North Carolina Barbecue – East Versus West

NC Barbeque is Unique – Pork with a Vinegar Based Sauce

If you want to get a lively discussion going in North Carolina, bring up politics, religion, or barbecue.

North Carolina BBQ is chopped pork on a bun in contrast to most barbecues across the country which would be beef or other meats served as a main course. Barbeque in North Carolina is, of course, more complicated than that, but that’s a good starting point.

Barbecue is a Noun

Like folks from Kansas, North Carolinians do not barbecue. They eat barbecue. Barbecue is a noun and not a verb. Putting food on the grill is called grilling. Slow smoking meat is making barbecue. You do not barbecue hot dogs, burgers, or steak in North Carolina. You grill those. In fact, you do not barbecue anything. That’s just wrong.

Low and Slow Over Smoke

It’s not a real barbecue in North Carolina unless the pork is cooked at low temperatures for many hours and over a wood fire. If you go behind the BBQ joint and don’t see a woodpile, then it’s not really NC ‘que. If there are spider webs on the woodpile, then you’ve been snookered too. Ideally, you’ll see smoke coming out of the smokehouse, although meat is not cooked around the clock. Still, you should smell that distinct wood smoke in the air.

In eastern North Carolina, the smoked meat is the whole hog. In other words, they cook the entire pig. In the piedmont where most barbecue is called Lexington-style, shoulders are cooked down (and sometimes Boston Butts). That’s called eating high on the hog – or the better pig meat, although many will argue that the mixture with more fat and skin is better.

Geography – A Few Miles – They Make a Difference

Speaking of eastern and western North Carolina, it really is a matter of miles. Don’t confuse western NC in terms of barbecue with the mountains where you get goodness-knows-what called barbecue. When people from North Carolina talk about eastern and western on BBQ, they are not including the western half of the state. They mean the beach area and the piedmont.

The Secret is in the Sauce

The biggest bone of contention in North Carolina is when it comes to the barbeque sauce. Again, it’s along geographic lines. Eastern NC has vinegar sauce while the piedmont has a vinegar-based sauce with various levels of tomato or ketchup added. Any hint of tomato is scorned by easterners.

In either case, you have a very thin barbecue sauce very unlike Kansas barbecue sauce which is ketchup-based. Both areas add a kick with pepper seeds, so the BBQ sauce is generally spicier than what you see bottled in the store.

Who Wins The Carolina Barbecue Contest?

Residents of North Carolina are quite vocal about defending the local barbecue styles. It’s kind of like football. You root for your team – no matter what.

For those outside the area, it may all be Greek or so different that the subtleties are lost. There’s great barbecue both on the eastern side of the state and in the middle. There are also imitations, and those are not so wonderful. Just follow the smoke and see for yourself. If you need a little help, then check out the Barbecue Trail by the BBQ Society of North Carolina.

Lexington, NC Barbecue Festival

It is hard to believe how a small town Barbecue Festival has grown in a quarter of a century. Actually, the Lexington, NC BBQ Festival drew 30,000 guests the first year, and the population of the sleep little Southern town is just a little over 20,000 even today. Festival planners expect a record 100,000 barbecue fans this year for the 25th anniversary.

The NC Barbecue Festival has been voted as one of the best festivals in the United States and has been featured in a number of magazines and newspapers. As the word gets around, the festival gets bigger and bigger. This year was the biggest ever if the lines at the “park and ride” lots are any indication. As they say in the South, you couldn’t stir the crowd with a stick.

“The Barbecue Festival” (which is what it’s called by the locals – no need to say anything more since it’s such a big local deal) is a small town street party. It is not a barbecue cook-off of competition. Competitions are fun too, but the Lexington Que Festival is just about enjoying good old Southern food and fun.

It’s a full day of barbecue and other street vendor foods, arts/crafts booths, games for the kids, and all kinds of entertainment ranging from country music star Lee Ann Womack to Chairmen of the Board and the Trinity Quartet. They also have puppet shows and magic shows for the kids (and young at heart).

North Carolina Barbecue

Lexington is known for its Barbecue. There are signs across the state saying “Lexington-style BBQ,” but the only real Lexington barbecue is in Lexington, NC.

There are a number of terrific barbecue joints scattered throughout Lexington and all excellent, but for the festival, they all work together and make a special festival sandwich and slaw.

Lexington barbecue is chopped pork with a vinegar-based barbecue sauce usually served on a bun at the festival. The barbecue sandwich is topped with a lightly spicy Carolina red slaw.

Signature BBQ Sandwich

There are loads of BBQ restaurants in Lexington, NC. At the festival, they came up with a signature sandwich that reflects the Lexington style, and all barbecue tents serve the festival barbecue sandwich. It’s slow-smoked pork chopped and served with a vinegar-based sauce known as Lexington style barbecue sauce. It’s a thin, tart sauce with some red pepper. Heat can range from mild to hot with the festival sandwich leaning to the mild side.

The barbecue sandwiches are the highlight of the festival in terms of food, but visitors can find almost any type of food typically served at a county fair. There are hot dogs, cheesesteak on buns, and turkey legs. Some regional favorites are dished up including corn on the cob, fried apple pies, and fried pork skins.

Other Foods at the Barbecue Festival

If you’re not a barbecue fan (sigh), you can find loads of other festival foods like curly tail fries, blooming onions, fried apple pies, corn on the cob, and most other foods you’d see at county fairs. You could eat like a pig all day and not get to everything.

There are also booths with “take-home” foods like cheese ball mixes, fried pork skins, homemade yeast bread, muffins, and jams/jellies.

For those who enjoy trying out new hot sauces, there are always a lot of small booths with homemade barbecue rubs and sauces. Most offer samples, so you can check out all kinds of unique BBQ rubs/sauces.

Lexington Barbecue Festival – Fun for All Ages

The focus is on the family at the NC Barbecue Festival. Attendees range in age from newborn to senior citizen and everything between. There are small rides and shows for the kids. Dora the Explorer had a booth this year, and there were face painters and folks helping the little ones make sand art projects.

The official North Carolina Food Festival (state legislators backed off on calling it a barbecue festival due to the barbecue wars between east and west in the state) has about outgrown the small town of Lexington. By 11 a.m., the festival is bursting at the seams. They’ll probably need to expand to a full weekend to handle the crowds as this great festival continues to get bigger and bigger.


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