One of the Southeast's biggest festivals returns to the Triad Saturday. The Lexington Barbecue Festival shines a spotlight to the area's best-known cuisine.
But this Davidson County city is not the only place you can get Lexington-style barbecue, and that has some people here concerned. They're looking for ways to keep the term for themselves. But restaurants outside the city are calling the idea hogwash.
At the Barbecue Center on Main Street in Lexington, a cast-iron door opens with a metallic creak. The coals will soon be shoveled into pits, where they'll slow-roast today's rack of meat. It'll be hours before it's ready for the kitchen, where it will be chopped and served to hungry customers.
Owner Cecil Conrad says it's a ritual that's been repeated in restaurants here for more than 70 years.
“Lexington-style barbecue is pork shoulders cooked over hickory and wood coals in our thin ketchup-based dip and red slaw,” he says.
Foodies are flocking to Lexington, seeking authentic North Carolina barbecue. But Conrad says more and more, diners are also finding it elsewhere.
“I've seen Lexington-style barbecue posted in many parts of the country. I've seen it in Chicago menus. I've seen it in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Virginia and Georgia," he says. "So while it's great to have our name out there, Lexington-style barbecue is a way to do things. It's our way of doing things and we'd like to keep it our way of doing things.”
Lexington has always held its style of barbecue in high regard. But is it the “Champagne” of pulled pork? Some folks here think it might be. You can't call the bubbly stuff “Champagne” unless it comes from grapes grown in that region of France. Down in Lexington, Mayor Newell Clark says maybe their style of cooked pork should be treated the same way.
“Citizens have been approaching me about our brand and their concern of when I'm traveling and I see somewhere that says Lexington-style barbecue - but it's not produced by our folks but they're using our name. Is it really diluting the product?"
Clark says Lexington wants to be a world barbecue capital and when their signature dish is made by outsiders, it could hurt that effort.
"They should be proud to keep that heritage going rather than making a big stink about it, so I don't think they'll go too far with it," says Richard Berrier. He has run Little Richard's Lexington BBQ for almost 25 years. But it's in Winston-Salem, about a half-hour away.
Berrier says his barbecue is the real deal and if people want to know if a restaurant is true Lexington style, they should look for a woodpile out back. “If you cook with wood from start to finish and you use the dip and you use the red slaw, you can call it Lexington barbecue."
Wake Forest branding expert Roger Beahm says Lexington is smart to look for ways to protect what made it famous, but legal options are limited because it's not really a brand. It's a way to make a meal. But a community effort to set standards could help consumers as well as generate publicity.
“By having a definition of what Lexington style is and where within the recipe are the boundaries for that, I think that's good business sense. But don't try to claim ownership to something you cannot.”
So what about a political solution? Tennessee's state legislature, for example, provides strict rules on what qualifies as Tennessee whiskey.
But the politics of pork can be tricky in North Carolina. A few years ago, a Davidson County legislator filed a bill that would make Lexington-style the official state barbecue. But when lawmakers in the eastern part of the state got wind of that, they filed a competing bill for their style – whole hog and hold the tomato sauce.
That showdown ended as a draw. Lawmakers could agree, though, on naming the annual Lexington Barbecue Festival “The Official Food Festival of the Piedmont Triad.” Festival Director Stephanie Saintsing Naset says that's good enough.
“I don't think we need a piece of paper to tell us how great we are,” she says.
She says ultimately, the customers will decide what passes for Lexington barbecue. And in North Carolina, barbecue aficionados have been known to set the bar pretty high.
Music credit: The BBQ Song by Rhett and Link