On N.C. Barbecue, East and West Don't Meet -- Except to Argue
Bill Establishing State Festival Roils Battle Between East, West

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 23, 2005; A03

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.

But the Gnat Line has been breached. West is creeping east, and east is creeping west, though not always in the smoothest of fashions. When a man had the temerity to open an eastern-style barbecue joint in Lexington last year, the newspapers called him "a heretic." He got fed up with the business and leased the place to an employee. The new guy got wise: He serves only western style now.

"People take this really seriously," Dockham said.

The eastern-style advocates can rightly stake a claim as North Carolina's original barbecue. They smoke an entire hog, or cook it over electrical coils, and slather the meat in a sauce made from vinegar -- usually apple cider -- black pepper and red pepper flakes.

The western style, according to legend, developed in the 1920s in Lexington, where cash-strapped country folk bought barbecue sold from tents outside the courthouse. The meat came from the cheapest part of the pig -- the shoulder. The sauce was sweeter, with heavy doses of sugar and ketchup, some black pepper and only a dash of vinegar. The kings of modern western-style barbecue almost all trace their bloodlines to those original tent-selling entrepreneurs, tracking their ancestry with the same attention as thoroughbred horse breeders.

Rogers and Bledsoe, happy to grouse about their shared obsession, picked at the offerings in Smithfield's, a small North Carolina chain, one recent afternoon. The restaurant is in a sort of demilitarized zone of barbecue, plopped down in Siler City, about as deep an encroachment for eastern-style as it gets in western territory. The denizens of the fictional Mayberry, N.C., were always talking about shopping in Siler City, and Frances Bavier, who played Aunt Bee, settled here after "The Andy Griffith Show" went off the air. Bledsoe figures "Andy Griffith" captured small-town North Carolina life better than almost anyone, with one glaring exception: "They didn't eat barbecue."

Bledsoe, who suggested Smithfield's as a meeting place for his barbecue arm-wrestling match with Rogers -- perhaps knowing the chain might not be the best example of eastern-style -- was able to counter his pal with "the mother church" of western barbecue, up in Greensboro.

Sweet hickory smoke announces the location of Stamey's in Greensboro, long before its wood-frame walls and peaked skylight -- evoking a sacred space -- come into view. Bledsoe eats his barbecue in the truck with his dog, Zoe, so he can take in the hickory aroma pouring from the smoker out back. Inside the furnace-hot brick smokehouse, sweaty men walk through a thick haze to pile trays holding dozens of pork shoulders into 10 brick ovens. There are no meat thermometers, only a poke of a long fork, to test whether 10 hours of smoking were enough, or just a few more minutes will be needed. "This is an art," Bledsoe said, almost reverently, and on this, even Rogers cannot argue.

Chip Stamey's grandfather sold barbecue out of a tent in Lexington before moving to the spot in Greensboro where his grandson now goes through 10,000 to 12,000 pounds of pork shoulders a week. The methods are mostly the same, but even an institution such as Stamey's can evolve: Its pork shoulders don't come from the pig-raising capital of North Carolina anymore, arriving instead from Pennsylvania.

Bledsoe and Rogers have evolved, too. They aren't so militant anymore -- except in print, of course. Rogers, the champion of eastern-style bluster, confesses that if he were limited to a single barbecue style, it wouldn't come from eastern North Carolina, it would come from Memphis. And Bledsoe, the blusterer-in-chief of the west, reveals that his favorite barbecue joint is in the east: the sublime Skylight Inn in little Ayden, N.C., where famous owner Pete Jones flecks his chopped barbecue with cracklin' and fries his irresistible corn bread to a decadent crisp in pork fat.

There's never a winner in their feud, but there's never a loser either. "There ain't no bad barbecue," Rogers admits. But that won't stop their battling. That's because just about everyone here can agree on one thing: Arguing barbecue is almost as good as eating it.

Special correspondent Jon Bloom contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company