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Carolina-Style Barbecue: A State Divided by Pork
Every state has its culinary traditions, and in North Carolina, pulled pork is held above all others. Read on to learn more about the state’s edible heritage.
Barbecue can mean many things depending on what part of the country you’re in, but in North Carolina, barbecue has always referred to one thing: pork. Specifically, pork that’s been cooked over hickory and oak coals until it’s tender enough to pull apart with a fork. Pit masters eschew complicated sauces or spice rubs in favor of a simpler cooking method: roasting the pork over a low heat for up to 18 hours while periodically basting it with a blend of salt, pepper, and vinegar. This marinade lends a sharp, acidic kick to each smooth, smoky bite, instilling the barbecue with a flavor unique to the Tar Heel State.
Pit masters and diners from all over North Carolina showcase an almost religious devotion to their barbecue, so naturally that fervor has resulted in a statewide schism. Since the first barbecue restaurants opened in the early 1900s, two sects have competed for the authentic style of Carolina pork. In the east, home to Goldsboro and Rocky Mount, hogs are split and cooked whole over coals, and the meat is pulled off and basted with the skin still on. The intact skin adds a little crunch to the meat’s texture, and the sauce is only meant to complement the meat’s natural flavors. Near Lexington, however, western-style restaurants specialize in slabs of pork shoulder. Cooking an entire pig can be difficult—especially when the live pig refuses to eat the poison apple—so focusing solely on pork shoulder allows joints to get the same quality from more readily available cuts. After cooking and chopping the meat, western pit masters use a slightly different finishing sauce that often includes ketchup, sugar, and their own blend of ingredients to give the recipe their own signature spin.