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Cooking Up Community: North Carolina Barbecue

A smoker grill adorned with the NC State Wolfpack mascot. Play Video

There’s a surefire way to start a fight with a native North Carolinian. It’s not arguing about which university is tops in the state — clearly it’s NC State — or the best basketball conference — everyone knows it’s the ACC.

No, if you want to get into a knock-down, drag-out, try suggesting that something is superior to North Carolina barbecue. It doesn’t matter if you’re extolling the merits of Memphis dry rub or the tastes of Texas brisket, you’re guaranteed to get major pushback from a true child of the Old North State.

We are passionate about our barbecue in these parts, says Dana Hanson, NC State Extension specialist in meat science and a self-proclaimed barbecue purist.

“That tradition has carried over hundreds of years here,” Hanson says. “It’s become part of our DNA, part of our food culture in North Carolina. We raise pork, and we know how to cook it too.”

In this edition of Homegrown, we take a deep dive into the tradition and the community aspects that make North Carolina barbecue so exceptional.

Pork is King

In North Carolina, barbecue is more than a meal. It is family, culture and tradition. And, to be authentic, it is pork. 

Just about everyone has memories of a pig pickin’ at a community gathering, the perfect pulled pork sandwich at a favorite BBQ joint, or a succulent rack of fall-off-the-bone pork ribs. All flavored, of course, with a vinegar-based sauce.

Dr. Dana Hanson tells BBQ campers about marinades during BBQ Camp at NC State.

Sure, we also like our smoked turkey and even a beef brisket now and then. But for the real deal, it has to be pig. 

It’s not just tradition; it’s also a matter of economic importance. North Carolina ranks either second or third in the nation in pork production in any given year. Hog producers are a vital part of the economy, and NC State Extension experts are hard at work meeting the challenges of raising swine and communicating them to the industry.