Starting with Native Americans discarding huge mounds of oyster shells on Roanoke Island; continuing with English sailors boiling up fish stews along the Outer Banks, and German Moravians baking wafer-thin ginger cookies in Old Salem; and marching onwards with today’s Mexican, Vietnamese and Laotian chefs, North Carolina has a rich culinary heritage. On top of that, restaurant openings in outward-looking metropolises such as Charlotte, Raleigh and Durham have created a vibrant dining scene to match any in the country.
Fundamentally, in food as in so much else, North Carolina’s heart lies in the South. Classic Southern favorites such as fried chicken, fried green tomatoes, shrimp and grits, biscuits (including extra-large ‘catheads’) and gravy, collard greens and okra, and mac and cheese, feature on menus across the state, and that’s what the locals are eating at home.
From North Carolina with Love
Flavorful gifts North Carolina has given to the world include Krispy Kreme doughnuts, which first emerged from the fryer in Winston-Salem in 1937; Mount Olive Pickles, which started out in Mount Olive, NC, in 1926; and Pepsi, invented in New Bern in 1896 and originally promoted with the slogan 'The Taste Born in the Carolinas.'
Burning Love: A Passion for Barbecue
Feelings run high when it comes to barbecue in North Carolina, but there are two things that everyone agrees on. The first is that no other state comes close to matching North Carolina for sheer barbecuing excellence; the second, as you might expect in the nation’s second-largest pork-producing state, is that it’s gotta be pig to be barbecue. Yes, your typical barbecue restaurant may also offer chicken and beef, but by their pulled pork ye shall know them.
Apart from that, everything’s up for grabs. The major bone of contention centers on the rivalry between east and west.
Eastern-style barbecue, prevalent near the coast, cooks the whole of the hog, then chops the shredded meat up together, with local variations as to whether the crisped-up skin goes into the mix as well. It’s then served with a thin sauce, which, at its most basic, consists solely of vinegar and pepper; some chefs throw in a dash of locally made Texas Pete hot sauce too.
Western-style barbecue takes over as you head west into the Piedmont, and logically enough is also known as Piedmont style. Here they only cook the dark meat of the pig – usually just the shoulder, but perhaps the butt as well – and they serve it with a sweeter sauce that’s made with tomatoes or, commonly, ketchup. If the sauce comes on the side, it’s known as ‘dip,’ and it's also used to make ‘red slaw,’ a variation on slaw that substitutes barbecue sauce for mayonnaise.
Lexington-style barbecue is, depending on who you talk to, either a subtly different take on, or the apotheosis of, Western style. Either way, the small town of Lexington, 20 miles south of Winston-Salem, is considered to be the capital of North Carolina barbecue, even if the state legislature has repeatedly failed to agree whether its style counts as the ‘official’ state recipe. October’s one-day Lexington Barbecue Festival (www.barbecuefestival.com) attracts over 100,000 aficionados each year.
The North Carolina Historic Barbecue Trail has been drawn up by the North Carolina Barbecue Society according to strict criteria. Each of the 23 lovingly described restaurants en route – drawn from both Eastern and Western styles – cooks its pigs in pits in the traditional way, over hardwood burned down to coals. For a downloadable map and more details, visit www.ncbbqsociety.com.
In Search of Seafood
Even if North Carolina can’t claim to be unique in its abundance of seafood, it’s definitely something special. It’s at this point on the Atlantic coast that the cool waters of the Labrador Current from the north meet the warmth of the Gulf Stream, creating a marine ecosystem that’s home to a remarkably broad array of species.
Major seafood centers along the coast include Calabash – just up from Myrtle Beach on the state line with South Carolina – which calls itself the ‘Seafood Capital of the World,’ and specializes in deep-fried, cornmeal-coated shrimp, oysters and flounder; and Morehead City, outside Beaufort, which plays host each October to the North Carolina Seafood Festival (www.ncseafoodfestival.org).
For the authentic taste of the sea, though, it’s best to venture off yourself, in search of the seafood shacks and markets that are scattered along the saltwater margin of the Outer Banks.
Which precise North Carolina–caught fish you’ll find will vary from north to south and from month to month. Whatever’s not available locally tends to be replaced by imports from overseas, so it’s always worth asking what’s fresh in restaurants, and not ordering items that aren’t in season.
North Carolina’s seasonal seafoods
Blue crabs Widely available from May to October, though soft-shell crabs are only caught in the north, and in May only. It’s the smaller immature females that go into creamy she-crab bisque, which uses orange crab roe to enrich the color.
Brown shrimp The peak months in North Carolina are July and August, though the season lasts longer in the south.
Flounder Fried flounder has become so popular in recent decades that North Carolina’s stocks have seriously diminished. The season is from September to February, but it’s largely smaller juveniles that are caught these days.
Mahi-mahi Also known as dolphinfish or dorado, this large ray-finned fish is widely available in May and June.
Oysters Harvested between November and February; many are cultivated these days.
Swordfish Winter is the prime season, but some are caught year-round further north.
Yellowfin tuna The state’s tuna catch is concentrated between July and October in the north, and December and April in the south.