When I mentioned to Nasty Bits/Seriously Asian columnist Chichi that I was embarking on a barbecue road trip through the Carolinas, she posed to me an unexpected question: What's so great about North Carolina's barbecue?
As Chichi recalled her own jaunt through the state, she spoke in a mixed tone of disappointment and curiosity. Dry, overcooked pork seemed to be a common occurrence in her North Carolina travels, so she wondered why people speak of it with such reverence.
Having worshiped the Tar Heel state's barbecue tradition since my first taste in 2006, I was dumbfounded. Did I not get North Carolina barbecue? Does North Carolina have a blind spot for dry meat? These questions hung onto the tip of my tongue as I cruised down I-81, eager to revisit one of my favorite barbecue regions with a more informed palate.
The Piedmont region of central North Carolina, just west of the dividing line between the state's two most prominent barbecue styles, seemed an ideal place to start. I chose Stamey's in Greensboro particularly for its historic role in the spread of this region's brand of barbecue. Founder C. Warner Stamey, former apprentice to barbecue godfather Jess Swicegood, helped establish the generation of smokehouses that have set the standard for Lexington-style barbecue for almost 70 years.
That standard involves wood-smoked pork shoulder doused with a vinegar/tomato/pepper sauce and served with barbecue slaw (finely chopped cabbage mixed with vinegar, pepper and ketchup). I ordered one chopped sandwich and one sliced sandwich, sipped my sweet tea, and took a bite.
Nostalgia soared through my nerves before flavor had a chance to settle in—after all, the Lexington style was my first great barbecue love. Stamey's chopped pork, characterized by an undercurrent of cider vinegar and a not-smoky-but-toasty flavor, embraced my taste buds like a hug from an old college buddy.
After a few more bites, the finer details of the Lexington style came out of the woodwork. I noticed that the pork, chopped so finely that it began to resemble a porky pulp, was more wet than moist. As I continued to chew, each hunk seemed to dry out between my teeth. The flavors of pork and wood became flimsy as the pulp ground down into tiny, papery strands. I loved every bite of my chopped sandwich, but I had to admit: it was no pulled pork miracle.
The sliced pork and chopped chicken, much of which was flat-out dry, confirmed Chichi's concerns.
I was unable to return to my favorite barbecue joint in the region, Lexington Barbecue, to test my memories at their core, however, I did manage to stop by another wood-burning institution, Jimmy's Barbecue, down the road. My experience there was identical to my experience at Stamey's; while Jimmy's chopped and sliced barbecue was more moist, it essentially hit all the same marks.
Thinking over all of the barbecue I'd eaten in this region, I couldn't chalk this up to the notion that Stamey's and Jimmy's are past their prime. The texture of their barbecue, for better or for worse, is a good baseline for the Lexington style: a tangy sweetness in the meat, a light sense of hickory smoke, and a definite chewiness that does not summon the words, "melt in your mouth."
This is not a condemnation. Combining these qualities with a heap of barbecue slaw and tasty bits of caramelized outside brown (when you're in the Piedmont, always request outside brown with your barbecue) along with hush puppies and sweet tea for $5 makes for a meal that's more than the sum of its parts. And while quality in the region is sure to vary, I still call the Lexington style one of America's best tastes of regional barbecue.
The taste of culture and memory is surely a factor in my loyalist attitude. Lexington, a town of fewer than 20 square miles with a barbecue restaurant-to-resident ratio of over 1:1000, is one of few places left in this country where barbecue is a staple. The entire state of North Carolina projects a humble aura of holy smoke, claiming the role of cultural curator in every tray of barbecue that hits the table. While I doubt they use the term terroir, it could be used literally to describe these meals. The senses of place and time behind every sandwich play no small role in why I think North Carolina barbecue—and any other barbecue—is worth the trip.
When I opened up the pound of chopped pork I had brought back to New York from Lexington, my coworkers crowded into the office kitchen for a taste. This being a tech crowd more than a barbecue crowd, there was no discussion of collagen breakdown or cross-cultural comparison of the Boston butt.
The strongest praise that evening came from one office mate who had spent time in North Carolina. Here, too, there was no shop talk about the smoking process, regional style or the psychology of authenticity. After biting into his sandwich, he simply breathed a short sigh of relief and uttered softly to himself:
"Oh, that takes me back."
About the author: James Boo has been a Serious Eats contributor since 2010. Working as a freelance journalist, he is also the founder of Real Cheap Eats and a documentarian. Check out his food-and-travel blog, The Eaten Path, for more journeys to the real meal.