JIM CARTER (this article was published in JANUARY 2013)
Lexington, North Carolina puts its barbeque on display late each October, during hog killing season, with its Barbeque Festival and calls itself the “Barbeque Capital of the World.” Hog killing time in the South is when temperatures hover in the 40s. Then one can work with the hog without risk of spoilage. I recall the first time I actually was allowed to kill the hog on our South Carolina farm; what a proud moment, still seared in my mind.
Lexington is not the only city to proclaim itself the capital of barbeque, but there is little doubt that it is the capital of wood-pit, slow-cooked pork shoulders, Lexington pit masters’ specialty. You won’t find barbeque spaghetti, barbeque baloney, barbeque beef, or even barbeque pork ribs in Lexington. No, Lexington pit masters have worked for decades (make that centuries) to perfect Lexington style (aka, Piedmont or Western North Carolina style) chopped pork shoulders. There are 15 barbeque restaurants in town, one for every 1,000 or so residents, and the menus vary very little.
My wife Melinda grew up in the Concord area north of Charlotte in the shadows of some great Piedmont barbeque emporiums. I grew up south of Charlotte on the southern fringe of North Carolina Piedmont barbeque country (and on the northern fringe of South Carolina Midlands barbeque). I believe if one were to cut someone who grew up eating Piedmont, North Carolina barbeque, he might just bleed barbeque “dip”. Many of the people in this region worked in cotton mills or on small farms. Going out for a meal usually meant going to a barbeque restaurant or a “fish camp”. The barbeque restaurants of this region worked very hard to perfect their craft to attract this clientele – great, simple food at a good price. There are three things that distinguish this barbeque: the meat, the “dip” and the slaw.
- Smiley’s chopped BBQ. Photo by Jim Carter
The picture nearby is of a large coarse chopped barbeque tray at Smiley’s. The menu also features sandwiches, and plates with chopped or coarse-chopped pork barbeque. For the sandwiches, pork is piled on a hamburger type bun and covered in red slaw. For the plates, fries, typically hand cut, are added.
The cooking process begins with the meat. For Lexington-style barbeque, only pork shoulders are used. By contrast, Eastern North Carolina barbeque begins with the entire hog (more on Eastern North Carolina barbeque in another article). The shoulder is cooked at 220 to 250 degrees for 8 to 10 hours, usually over wood coals. Experienced pit masters know how long the cooking process takes for their pits. Should you wish to cook Lexington style barbeque at home, the North Carolina Barbeque Society provides excellent instructions on its website.
Lexington barbeque restaurants refer to their barbeque sauce as “dip”, as in “would you like extra dip?” The dip features vinegar, with a little tomato paste or catsup, and spices including cayenne and black pepper and sugar (go to www.ncbbqsociety/recipes/lexingtonstyle_dip.html for a recipe). This is not the thick sauce one finds at the grocery or in some other cities proclaiming they are barbeque capitals. Rather, it is very thin, and one doesn’t need a lot on the meat. After all, Lexington barbeque is all about the meat.
- The pit. Photo by Jim Carter.
The red barbeque slaw that is always served with Lexington barbeque is shredded cabbage doused with dip. The recipe from Lexington’s The Barbeque Center restaurant is published at www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/bbq-with-bobby-flay/Lexington-style-barbeque-slaw.html.
The result of this effort is very tender, moist barbeque pork with just a hint of sweetness. The recipes are simple and, as is the case, with most really good simple recipes getting it right makes all the difference. Just ask anyone from Lexington, North Carolina.
In addition to Smiley’s Lexington BBQ (917 Winston Rd, Lexington) and The Barbeque Center (900 N. Main Street, Lexington) – the two Lexington restaurants on the North Carolina Barbeque Society’s barbeque trail – Melinda and I have eaten at and can recommend:
- Lexington Barbeque, 10 US Hwy 70 S, Lexington, ranked by many as the top Lexington barbeque restaurant
- Speedy’s Barbeque, Inc., 1317 Winston Rd., Lexington
- Jimmy’s BBQ, 1703 Cotton Grove Rd., Lexington
My recommendation: Ask for a little bark and have the hush puppies.