Three Centuries of Gastronomic Glory

The pride and passion that North Carolinians exhibit about barbecue is pretty easy to understand when you consider that the pig pickin’ has been part of our history and heritage for more than 300 years.

Likewise, the war that rages between those who prefer vinegar-based barbecue and those who favor tomato-based barbecue – it may be decades old, rather than centuries, but it incites vigorous (some would say heated) debate.

Barbecue cook-offs also have years of history behind them.

Let’s have a look back.


There are people in the world who use “barbecue” as a verb, meaning the act of grilling chicken, burgers, hot dogs, even – heresy! – vegetables. And there are places in this country (they shall go unnamed) where barbecue cooking contests revolve around beef.

From the very beginning, barbecue in North Carolina has always been a noun, and it’s always meant pork.

The Spanish introduced pigs to the Southeast all the way back in the 1500s. Unlike cattle, they flourished — especially in North Carolina. Then, over the years, settlers from surrounding areas brought more pigs with them to the state. And pork reigned supreme.

The slow roasting method of cooking is no Johnny-come-lately either. There’s solid evidence that natives of the West Indies were roasting meat over wood coals back in the mid-1600s.

Most likely the Native Americans in the eastern U.S. used a similar technique and passed it on to English colonists.

And now a word or two on the history of the style of sauce that characterizes eastern North Carolina barbecue. It was developed in the region all the way back in the 1600s – which makes it America’s original barbecue sauce.

A Tale of Two Sauces

For years now, a debate has raged across our great state about which barbecue sauce is best – the clear sauce of eastern North Carolina, made with vinegar, pepper and salt, or the red sauce of western North Carolina, with all of the above plus catsup and sugar.

In 1829, Rudyard Kipling wrote that “East is east, and west is west, and never the twain shall meet.” He wasn’t referring to the difference between eastern North Carolina barbecue and western North Carolina barbecue, but he could have been.

The eastern vinegar sauce was developed in the late 1600s, with Colonists using the readily available seasonings of vinegar, salt and pepper. The idea of adding tomatoes wouldn’t have even come up, since they were thought back then to be poisonous.

Years passed and in 1820 or so, tomatoes were known to be safe to eat. Some time thereafter, cooks in western North Carolina and the Piedmont were happily adding tomato catsup (and brown sugar) to the traditional vinegar base. Instead of cooking the whole hog like their eastern North Carolina brethren, these cooks typically used only the shoulder.

And the war of the sauces was on.

Fortunately, there’s one thing that North Carolinians generally agree on: the dishes that go best with barbecue are coleslaw and either cornbread or hush puppies.

Subtle differences in sauce occur about every 50 miles within the state. There may be thousands of variations due to the addition of additional spices.

Western-style barbecue is also known as Lexington style. The sauce is often called “dip.”

Folks in North Carolina also argue about the merits of different means of cutting up the cooked meat. The general rule of thumb: East means chopped, West also offers sliced.

Take Their Word For It

Most people who are experts in such things say that the word “barbecue” is derived from “barbacoa,” the Spanish version of a Taino Indian word that originated in the 17th century and described a framework of sticks set upon posts.

One theory, originated in 1829, is that “barbecue” comes from the French phrase “barbe á queue,” meaning “whiskers to tail.” While some barbecue buffs consider this to be proof that only whole hog cooking is genuine barbecue, virtually all scholars believe that this theory of derivation is … well, hogwash.

In eastern North Carolina, there’s a good chance you’ll hear “barbecue” pronounced “bobby-q.”