Some say North Carolina is the “Cradle of the ‘Cue,” and while out-of-state barbecue enthusiasts might beg to differ, there are the die-hards who will venture to say that North Carolina is the “Barbecue Capital of the World.” With the state being the second largest pork producer on Earth and priding itself on a rich southern food tradition steeped in folklore, it’s not so hard to understand why Tar Heels are so serious about their barbecue. Well, serious is one way to put it, but opinionated is really more accurate – and that opinion seems to be that North Carolina barbecue is, as they say here, nothing less than the “whole hog.”
The real irony is that, even within the state itself, both sides can find themselves being arch barbecue rivals, with “eastern” and “western” (aka Lexington) style barbecue competing to be considered top dog. It’s as if easterners and westerners are subconsciously channeling the fervor of their state’s beloved yet dueling Duke and Carolina basketball fans.
Jim Early, author of “The Best Tar Heel Barbecue Manteo to Murphy,” points out this strange connection: “North Carolina is synonymous with great basketball and great barbecue. Millions of words are written about our basketball, but few writers truly understand our uniqueness in the world of barbecue.”
North Carolina politicians like Senator Kay Hagan have even gone so far as to make bets on the NCAA tournament using – you guessed it – barbecue as the stakes. Yep, have no illusions folks; barbecue is no laughing matter when you step foot in the Tar Heel state.
Take the case of red slaw and Kelly Kye, a native Tar Heel who grew up in western North Carolina, but has since lived in eastern and central parts of the state. Says Kye, “I have strong opinions because of where I’m from near the Lexington foothills. I had never eaten eastern barbecue until I lived in Greenville.”
In her new home, Kye was hard pressed to find the spicy ketchup-coated slaw that she had grown up on. “When I tried to order it at Parker’s, they didn’t understand me. I kept saying ‘barbecue slaw’ because I didn’t know what else to call it besides ‘red slaw.’ I was very upset they didn’t have it. Everyone in the restaurant was looking at me like I was crazy.”
A hankering for the comfort food pleasures of one’s home town can make anybody a little crazy.
Ryan Shivar is a North Carolina native from Beulaville in the east, right smack dab in the middle of hog country, who experienced a similar barbecue evolution. As he explains the east-west divide phenomena, “It’s amazing how you can live on one side of the state and not have any idea how different the barbecue is on the other side. But I guess it’s like if you grow up eating hot dogs with chili or hot dogs with sauerkraut your whole life, then that’s what you think a hot dog should be like.”
Touché, Mr. Shivar, touché.
And so it goes. As most natives will tell you, it’s not as though the two types of barbecue are really all that different, but they are different enough to mean something to people down here. So what is it that makes this great divide, anyway? From what I can figure as a Tar Heel transplant, the main thing to understand is that the state’s barbecue is all about the meat (and if you hadn’t guessed it yet, mainly pork) and it’s caliber of tenderness and juiciness. The focus is not so much on the sauce, but if you’re used to the thicky and smoky sauces of the Midwest (as I am), expect a night and day contrast. Tar Heel barbecue sauce is in a category all it’s own, being surprisingly light and vinegar based.
Eastern style most often means “whole hog,” dark and white meat that is chopped up and mixed with a vinegar-centric sauce of pepper (crushed red, black and occasionally cooked-down habañero), salt, water and a touch of sugar.
With western or “Lexington” style, you are usually served pork shoulder, dark meat which is fatty and “porkier.” It is also served chopped and tumbled with a vinegar based sauce, but this sauce includes a tomato profile of either paste, ketchup or puree, as well as brown sugar and other spices. As Early opined in an interview, “It’s kind of a sweet and sour, where the eastern is more tangy. In the west they call it dip, and in the east they call it sauce.”
And let us not forget the infamous Lexington style red slaw, the enemy of mayo-based cabbage combinations.
In central Carolina, it seems as though the lines are blurred as to the style. Nonetheless, you will find that staple vinegar sauce and often a sundry of sides to choose from apart from the typical hush puppies and cole slaw: Southern standbys like baked beans, mac n’ cheese, sweet potato fries, black eyed peas, collard greens, cheesy grits, creamed corn and fried okra. Is your mouth watering yet? You will likely need and be offered a big dose of sweet tea to help wash it all down – after you eat your homemade cobbler, of course.
Roadside barbecue shacks with picnic tables out front and smoke-billowing out back are a dime a dozen across the state, but then there are also places like The Pit in Raleigh’s downtown warehouse district. While some locals might scoff that it isn’t authentic barbecue, the place has certainly caught the attention of the national food media intelligentsia for its self-proclaimed efforts in “going far beyond traditional barbecue offerings with some contemporary twists on southern favorites” and only serving up pork which has been raised on free-range North Carolina farms.
If you’re making a trip, though, you better check out the authentic gems of the state, places which still have traditional pit masters who slow cook the meat over wood or charcoal. Treasures like Smiley’s of Lexington, Stamey’s of Greensboro, and Grady’s of Dudley can be found on the Historic Barbecue Trail established by the North Carolina Barbecue Society. That’s right, the state even has their own historical barbecue society.
Menu photo courtsey of The Pauper Chef