The War of North Carolina BBQ: Western vs. Eastern and Where You Can Eat It

Things appear happier in the North Carolina. Maybe that’s why two of the state’s largest cities – Charlotte and Raleigh – made Forbes’ list of fastest growing cities in the United States. People are tired of the hard-shell and coarse attitudes of Northern cities like New York City and Boston.

Please don’t be fooled, though. Behind the façade of sweet tea, Southern hospitality, y’alls, and bless your hearts, is a bitter clash that has been tearing families apart for generations. It pre-dates the current battle between the taxpayers of Charlotte and tax-spenders of Raleigh, the Duke versus Chapel Hill basketball rivalry, and even sentiments still held over from the War of Northern Aggression.

To hear bless your heart used in its not-so-genteel manner, all you have to do is ask which is better – Eastern or Western North Carolina BBQ? How something so trivial can keep a state teetering on the edge of peace is a mystery many outsiders can’t understand. Allow me to explain.

Eastern North Carolina BBQ – The Original Gangsters of BBQ

As a Yankee myself, I will not lend my opinion either way. While I made it to the South as fast as I could, I don’t have roots here; thus, I have no pig in the pit. However, while this statement may offend some in the Western camp, it is based on fact. Eastern North Carolina BBQ is the original form of BBQ in not only North Carolina, but also the United States. Or, in modern day lingo, it’s the original gangster of BBQ.

While Donald Trump may disagree with me, BBQ does not have its origins in the United States. According to John Shelton Reed, co-author of Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue, there are descriptions of today’s BBQ dating back to the 1500s in the Caribbean. While the islanders weren’t slow cooking pigs in these early depictions, they were slow cooking alligators, fish, and anything else they could catch. The sauce? An acidic lemon juice with red peppers.

By the time BBQ arrived on the shores of the United States in the 19th century during the slave trade, the Spaniards had introduced the beauty of pig to the island pit-masters. Thus, the only adaption that Americans made to BBQ was the substitution of vinegar for lemon juice since lemons weren’t available outside of Florida. That tradition of vinegar laced with salt, black pepper, and red pepper still lives on today in Eastern BBQ.

Western North Carolina BBQ

Not only can the Tar Heel State not pick the official state BBQ, they can’t even agree on a name for what some call Western North Carolina BBQ. The style is also referred to as Lexington or Piedmont.

Contrary to popular belief, Western BBQ sauce, the key differentiating factor between the two styles, is not tomato based like thicker sauces found elsewhere in the United States.

Western North Carolina BBQ is actually not much different from Eastern as far as the sauce is concerned. The only difference is the introduction of tomato, or ketchup, to the sauce. Like Eastern BBQ, the base is still a heavy dosage of vinegar with the slight addition of a tomato product to sweeten up the tang a bit. Thus, this new style of BBQ sauce is guessed to have been created sometime after Heinz introduced ketchup at the Centennial International Exhibition in 1876.

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