I've had Dallas' renowned Sonny Bryan's barbecue--beef, of course, with a thick tomato-based chili-hot sauce--and revere it. I have toured the Kansas City barbecue spots immortalized by Calvin Trillin, which are closer to Texas than North Carolina, at least spiritually. I've had barbecue in Santa Fe and in Cleveland, which fancy themselves as new barbecue centers.
Admittedly, I have missed Tioga, Tex., and Little Rock, Ark., as well as hundreds of barbecue joints that millions of Americans pledge their loyalty to. Hunting for the definitive barbecue is the definition of infinity.
But when it comes to barbecue, if I can't have infinity, give me North Carolina.
I arrived in Greensboro one Monday morning to meet a tasting team of good old boys gathered by a friend. They didn't profess to be experts, just hungry guys who grew up on barbecue. Which means they know a lot about barbecue despite their modesty.
Don't look for ribs in North Carolina--and certainly not beef. This barbecue-happy state uses only pigs, and indiscriminately reduces them to chopped barbecue. But proving that nothing is simple, North Carolina chopped barbecue can be subdivided into Eastern--Rocky Mount, Durham and thereabouts, with their spicier, vinegar-and-cayenne, basted whole-hog barbecue--and Western, of which Lexington is the spiritual center.
Western barbecue uses only the shoulder, and adds a little catsup to the thin, clear vinegar-pepper sauce (also called "dip"). Furthermore, the sauce is spooned on at serving time rather than basted onto the meat while it cooks.
Lexington, a town of 16,000 people and at least 18 barbecue joints, is widely believed to have the highest per-capita barbecue concentration in the country. And while every resident's lineage may not be known, every barbecue joint has a visible place on the local family tree. They all descended from Sid Weaver and Jesse Swicegood, who in the early 1900s set up barbecue tents in the town square during court weeks, and stayed.
After trying a mere third of Lexington's barbecues, I had absorbed the basic rules. First, drive around the place before going in. If there is no woodpile in the rear, drive on.
Second, forget the menu; it's only diversion. What you want is a "tray" of "chopped outside" or "chopped brown," preferably "coarse." Once in a while you might order "sliced" for variety. Coarse means you want your meat hacked into big pieces rather than finely chopped; not only is the texture better, but it is more likely to be cut to order. And outside--or brown, as some refer to it--means that the dark, flavorful browned surface is included, not just the pale inside meat.
You could try a sandwich, but then you'd dilute the taste with bread. Or instead of a tray, you could order a plate, but then you'd be filling up with French fries rather than pork. A tray is a small cardboard bowl piled high with meat on one side and slaw on the other. Unless you're addicted to Weight Watchers, you'll make sure it comes not with a roll but with hush puppies. That's the North Carolina barbecue trinity: pork, slaw and hush puppies. And in Lexington, it being a dry town, you wash the meal down with ice tea.
A North Carolinian is loyal to his barbecue. Buck, who works as a sales manager when he isn't detailed to whisk me around Lexington, schedules his trips around the state with meals in mind.
Lexington's No. 1's meat is deeply crusty and elegantly pale, with smoky juices trapped in each absolutely lean hunk. The shoulders--salted but not basted--are cooked for eight to 10 hours over hickory and oak that have been reduced to coals. Once the meat has been smoked, trimmed and cut by hand, the 20-pound shoulders yield only 4 1/2 pounds of boneless meat. Its mellow vinegar and pepper sauce has a touch of sugar and a tinge of catsup. The slaw is sweet-sour, and the white-corn hush puppies are the lightest I have ever tasted. It is No. 1 in quality as well as longevity.
Next we cased Speedy's, where there is a glaring absence of a woodpile but the pork skins, in huge gnarled slabs, are a heavenly way to thumb your nose at the medical establishment. Henry James, a barbecuer that is heretical enough to have opened branches in two other towns as well as to cook without a woodpile, compensates with an oniony, sweet-hot slaw. Whitley's wins points for its slaw but loses them for the fatty, salty meat and greasy hush puppies. Smokey Joe's has smoky-tasting meat, but it seems steam-softened and a tad stringy. But with five lunches under our belts, our pork-coated taste buds were getting lamer by the bite.