Politics and barbecue a North Carolina mixture
Will the General Assembly pass a law making the Lexington Barbecue Festival the state’s official barbecue festival?
But a bill introduced in our legislature recently would, if passed and signed by the governor, do just that. The Davidson County legislators who introduced the bill claim that Lexington is already designated as the ‘Barbecue Capital of the World’ and that the city’s annual festival already draws more than 150,000 people. The legislators did not explain who gave the city the ‘Barbecue Capital’ designation.
Although the bill only deals with barbecue festivals, it raises the much-debated question in North Carolina about what region of the state serves the best tasting barbecue. Most often the debate comes down to two choices: Eastern style or Lexington style.
Over the last few years, I traveled across the state to find the best ‘home cooking’ restaurants near the interstate highways for a series of articles in Our State magazine. Along the way, I ate a lot of barbecue. So, do I have an opinion about which style is the best?
I can only say this: Both are mighty good if they are prepared slowly and carefully by people who know what they are doing.
However, one of my favorite places to eat barbecue happens to be in Lexington. But it would be a favorite, I think, whatever style barbecue they served.
Lexington Barbecue restaurant on Business I-85 in Lexington is always busy and crowded. You will find locals and people from all over the state in line at mealtimes. But they never have to wait long ‘— and they never feel rushed to finish. Owner Wayne Monk has a formula that gets food to the table quickly and keeps his customers happy.
I usually get a chopped tray with slaw, hush puppies and sweet iced tea. The food is very good, but what keeps me coming back is the way the waitresses take such good care of me ‘— filling up my tea, getting more hush puppies, smiling and cheerful about everything, and sometimes slipping and calling me ‘“hon.’” ‘“Need anything else, hon?’”
I have been there so many times that I think Wayne Monk recognizes me when I come in. But even when I first started eating there and nobody knew me, they still treated me like I was part of the family.
When I leave, I am six dollars or so poorer, and feel a million dollars better. I think I would feel that way even if the food were not so good.
But the barbecue, slaw and hushpuppies are judged by the experts to be outstanding.
According to Charlotte Observer Associate Editor Jack Betts, Lexington Barbecue is ‘“regarded by many travelers as the Mother Church of N.C. barbecue.’”
Bob Garner, author of North Carolina Barbecue: Flavored by Time, also uses religious terms to describe this place, ‘“To the faithful, all roads still lead to Lexington Barbecue.’”
Continuing the religious terminology, I call Wayne Monk the ‘“high priest of North Carolina barbecue.’”
I talked to Monk the other day on a radio interview about his business and what sets it apart. I asked him to explain in basic language the difference between the Lexington and Eastern styles of barbecue.
‘“Just remember two words,’” he said. ‘“Shoulders and tomato.’”
‘“We cook only pork shoulders for our barbecue. The Eastern cookers generally use the ‘whole hog.’ The shoulders give us a consistent and flavorful result. As for ‘whole hog,’ there are some parts of the hog that I would just as soon not eat. ‘“
Monk continued, ‘“For sauce, the Easterners use a vinegar base. We are not that much different from them except that we use a little bit of tomato base. Otherwise we are not that far apart.’”
What matters more than sauce, according to Monk, is how the meat is cooked. ‘“It’s better if it is cooked carefully and slowly over wood. We use hickory and oak, mostly, and it makes a real difference, as far as I am concerned. I don’t want to say you can’t get good barbecue by cooking with electricity or gas. But I think wood-cooked has a much better taste.’”
Whatever the legislature does with the ‘barbecue festival’ bill, Monk’s Lexington Barbecue restaurant is the personal barbecue capital for many North Carolinians.
There are some mighty good places in Eastern North Carolina where you can get a home cooking experience similar to the one Wayne Monk’s delivers. I promise to write a column about one or two of them sometime soon.
In the meantime, you can listen to my interview with Monk at radio station WCHL’s website (WCHL1360.com) under ‘“Who’s Talking’” at Program #146. Or you can order Interstate Eateries a handbook of home-cooking places near North Carolina’s interstate highways-available through Our State magazine (800-948-1409 or ourstate.com).