Few areas can boast a more proud BBQ tradition than the great state of North Carolina. Dating back to the 1500′s when pigs were introduced to the region by the Spanish, the consistent theme of slow cooking pork on a pit then adding a vinegar based pepper sauce has withstood the test of time.
You would think the story ends there but as with all great BBQ stories, there is debate. This doesn’t mean we are pitting North Carolina against another region, this debate comes from within its own borders. To understand this conflict though, you have to take a step back in time. When dealing with limited resources you make the best of what you’ve got and that’s just what was done. The sauce was born out of what was available…vinegar and peppers. Simple enough right? So simple in fact that the formula remains pretty much intact today.
The eastern half of the state to this day will fight to the death to maintain the integrity of their sauce, trust me I’ve been on the wrong side of this debate. You see, the folks in the east tend to cook the whole hog and that means fat. What their sauce does is to help break down some of the glorious fat while cooking to help marinate the meat. So technically this is also a marinade in addition to a finishing mixture. One thing you can always be sure of is that eastern NC sauce is going to get into the meat and give you a really moist piece of pig.
As with any regional foods, you are going to get different tastes even in a small area. Let me prepare you now, some people like it hot. There are various ways to kick up NC sauce including red pepper flakes, cayenne, hot pepper sauces or just about anything that could make your eyes water. In the right hands, this combo brings moisture while adding just the right kick.
Here is a typical mixture for Eastern North Carolina BBQ Sauce
1 cup white vinegar
1 cup cider vinegar
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
hot pepper sauce to taste
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
On the western half of the state the whole hog approach isn’t nearly as popular with the butt being the cut most favored on the pit. Since we aren’t dealing with as much dark meat (or fat), there really isn’t a need for such a strong sauce. Before we go any further, here is a typical “Lexington” BBQ sauce recipe to show the similarities.
1 cup distilled vinegar
1/4 cup ketchup
1/4 cup apple juice
1 teaspoon hot sauce
3 tablespoons light brown sugar
1/2 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 teaspoon finely ground black pepper
As you can see the is one major, glaring difference…ketchup. Western Carolinian’s took the step to make their sauce well, more saucy. This is more inline with what most people define as “bbq sauce” while still staying true to the NC heritage.
The differences don’t just stop with the cut of meat or the sauce, even the sides have their own regional variations. As a pulled pork lover, the thought of my sandwich being covered with a great coleslaw is almost tear inducing. The two flavors go so well together that I honestly can’t understand people that don’t do this. Like I said though, not all coleslaw is created equal. The eastern part of the state sticks with the more traditional mayonnaise based sauce while the western regions skip the mayo and whips up a combination of ketchup and vinegar.
So let’s see what we’ve learned here:
East Carolina – Whole hog, vinegar sauce, traditional slaw
West Carolina – Butt, ketchup in the sauce, ketchup in the slaw
Carolina BBQ – Absolutely amazing
You really aren’t going to go wrong with either side of the Carolina pulled pork debate. While regional tastes have taken things a little to each direction on the flavor scale, the outcome is always amazing in the hands of a good pitmaster. Just don’t ask for a brisket!