The Great NC BBQ Debate: How One Transplant Picked Vinegar Over Tomatoes

The Great NC BBQ Debate: How One Transplant Picked Vinegar Over Tomatoes

I love pulled pork and ribs; I have a personal obsession with brisket. When I moved here, I thought I knew everything there was to know about BBQ sauces. You poured it from a bottle and dumped it over the top of smoked meat. I now know that I was wrong. North Carolina barbecue is so much more than that.

When I moved to North Carolina last August, I knew that I’d be in for a culture shock. I grew up in Erie, PA, moved to Scranton — yes, I have seen “The Office” — and had only been to NC once. So the natural thing to do was pack up everything my husband and I owned and head to Raleigh. Once we were settled in our new apartment, I thought I was done making decisions about my new home. But then someone asked me about North Carolina barbecue.

“Eastern or Lexington?”

“I live in Raleigh.” I knew Raleigh was on the Eastern side of the state, so it seems like that’s where I fell. Right? Wrong. This question had nothing to do with where I lived. I was immediately schooled in two different types of BBQ.

If you’re a transplant to the Tar Heel State, you should read up, because this is serious business.

A little history lesson on pork.

Image courtesy of Pearson.

That delicious pulled pork you slather with vinegar? It actually comes from the Caribbean. The hogs themselves were introduced to the United States and the Caribbean by the Spanish, but the act of cooking the meat slowly at low temperatures and mopping the meat with a mixture — that comes from the Caribbean. The original “mop sauce” was a combination of lemons and red peppers, but lemons weren’t readily available above the Sunshine State. Thus, vinegar was introduced to the mix to sub for lemon juice.

Eastern Style Barbecue

Image courtesy of David McMahon.

Eastern Style sticks to the roots of U.S. barbecue: the sauce is a combination of vinegar and peppers used as a marinade. This sauce, known as a “mop sauce,” is basted onto the hog during cooking with the idea that the flavor will be infused, leaving the meat tender and juicy. Eastern Style is a whole-hog barbecue, which means that the entire pig is roasted low and slow.

Eastern Style is commonly attributed to the eastern side of North Carolina, from Raleigh to the coast. It’s known as the traditional North Carolina barbecue.

Lexington Style Barbecue

Image courtesy of Mike Steinhoff.

Lexington Style has flipped the script on the traditional ways of barbecue with one ingredient: tomatoes. The sauce here is made from vinegar, tomatoes, red pepper flakes, and sometimes a slew of other ingredients (like brown sugar, pepper and sometimes ketchup). The sauce is known as a “dip,” applied after the meat has been cooked. Lexington Style utilizes just the pork shoulder section of the pig.

Lexington Style is commonly attributed to western North Carolina, from the Piedmont to the mountains.

Residents are so serious about North Carolina barbecue that they’ve tried passing laws to make Lexington official over Eastern.

Honestly, I get it. It’s almost like declaring one college basketball team superior over the other. On the Lexington side of things, there were multiple bills introduced to make Lexington Style the official North Carolina barbecue style. North Carolina Bill 21 and North Carolina Senate Bill 47 were introduced to confirm the Lexington Barbecue Festival as the official North Carolina barbecue festival. That way, Lexington Style would reign supreme.

However, the bills were shot down and a compromise was created. The Lexington Barbecue Festival was deemed the “Official Food Festival of the Piedmont Triad Region of the State of North Carolina.”

So which style of North Carolina barbecue is better?

It all comes down to taste and preference. I have a unique opportunity to be unbiased, because I’d never had either style until just over a year ago. In September of 2019, I attended my first World of Bluegrass festival. Concurrently, the Whole Hog Barbecue State Championship was offering all you can eat pork for festival-goers who would then vote on the best barbecue in the line-up.

While I ate so much barbecue that I had to go home and sit for three hours, I also fell in love with Eastern Style. I love the odd combination in the sauce: both its complexity and simplicity at once.

Does that mean I am inherently correct? No. I really like pork and could probably eat it five days a week. We’ve covered that. So maybe I could be swayed in the other direction if I found a dip that’s a little unconventional. I’m open to trying them all.

But for now, my heart lies with the Eastern Style of North Carolina barbecue, and I’m okay with that. But now, don’t get me started on slaw.

For more articles that transplants need to know, check out our Lifestyle section. Here you’ll find articles about common snakes you’ll encounter in NC, the best waterfall hikes in the state, what you need to know about sweet tea, and food traditions that started in our state.

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