Carolina Barbecue

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Although I was born and raised in North Carolina, there is little about southern tradition that I cling to. I truly am not a traditional “southern girl.” However, if there’s one thing I have learned to appreciate about the south, it’s the food. Specifically, barbecue.

For the first 18 years of my life, I mainly shunned typical southern fare, barbecue especially. Something about my first year of college changed me; maybe it was because Lenoir and Ram’s didn’t make pulled pork like I remembered my mother making it.  Maybe my tastes simply matured. Either way, each time I went home for breaks, I ate barbecue like I’d never seen the stuff before. Moreover, I finally understood the reason why people around the state harped on and on about the distinction between Eastern versus Western barbecue, as well as the capacity by which this dish defines the Tar Heel state.

When pigs were introduced to the southeastern region of America, they fared best in North Carolina. Pork was cooked over an open fire with a seasoning of vinegar, salt, pepper and oyster juice. Today, this vinegar-based marinade is now associated with Eastern-style barbecue, which is typically served with coleslaw to offset the tangy vinegar, as well as hushpuppies and of course, the obligatory glass of sweet tea. 

Western-style, by contrast, is made with pork shoulder, rather than the whole pig as it is made in the east. The sauce is ketchup-based and consists of a small amount of sugar as well as vinegar and spices. The barbecue in the western part of the state is served with French fries or hushpuppies with onions added to the batter. Eastern-style barbecue has no “help” – it’s simply well-cooked meat with some tang and spices added. But the pork used for Western-style can get away with being average – it’s the sauce that defines the barbecue experience.

Undoubtedly, barbecue is embedded in our southern identities regardless of style preference. It’s nearly impossible to drive anywhere across the state without seeing a barbecue joint. It’s unusual to go to a family reunion, wedding or other major event without barbecue being one of the main dishes served. There’s even a barbecue trail listing notable restaurants around the state. Barbecue is not simply pulled pork with sauce thrown over. It’s the defining food of Southern culture.

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