The Carolina BBQ wars: vinegar, tomato or mustard?

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Moe’s Original Bar B Que by @ghartsmith on Instagram

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The battle for who has the best BBQ sauce in the Carolinas is a fierce and long-standing one. Rivalries run deep across state lines (and even within the same state), and connoisseurs argue over who invented which sauce.

Even if you don’t have a horse in the race, chances are you’ll be faced with a choice between them at some point. So whether you have a go-to style or you’re overwhelmed by the sauce bar options at your local ‘cue joint, here’s what you need to know about Carolina BBQ:

🔥 The tradition of slow-roasting meat over a pit fire likely came from the Caribbean, where they were barbecuing as early as the 1500s. The recipes and methods were likely brought to the U.S. by enslaved peoples in the early 1800s.

🍋 Although lemons were used in Caribbean ‘cues, the citrus fruits were harder to come by in the States, so vinegar became the substitute.

So, how did we get to three different styles of BBQ between two states?

There are three types of BBQ in the Carolinas – vinegar-based, tomato- (or ketchup-) based, and mustard-based.

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Bessinger’s Barbeque by @mr_jflow

South Carolina | mustard-based

  • Also called “Carolina Gold,” this style first appeared in the middle of the state + quickly spread out from there. S.C. is known for a variety of sauces (dictated by geography): vinegar-pepper, light tomato, heavy tomato + mustard-based sauce – which is unique to S.C. Search for BBQ in your area here.
  • Like the other two, S.C.’s sauce is made with vinegar, but this time the added ingredient is mustard.
  • It also has German origins – German immigrants to S.C. brought mustard with them and used it to dress pork.
  • Protip: Look for hash on the menu – and add it as one of your sides.
  • The first person to commercialize it was the controversial Maurice Bessinger (of Maurice’s BBQ and Piggy Park in Columbia, S.C.).
  • Where to get it: Farm Boys Barbecue (Chapin, S.C.), Doc’s BBQ and Southern Buffet (Columbia, S.C.), Bessinger’s BBQ (Charleston, S.C.)
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Buxton Hall BBQ by @rauljgarrido

Eastern N.C. | vinegar-based

  • Made with water, cider vinegar, black pepper + salt, and sometimes crushed red pepper + hot sauce.
  • This OG style of BBQ can be traced back several centuries and appears in cookbooks like Kentucky Housewife (1839) and Mrs. Hill’s New Cook Book (1872).
  • It was first served commercially by Adam Scott (of Goldsboro, N.C.) and Bob Melton (from Rocky Mount, N.C.), who opened restaurants after WWII.
  • Where to get it: Skylight Inn (Ayden, N.C.), B’s Barbecue (Greenville, N.C.), Wilber’s Barbecue (Goldsboro, N.C.), Buxton Hall Barbecue (Asheville, N.C.)
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Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge by @katemedley

Lexington (Piedmont N.C.) | tomato- or ketchup-based

  • Like Eastern N.C. sauce, Lexington-style sauce is made with vinegar, but with the addition of tomato (usually in the form of ketchup). It’s often accompanied by red slaw.
  • It first appeared on the scene around the time of Heinz ketchup, which debuted in 1876 at the Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia.
  • It was commercialized by two ‘cue stands run by Jess Swicegood and Sid Weaver + George Ridenhour in Lexington, N.C.
  • The style is most common around Lexington, N.C. and areas west – hence the name.
  • Another origin story – it’s from German food traditions. Bavarian-style pork is often served with a sweet vinegar sauce.
  • Where to get it: Lexington BBQ (Lexington, N.C.), Barbee’s BBQ (Peachland, N.C.), Red Bridge’s Barbecue Lodge (Shelby, N.C.)

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