified bill to tell me that Lexington style is the best. Are you gonna finish that slaw?


Jelisa Castrodale

About Jelisa Castrodale

Read more about Jelisa Castrodale here.


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