Few cuisines spark as much passion, dedication, and debate as the world-renowned barbecues of North Carolina. The Tar Heel State has carved out a niche for itself in the culinary world, with its distinctive barbecue styles that are as unique as the locales they hail from. However, this has also ignited a bit of a friendly feud between barbecue enthusiasts from the East and West.
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A Unique Twist to the BBQ – The North Carolina Way
While you’d typically encounter beef or chicken at most barbecues, North Carolina’s version takes a pork-centric approach. Chopped pork, slathered with a tangy vinegar-based sauce and piled high on a bun, is the star of the show. However, the North Carolina BBQ scene is far richer and deeper than just this generalization.
The Barbecue Lexicon – Nouns, Not Verbs
In North Carolina, as in Kansas, you don’t barbecue – you devour barbecue. Here, “barbecue” is a noun, not a verb. The word “grilling” refers to the act of cooking food over a grill. Barbecue, on the other hand, is an art form that involves slow-smoking meat over a wood fire. Forget grilling hot dogs, burgers, or steaks – that’s not how it’s done in North Carolina.
The Slow-Smoked Secret of Authentic North Carolina BBQ
True North Carolina barbecue adheres to a “low and slow” philosophy. It requires the meat to be cooked at low temperatures over a wood fire for extended periods. If a BBQ joint lacks a wood pile out back, it’s not serving authentic North Carolina ‘cue. Similarly, a dormant woodpile, devoid of smoke, signals a less-than-authentic experience. The aroma of wood smoke in the air is an integral part of the North Carolina barbecue experience.
An Intriguing Culinary Geography
In eastern North Carolina, the barbecue tradition involves smoking an entire hog. Meanwhile, in the Piedmont region, shoulders (and occasionally Boston Butts) take center stage in a style often referred to as Lexington-style barbecue. This regional variation in meat preference forms the basis of the “dining high on the hog” concept, which asserts that cuts with more fat and skin yield superior barbecue.
When discussing eastern and western BBQ, North Carolinians generally don’t include the state’s mountainous western half. Instead, the terms refer to the coastal region and the Piedmont.
The Sauce Controversy: Vinegar vs. Tomato
Barbecue sauce is the crux of the North Carolina BBQ debate. It all comes down to the region – eastern North Carolina prides itself on a pure vinegar sauce, while the Piedmont region adds a touch of tomato or ketchup to its vinegar base. Purists from the East utterly reject any hint of tomato.
Regardless of the region, North Carolina barbecue sauces tend to be thin, contrasting with the ketchup-based, thicker sauces typical in Kansas. Both eastern and western North Carolina sauces often feature pepper seeds for an added spicy kick.
The Verdict: East or West, North Carolina BBQ Reigns Supreme
Much like die-hard football fans, North Carolinians passionately defend their regional barbecue styles. The nuances may seem trivial or even imperceptible to outsiders, but they form the very essence of the state’s barbecue identity.
Both eastern and western North Carolina offers authentic, delightful barbecue experiences, despite the occasional imitation or subpar establishment. The best advice? Follow the scent of wood smoke and decide for yourself which side of the barbecue battle your taste buds align with.