Last Saturday, October 22, 2011 was the Annual Lexington BBQ Festival and what a sight it is! I lived in Lexington for nearly 2 years, we recently purchased a home 20 minutes north of Lexington but Tiffany had never been to a BBQ Festival so we went to check it out. This event is a HUGE food event, but it’s a lot more than just BBQ. I bet most readers will find it shocking that neither Tiffany or I had any BBQ at BBQ Festival, held in Lexington, the self proclaimed BBQ Capital of the World – their claim, not mine! I’ll explain why we didn’t later on, for now let’s discuss what has become a world famous food festival.
Since 1984 Lexington has hosted Barbecue Festival to wrap up their tribute of sorts to Barbecue Month, they have a number of Barbecue theme’d events all month long culminating in the enormous BBQ Festival. The exact tally of how many come to pay homage to this unique style of BBQ is unknown but it’s rumored to be between 100,000 to 150,000 people, 2011 was probably on the high side of this. Below is a sample of what the crowd looks like.
This crowd has come for BBQ and what’s turned into an enormous exhibition that encompasses just about anything you can imagine. They also have been feathering in more traditional carnival and fair type attractions, including Pig and Duck races, Chainsaw show, rides, face painting, BMX Bike show, countless displays and of course fair food! There is a general BBQ and pig overtone on everything, but that’s part of the charm of this festival.
A little history on Lexington style BBQ, like most regionally famous cuisines it stems from poverty, pigs were plentiful but the desirable cuts were sold for profit and they retained the less desirable cuts for themselves. In this case they use pork butt or shoulder is used as the protein of choice for Lexington style BBQ. From there there will likely be subtle difference from one BBQ place to another (there are over 20 BBQ restaurants in Lexington) and everyone likes their’s just a little different. But typically it’s slow roasted over hardwood embers, “pit cooked” in what has become the traditional “low and slow” barbecue anthem. Different places prefer different types of wood, but it usually is always hardwood and it’s always cooked low and slow. There is no dry rub, no conventional seasoning applied during cooking though it is basted with Lexington style bbq sauce, what the local’s call “dip.” Much like the actual wood blend used to cook the pork dip varies slightly from place to place, the basic formula for dip is equal parts, vinegar, ketchup and water with salt, pepper and other seasonings to taste and it’s traditionally cooked down while the pig is cooking. Like I said every place does the sauce a little differently and it can range from sweet to tangy to even a little spicy. Once the pig is cooked it’s traditionally served “chopped” which means just that, it’s cut up and chopped into very small pieces, see the image below to get an idea of the consistency.
It’s typically served on a very inexpensive roll with a side of dip and/or some restaurants apply a little dip when making the sandwich. If you’ve looked closely you’ll notice some red and white “slaw” on top of the meat, that is another staple to Lexington style bbq. This slaw, which is known as bbq slaw in this area is super simple and I just love it. Red Slaw is just chopped cabbage, vinegar, ketchup and black pepper. A little variation I’ve made to this slaw is I do equal parts bbq sauce and ketchup, it adds a greater depth of flavor and a pleasant smokiness – purest think I am the devil.
That pretty much wraps up the mystery of Lexington BBQ, the festival is based around this rather unique style. As anyone who has looked closely into BBQ knows, it varies hugely region to region, one of these variation is eastern NC bbq which is radically different from western NC bbq, in the eastern side of the state it’s more of a vinegar based sauce, they enjoy NC ribs and they don’t use “dip” they use “mop” but that’s a post for another time, back to the festival.
I mentioned earlier that we didn’t have the BBQ, I recommended this option for two reasons, it was a beautiful day and the turnout to the free admission festival was huge, it was estimated at near 150,000 people this year. It seems they run out of BBQ every year and I felt it would be nice to let those who traveled a greater distance enjoy it on the day of the festival, we can get it just about any day. Also, the purest claim the bbq isn’t as good on the day of the festival because the participating restaurants all commingle the bbq and then you lose a lot of the subtlety of the individual places. All of these altruistic reasons aside, we wanted the fair food that is rarely available in this area. We had funnel cake, home made ice cream, butterfly chips with cheese and sampled a number of other local products. We rarely get to eat these delicious and terrible foods so we enjoyed cutting loose and participating in the festivities.
Additionally we met a lot of fantastic vendors, saw some incredible products and enjoyed a very family friendly environment. If you’re anywhere in the area I strongly recommend checking out this food festival or making a trip to try this delicious and unique Lexington Style BBQ at any of the many local BBQ restaurants in town.