North Carolina is known for many things- beaches, mountains, Michael Jordan, the Wright Brothers- but nothing is more “North Carolina” than barbecue. Pig cooked slowly over a wood fire has been a fixture of our heritage for centuries and still today is a source of pride for natives and newcomers alike.
Pork has been a staple meat of humans for thousands of years. The Roman historian Pliny the Elder, in his Naturalis historia, testified that no “animal supply a larger number of materials for an eating-house: they have almost fifty flavours, whereas all other meats have one each.”
Pig was not known in the West until the arrival of European explorers beginning with Columbus, but the Spanish discovered natives cooking a range of meats- alligator, snake, even wildcat- over open fires with wooden frameworks. The Spanish heard the name of this apparatus as barbacoa and the rest is history.
The vast majority of early European settlers in the South originated in the British Isles, where pork had been a staple meat for untold generations. Easily transportable and quick to reproduce, swine consumption dominated all other meats in the early South. A sow reaches sexual maturity in just one year and can reproduce twice a year with an average litter size of 10 piglets. Couple that with the fact that they can eat almost anything and need very little space, pigs were abundant and cheap.
What is “North Carolina barbecue”?
The word barbecue is used in a variety of ways in the US but in North Carolina there is a much stricter understanding. For us, barbecue is pork barbecue- no exceptions. If its beef then it’s called beef barbecue or perhaps Texas or Kansas City barbecue, but the word alone always denotes pork here in the Tar Heel state.
A true North Carolinian also never uses barbecue as a verb, only as a noun or adjective, as in “I had barbecue for lunch” or “We made up some barbecue chicken for the picnic.” You will also never hear a native calling their grill a barbecue. The two words are interchangeable in many parts of the nation but not here.
While there is a lot of variation in the state, to earn the name barbecue, it must check three boxes:
- The meat must be pork.
- The pork is cooked over a long time (as much as 12 hours) with heat and smoke from a wood fire.
- Served with a vinegar based sauce that can (but does not have to be) used to baste the pig.
Eastern vs. Western
Long a source of fierce rivalry overshadowing even UNC and Duke, there are two styles of North Carolina barbecue divided along a line roughly running North and South, just west of the state capital of Raleigh. The Western style (also known as Lexington or Piedmont) diverged from the traditional Eastern style in the early 20th century upon the arrival of several Pennsylvanians of German descent to the Lexington area.
Traditional Bavarian pork is paired with a sweet and sour sauce; hence the Western style adds a touch of tomato to give the sauce a slight sweetness. Eastern sauce on the other hand is nothing more than vinegar with pepper and spices. Contrary to Eastern style adherents like me, the Lexington sauce is also vinegar, not tomato, based. If you want a barbecue sauce that’s just a kind of ketchup (why the hell would anyone?) grab a bottle of K.C. Masterpiece at the grocery store.
Bavarian pork cuisine also uses just the shoulder meat of the pig, which is now the other differentiating characteristic of Western style barbecue, unlike us in the east who use “everything but the squeal” in our barbecue. You can see the difference in color, the light, consistent hue of the shoulder versus the darker and varied coloration of the whole hog.
Try it for yourself
Eastern style vinegar sauce is not for the faint of heart and most people love it or think it would make a great kitchen cleaner. If you’re interested, try Scott’s. The Reverend Adam Scott created this masterpiece nearly a century ago and the family still makes and sells the sauce today (though sadly the restaurant closed a few years ago).
If you’re in North Carolina then you must try two barbecue institutions, Wilber’s and Grady’s, both in Wayne County. Wilberdean (no that is not a typo) Shirley opened his restaurant in 1962 and has not remodeled since, which is usually a sure sign of barbecue integrity, quality, and taste. Located on US Hwy 70, Wilber’s is a popular stop for beach traffic during the summer.
Grady’s is the best barbecue anywhere, period. If you want luxurious dining, go somewhere, anywhere, else. With seating for maybe twenty and concrete brick walls, this place makes Wilber’s look like Caesar’s Palace. They’re also only open Wednesday thru Saturday just for lunch and don’t take plastic but I promise it will be the finest barbecue you’ve ever tasted.
If you’re interested in other North Carolina barbecue spots (not sure why you would be once you’ve been to Grady’s and/or Wilber’s) check out Running on Full: The North Carolina Historic Barbecue Trail from Our State magazine or pick up a copy of Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue, which also dives into the history of our love affair with pork.
Would you eat barbecue from this man? Hell yes. What about legal advice? Hard pass.