On N.C. Barbecue, East and West Don't Meet -- Except to Argue
Monday, May 23, 2005
SILER CITY, N.C. -- Contempt spread across Jerry Bledsoe's face. Well, kind of a theatrically exaggerated version of contempt, but contempt nonetheless.
The gloppy, gristly, just plain gross-looking pile of vinegary, eastern-style pork barbecue on the foam plate before him did not look pretty. Bledsoe's foil, Dennis Rogers -- a newspaper columnist, but more important, North Carolina's self-appointed Oracle of the Holy Grub -- shifted a bit in his seat. A subpar batch of barbecue is tough to find in North Carolina, but the old debating buddies had stumbled onto one, and Bledsoe had him.
"All right, let's get this imitation barbecue out of the way," Bledsoe said.
And so it began, as it has countless times before. Bledsoe and Rogers have been puffing up the barbecue feud between eastern North Carolina and western North Carolina for decades. Bledsoe -- a former newspaper columnist turned best-selling crime book author -- is undeniably Mr. Western-Style, extolling the virtues of melty-tender pork shoulders glazed with a ketchup-based sauce. Rogers is adamantly Mr. Eastern-Style, pontificating about the vinegar-heavy morsels of whole hog favored Down East along North Carolina's coast.
Rogers and Bledsoe don't need an excuse to roll out their barbecue sideshow, but the North Carolina legislature just handed them a doozy anyway. A state representative thought he would quietly ease a bill through declaring the barbecue festival in the western-style capital of Lexington, N.C. -- a city that claims to have the world's highest per capita concentration of barbecue consumption, with 17 restaurants for 20,000 residents -- to be the state's official barbecue festival. Quietly? Yeah, right. Not as long as Dennis Rogers has access to ink by the barrel.
"People who would put ketchup in the sauce they feed to innocent children are capable of most anything," Rogers told his readers in the Raleigh News & Observer after word leaked about the barbecue festival bill. "Let the word go forth from this time and place that we, the Eastern North Carolina purveyors of pure barbecue, will not be roadkill for our western kin."
That anyone would care about such silliness as designating an official state barbecue festival says a lot about North Carolina. Other states may content themselves with a single dominant barbecue identity -- South Carolina seems perfectly happy as the mustard-based capital of the universe, Tennessee appears satisfied with being identified primarily as the home of the sweet, tomatoey Memphis-style barbecue. But North Carolina is torn asunder, its split barbecue personality embedded in the state's cultural landscape.
The state's official apparatus is so exercised about the rivalry that North Carolina's tourism agency sponsored an Internet poll to divine the true favorite. Eastern-style won the vote, but the westerners refused to concede.
Adding the official barbecue festival contretemps into the swirl almost made it too easy for the hair-trigger barbecue battlers to start blasting away again.
"I guess it's the ultimate pork-barreling," said state Rep. Jerry Dockham, a Republican who co-sponsored the bill that would give the barbecue festival in his home county the state's imprimatur.
Dockham, surprised a bit at the derision of the most blustery eastern-style types, might want to reconsider his sources of political advice in the future. His barbecue festival bill, which is stuck in committee, was suggested by a fourth-grade class in Davidson County, where he lives. The fourth-graders, and Dockham for that matter, apparently underestimated their eastern counterparts, who have already managed to shame him into watering down the measure, making it an "official food festival," rather than an official barbecue festival.
Truth be told, there is a good bit of mythology enveloping the whole regional barbecue rivalry. The loudest of the barbecue talkers would have you believe that regional styles never cross. North Carolina's well-held myth says that the state's dueling barbecue styles are separated by the "Gnat Line," an invisible barrier that separates the sandy soil that attracted gnats to the east and the denser rocky and clay soil of the Piedmont Region to the west.