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Sep 9, 2001 09:46 PM

Memphis vs. North Carolina BBQ

  • k

I'm intimately familiar with Memphis(tomato based sauce and slaw on the sandwiches) and West Tennessee BBQ (no slaw and light vinegar based sauce). How does NC compare?

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  1. How NC barbecue compares with that found in Memphis depends on two factors.
    1.) Is it REAL barbecue ? i.e. cooked over wood coals.
    2.) Is it eastern style or Lexington style ?
    Barbecue has been consumed in NC for almost 300 years. Tradition dictates that the pork is cooked over live hardwood coals. Sadly, this method is vanishing, especially down east. There are now more places cooking with gas, electricity or a commercial "smoker" than with wood. Often their product is tasty. It is not, however, REAL barbecue. Two styles of barbecue are predominant in NC, eastern style and Lexington style. Eastern style is found primarily in the portion of the state east of Burlington and has the longest history. Eastern style is made by cooking the whole hog (Allen & Son in Chapel is the notable exception...) and is dressed with a sauce consisting of cider vinegar, salt, red and black pepper after chopping the meat. No tomato products are EVER found in the sauce. Customary sides include brunswick stew, boiled potatoes, hushpuppies and coleslaw. Sandwiches are served with or without slaw. The Skylight Inn in Ayden exemplifies eastern NC barbecue. No stew, potatoes or hushpuppies are served. Just barbecue, cornbread and coleslaw. The other style originated around the Lexington area in the piedmont region. Sid Weaver and Jess Swicegood are generally credited with operating the earliest commercial stands in Lexington. Debate in NC regarding the superiority of eastern or Lexington styles can be quite contentious, often evoking greater emotions than discussions regarding religion, politics or the War of northern Aggression. Lexington style differs from eastern style in two major elements. The sauce is also vinegar based but contains some tomato and generally only shoulders are cooked. The meat is served chopped, coarse chopped or sliced. Most places give you the choice of plates containing barbecue, slaw, fries and hushpuppies, trays containg barbecue, slaw and hushpuppies and sandwiches. The sandwiches are almost always include slaw. The slaw is very unique in that it is made with Lexington style barbecue sauce. The result is a red slaw with a tangy and slightly spicy flavor that compliments the meat. Ribs and alcohol are rarely found in NC barbecue joints.

    My exposure to Memphis barbecue is unfortunately limited. I'm aware that many places cook with charcoal. The sandwich at Gridley's is a testament to how well barbecue can be turned out with charcoal as are the dry ribs at The Rendevous. My favorite spot in Memphis is Interstate. Everything I've tried there has been excellent. There is one Memphis area specialty that struck me as suprisingly good-the barbecued bologna sandwich. I wish we had 'em here...

    South Carolina is another story altogether.


    2 Replies
    1. re: Jim

      Jim - thanks for the thoughtful response - I can tell you're a man who knows his Q.

      P.S. My Dad BBQ's balogna (sp?) His is excellent!

      1. re: Jim

        I'm a native Memphian, but have never had the chance to have NC BBQ yet. However, I plan on it. Everything I've seen on TV looks good.

        It's good to see that an "outsider" can appreciate the poor man's delicacy that is BBQ bologna. Most foks who aren't raised on it tend to turn their noses us at the idea of BBQ bologna.

        If you are every flying through the Memphis airport you can get a great BBQ bologna sandwich at the Interstate state inside the airport. Sounds crazy, but it's made to order. It's not sitting under a heat lamp. When you order it they'll warn you that it will take 5-10 minutes. Well worth the wait. Here's a link to a photo...