American Culture

Four ways to tell if “Carolina style” barbecue is authentic

Short version: it isn’t. There’s no such thing as “Carolina style” barbecue.

The Chopped Plate from Mr. BBQ, the best barbecue restaurant in Winston-Salem, NC

The Chopped Plate from Mr. BBQ, the best barbecue restaurant in Winston-Salem, NC

I grew up in North Carolina, about 25 minutes from Lexington, the Barbecue Capital of the World. I suppose I sort of took this remarkable food for granted when I was younger. We’d go to Country Kitchen down at Gumtree Rd and Highway 52 when I was a kid and there was just nothing better in life than a chopped sandwich with a side of hush puppies. Later on, as I moved around, I’d frequent Mr. BBQ, Hill’s, Stratford BBQ and Pig Pickin’s in Winston-Salem. When I ventured down toward Lexington there were all kinds of options. For a while I favored Speedy’s, then Hog City came along and rocked the world. Through it all, of course, there was the old No. 1, Lexington BBQ, down on Highway 64, which Southern Living has justly called the best barbecue in the South. Even regular restaurants would often have barbecue on the menu.

These days I live in Denver, and the best barbecue here is … well, mine. At least once a year I break out the smoker and remind my friends how good I had it growing up.

Through the years I’ve been all over the US and have had what the locals call barbecue. Some of it is tasty, some of it … less so. I have evangelized the gospel of Lexington barbecue, I have argued with those who never had any but were certain that whatever dried-out, sopped-in-cloying-diabetes-sauce carcass they were gnawing on was superior anyway, and I have endured, as gracefully as I could, the self-indulgent prattle of yankees who wouldn’t know real barbecue if they were choking on it. (No, seriously, there’s a guy with this really authentic place in Boston…)

The thing I see, and I see it everywhere, is restaurants advertising “Carolina style” barbecue, and it has to stop. Wherever you live, there’s a good chance you have a place nearby serving something with that label on it. And if you’ve never been to the Carolinas, there’s something you probably don’t know: it’s bullshit. There’s nothing remotely Carolina about that barbecue. You have about as much chance of finding real Carolina barbecue outside of Carolina as you do of finding moral virtue in the heart of a mafia lawyer.

And it drives me around the bend.

Here’s how you can tell if it’s really Carolina style.

1: It isn’t. There’s no such thing as “Carolina style.” There are three basic barbecue families in the Carolinas: Lexington, Eastern and “Carolina Gold.”

As Wikipedia explains:

Lexington style barbecue (occasionally referred to as Piedmont or Western style) uses a “red” sauce that is seasoned with ketchup, vinegar, and pepper, along with other spices that vary from recipe to recipe. It is most common in the Piedmont (central) and western areas of the state. This style uses only the pork shoulder section of the pig. As with other styles of barbecue, the recipes vary widely, and can include many different ingredients, and range from slightly sweet to hot and spicy. The sauce also serves as the seasoning base for “red slaw” (also called “barbecue slaw”), which is coleslaw made by using Lexington-style barbecue sauce (or similar) in place of mayonnaise. Hushpuppies are usually consumed with pork shoulder and slaw.

Eastern style, which one generally finds east of Greensboro:

…is a whole-hog style of barbecue, often said to use “every part of the hog except the squeal.” Eastern-style sauce is vinegar- and pepper-based, with no tomato whatsoever. With Eastern Slaws, the ketchup disappears, and the mayonnaise (or whipped salad dressing) is almost universal.

Then there’s South Carolina, which has three styles. Two are similar (given geographical proximity, I guess) to Lexington and Eastern. The third is the state’s signature: the mustard-based sauce. This is the only sweet style in the region.

In the central part of the state (the Midlands), barbecue is characterized by the use of a yellow “Carolina Gold” sauce, made from a mixture of yellow mustard, vinegar, brown sugar and other spices.

It’s like if I ask what you had for dinner and you say chili. You’ve narrowed it down a little, but … red, white, verde, posole, vegetarian, with beans or without?

So when someone advertises “Carolina style,” they’re counting on you being as dumb as they are. The term signifies nothing – it may mean a number things, some of which (Eastern vs SC) have very little in common.

Lexington Barbecue

Lexington Barbecue

2: Nobody in the Carolinas uses the term “Carolina style.” For reasons that are probably obvious from #1, right? The sign will generally say “BBQ,” or maybe “Lexington Style” (there are probably towns that have been infiltrated by invasive barbecue species and adding that detail may help honest people avoid accidentally walking into a Memphis style joint and wasting their hard-earned dollars), but “Carolina style” is, since you presumably know where you are already, unnecessary.

3: What happens in Carolina stays in Carolina. For reasons I’ve never fully understood, the styles from my native state have never traveled. You can find Memphis style nearly anywhere. Ditto Kansas City ribs. And you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a Texas brisket restaurant no matter where you are.

The Carolinas, though, haven’t exported their unique barbecues. The same is true for many other Southern styles. I occasionally trip across Arkansas barbecue (there’s a pretty good Arky place near where I used to live up in Denver’s Berkeley neighborhood and if you know Colorado you may be familiar with Hog Heaven on US-285 up in Bailey, which I think is the best barbecue in the state, next to mine, of course). There’s an Alabama style restaurant here, although it’s the only one I have ever encountered. I once found a Florida style joint in Western NY, of all places. But these cases are surpassingly rare.

The only time I ever found a genuine instance of a Carolina style outside of the region was in San Diego a bunch of years ago. The owner was from the Outer Banks and had a good Carolina Gold as well as a more-or-less Eastern style that was good, as Eastern style goes. I’m told there’s a food truck here in Denver dedicated to Lexington – the owner is apparently from Lexington itself – but I haven’t yet found it.

4: One more thing: real barbecue from the Carolinas isn’t “pulled,” it’s “chopped.” Words matter. It’s sort of like when somebody wanders into a store back home and asks for a “pop.” People are going to stare.

In conclusion, if it says “Carolina style,” it almost certainly ain’t. Carolinians don’t use the term because it doesn’t mean anything and anybody who does use it is … uninformed.

So the message for restaurant owners (and food trucks, too – you know who you are) is simple: stop it. Stop it right now. There’s enough dishonesty in the world already without you lying to people about something as sacred as barbecue.

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