Barbecue is an important part of the heritage and history of the U.S. state of North Carolina. It has resulted in a series of bills and laws that relate to the subject, and at times has been a politically charged subject. In part, this is due to the existence of two distinct types of barbecue that have developed over the last few hundred years: Lexington style and Eastern style. Both are pork-based barbecues but differ in the cuts of pork used and the sauces they are served with. In addition to the two native varieties, other styles of barbecue can be found throughout the state.
North Carolina barbecue benefits from a wide variety of influences, from the original settlers, African slaves on plantations to more modern ones, such as newer equipment and methods to cook the meat.
Social events such as wedding, church events or celebrations are often conducted as a pig pickin', where the main course is a barbecued whole pig, spawning a whole subcategory of catering that specializes solely in this craft.
There is a somewhat light-hearted feud that exists between the proponents of the two types of barbecue: Lexington style and Eastern style. Author Jerry Bledsoe, the self-professed "world's leading, foremost barbecue authority" claimed that Dennis Rogers, (columnist for The Raleigh News & Observer and self-professed "oracle of the holy grub") "has ruined any chances of this state being distinguished in its barbecue." While a degree of humor is involved, choice of barbecue type is a politically charged topic. In 2006, North Carolina House Bill 21 and North Carolina Senate Bill 47 were introduced (and ultimately defeated), sparking controversy over one of the two different styles being declared "official", as they would have made the Lexington Barbecue Festival the official barbecue festival of North Carolina.
In a political compromise in 2007, NC House Bill 433 passed, granting the Lexington Barbecue Festival the title of "Official Food Festival of the Piedmont Triad Region of the State of North Carolina". This effectively bypassed any controversy regarding Eastern barbecue and the region, and prevented any confusion with the title creating a singular, official barbecue for the entire state.
Lexington style barbecue (occasionally referred to as Piedmont or Western style) uses a "red" sauce that is seasoned with ketchup, vinegar, and pepper, along with other spices that vary from recipe to recipe. It is most common in the Piedmont (central) and western areas of the state. This style uses only the pork shoulder section of the pig. As with other styles of barbecue, the recipes vary widely, and can include many different ingredients, and range from slightly sweet to hot and spicy. The sauce also serves as the seasoning base for "red slaw" (also called "barbecue slaw"), which is coleslaw made by using Lexington-style barbecue sauce (or similar) in place of mayonnaise. Hushpuppies are usually consumed with pork shoulder and slaw.
Eastern-style barbecue is a whole-hog style of barbecue, often said to use "every part of the hog except the squeal". Eastern-style sauce is vinegar- and pepper-based, with no tomato whatsoever. With Eastern Slaws, the ketchup disappears, and the mayonnaise (or whipped salad dressing) is almost universal.
Pork ribs are a common alternative to the two most common types of North Carolina barbecue and a variety of festivals and competitions, such as the Twin City RibFest, are held annually. Baby Back Ribs, sometimes called top loin ribs, are short, succulent, well-marbled ribs cut from the center section of the loin. Spareribs come from lower down the rib cage (from the sides and upper belly of the pig). Larger and longer than baby backs, they contain more connective tissue, so are a little tougher, but more flavorful.
Many other types of barbecue can be found in restaurants in North Carolina, with influences from Texas, St. Louis, Kansas City, Jamaica and other places, but they are more recent additions and not necessarily a part of the cultural history. Nonetheless, they are an important part of the variety that can be found throughout the state. Additionally, North Carolinians barbecue a variety of other meats and cuts, including chicken and beef, although they are found less frequently.
A pit barbecue is a method and constructed item for barbecue cooking meat and root vegetables buried below the surface of the earth. Indigenous peoples around the world used earth ovens for tens of thousands of years. In modern times the term and activity is often associated with the Eastern Seaboard, the "barbecue belt", colonial California in the United States and Mexico. The meats usually barbecued in a pit in these contexts are beef, pork, and goat, with pork being the predominant choice in North Carolina.
Pit barbecue can also refer to an enclosed, above-ground "pit" such as a horno or outdoor pizza oven. The method of cooking the meat is slowly, using various hardwoods to flavor the meat. This breaks down the connective tissue in the meats, producing a tender product. The types of meat cooked in this fashion include both beef and pork.
Oftentimes the two phrases "barbecuing" and "grilling" are mistakenly used as interchangeable words, although they imply completely different cooking methods. Grilling is a cooking method that uses dry heat, supplied by burning wood, charcoal or gas flame, and the heat is applied to the surface of the food being cooked. Typically food is cooked quickly using this method. Barbecuing is a slower process that uses lower heat and often the food is cooked by the heat of the smoke itself, rather than directly by the heat of the burning wood.
Barbecue related festivals
The Lexington Barbecue Festival is a one-day festival held each October and attracts 160,000 or more visitors to Lexington, North Carolina. The festival is held each October in uptown Lexington, a city of approximately 20,000 residents. Several city blocks of Main Street are closed to vehicle traffic for the event. In addition to a barbecue competition there are carnival rides, a number of music and entertainment venues, and over 100 vendors from all over the region participating. It is the Official Food Festival of the Piedmont Triad Region of the State of North Carolina.
In 2012, the US News and World Report ranked Lexington as #4 on its list of the best US cities for barbecue.
The annual event is listed in the book 1000 Places to See in the USA & Canada Before-You-Die, a part of the series based on the best-selling 1,000 Places to See Before You Die.
Additionally, a great number of other events of different sizes are held all over the state each year, attracting millions of visitors and adding to local economies.