Lexington, North Carolina, ‘Barbecue Capital of the World’

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Lexington, North Carolina, the seat of Davidson County, is situated squarely on the line between Greensboro and Charlotte, two of North Carolina’s largest cities, planted firmly, like corn and tobacco, in the state’s fertile Piedmont region. But recent times have been tough for Lexington.

The industries which generated the city’s economic vitality decades ago, textiles and furniture manufacturing, have since relocated to eastern Asia.  The surrounding area is flat, uninteresting, and nearly devoid of attractions, unless you count an unusually large chair placed high on a pedestal in the town center of neighboring Thomasville.

Lexington has overcome these challenges by unabashedly devoting most of its resources for the glorification of swine – and it’s been quite successful.  On Feb. 2, when the rest of Americans await Punxsutawney Phil’s forecast, Lexingtonians take their winter weather cues from a different “groundhawg,” a pig named Miss Charlotte. Walking around town, a visitor is bound to encounter dozens of pig sculptures funded by the “Pigs in the City” program.  Crafted with delightful themes, such as “Rain or Swine” or “Pigasus,” these may be the only pigs in town that aren’t bound for the barbecue pit.

What makes Lexington’s barbecue so much better than, say, yours or mine, or anyone you or I have ever met, is the commitment to a unique process that has been refined for nearly a century.  In Lexington they serve pork shoulder, cooked over a hickory wood flame for nearly an hour per pound.  The meat is then slathered with vinegar, tomatoes, salt and pepper (and some other special ingredients withheld from the general public), and cooked again to achieve a remarkable tenderness and richness in flavor.

These details are crucial, for the method in which Lexington chefs prepare pork is, apparently, a point of contention for North Carolinians, when they’re not preoccupied with erecting oversized furniture on town greens.  The dispute arose when a traditional group of rabble-rousers, elementary school children, wrote to lawmakers requesting the state mark Lexington’s annual Barbecue Festival a “state food festival.” Some eastern North Carolina residents, who pride themselves on eating the whole pig, not just the shoulder, and prefer their sauce to be based in vinegar, not tomatoes, were outraged to discover the bill proposing Lexington’s festival, featuring Western-style barbecue, be named the “official” barbecue festival of the state. After some light-hearted debate, the bill was eventually struck down, a relief to everyone who cared about this sort of thing.

On a recommendation from a friendly waitress serving what she considered less-than-adequate barbecue (“Hon, if you wanna try real pig, you better head down to Lexington”), I ventured from Greensboro to Lexington this past September to see for myself what all the fuss was about.  As it turns out, my visit came a month too early.  Had I visited Lexington in October, I would have encountered a city in the throes of a month of pig-related activities and competitions.  I could have entered the “Tour de Pig,” a Lexington cycling race every bit as demanding as its French counterpart, when you consider that most of its participants are likely on the verge of regurgitating a hastily consumed pork shoulder.  Perhaps I would have also submitted a creative piece to the Pepsi “Pig Tales” writing contest.  A first place finish, as judged by a panel from the public library, earns a lifetime supply of Pepsi. But I’d probably just take the ribbon.

The month-long festivities culminate in the great Barbecue Festival held on one of the two last Saturdays of the month, an event ranked by several travel magazines as being among the best food festivals in the country.  On this celebratory day, swine are revered as deities and then promptly consumed in unimaginable numbers. For the festival, Lexington’s Uptown district transforms from a sleepy shopping corridor to a bustling metropolis.  In 2011, as many as 160,000 people arrived for the Barbecue Festival, a significant increase from the 30,000 that attended the first in 1984. The main draw is the food, but many other delightful diversions await revelers, such as a 50-ton sculpture made entirely of sand (pig themed, of course) and a racetrack in which certain livestock (would pigs surprise you?) compete.

Frills aside, the barbecue is really what’s special about Lexington, North Carolina, something I learned from the first eye-opening bite of a pulled pork sandwich.  Admittedly, I could have used some Pepsi to wash it down.

By Neal Freyman

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