Lexington Barbecue Festival- 2017

By Jessica Mohr

For me, the first thing that comes to mind when I think of a North Carolina barbeque festival is the smell. That scent of pigs parts being slowly roasted over a variety of wood wafts all around you, and you can’t get the vague taste of barbeque sauce out of the clothes you were wearing until they’ve been washed three times are all landmark experiences when it comes to barbecue festivals.  Unfortunately, these things were not present at the 2017 Lexington BBQ Festival.

Before we get into my criticisms of the festival, let’s start off on a sunny side! Lexington, on a normal day, is a small, quaint North Carolina town with a sign for barbecue restaurants just about as frequently spaced down the road as they do signs for churches. Small, local joints with their own secret sauces and methods of smoking pig parts line the road down the center of town. Even as you drive up on 64, you can tell you’re approaching Lexington by the increasing number of billboards advertising for these local joints, as well as the large one advertising the annual, famous Lexington BBQ Festival. This is, without a doubt, a barbeque town.

Upon arriving at the festival, I was surprised to notice the remarkably normal smell of the town. When you’re going to a BBQ festival, you expect to smell some of the food you’re going to be sampling, right? We’ve all seen the TV shows of pitmasters going ham (pun intended) on half a pig over a bed of crackling wood or charcoal. After continuously being slathered in rich, homemade barbecue sauce, the meaty smells of pork and sauce waft over everything nearby. There was none of this in Lexington. If anything, I smelled more of the gas station down the road than any sort of pork products. Even while standing outside the sole barbeque food tent, I couldn’t really smell anything distinctly pork-ish, at least until I unwrapped my sandwich from its tinfoil prison.

Overall, I would say I was definitely underwhelmed by the Lexington BBQ Festival this year. There were more flea market-style merchants selling trinkets than there were actual barbecuers selling delicious pork foods, and, to be completely honest, the fried apple pie I bought from a church stand was far more satisfying than the small sandwich from the sole BBQ food tent in the middle of town. Given the hype and cartoon pig proudly advertising the festival as a BBQ festival, the event itself was not what I expected. Maybe something has changed within the town to alter the “flavor” of the festival, and make it more driven by miscellaneous vendors than restaurants? Maybe this was just a fluke year, and it will be back to normal in 2018?

Thankfully, a representative from the governing board of the festival reported that they are indeed aware of the overabundance of miscellaneous and redundant vendors, as well as the disappointingly low number of actual barbeque stands. I was happy to hear that they are planning to begin regulating vendors at the festival more stringently in upcoming years. In the recent past, the overseers of the event decided to relax regulations on who is allowed to set up shop during the festival. This, as we’ve seen, allowed people selling artisanal soap and postcards to be more prevalent than actual barbeque stands. In order to make the Lexington BBQ Festival just that again, a BBQ festival, the governing board is prepared to take action in order to restore the smells of pork to Lexington once again. I will be very excited to go back next year and see how they are doing.

Smiley’s Barbeque

By Maggy McGloin

Lexington, North Carolina: the country’s home for delicious barbecue. Lexington is known for its vast history of barbecue since the town created its own preparation style. “Piedmont-style sauce is not tomato-based,” says Katie Quinne, a writer for Our State, North Carolina. “It still uses lots of vinegar but has a slight touch of ketchup that makes the mixture sweeter and redder, but not thicker.” Going forth, we knew that Lexington’s distinct, vinegar taste had always been in somewhat of a “battle” with their Eastern, ketchup-based counterpart.  How coulddsc_0649 there be so much argument about barbeque? we thought. Could we even tell the difference?

We arrived in Lexington on a cloudy, Sunday morning with empty stomachs and a desire to learn more about what made this town unique. After our hour-long ride, we pulled into a deserted downtown Lexington. Sunday does not seem to be the day for explorations of a small, southern town. The town was quaint, cute, and looked like it had the potential to be a thriving scene on a weekend night. The walls adjacent to different stores were painted in muted greens and cream colors, looking like the perfect canvas for future wall art. There were flower beds still peeking out of window boxes due to the unnaturally warm autumn that had graced all of North Carolina this year. Soaking in the silence of the normally-thriving town, we got back in our car to visit (what we heard was) the best barbecue indsc_0641 all of Lexington, North Carolina.

We entered a scene that was far more ecstatic than the downtown area we had just left. Smiley’s Restaurant was filled with post-church diners, some with large families and some eating in solitude. They were all there for one purpose: to enjoy the best of what Lexington has to offer. We took our places and each ordered the specialty: sliced pulled-pork sandwiches. After our first bites, we instantly knew that Lexington barbecue trumped any other kind we’d had before. The sandwiches were garnished with sweet, apple-based cole slaw that perfectly fused the sweet and saltiness of the tart vinegar-base. The buns were toasted to perfection, there was no need for any extra sauces, condiments, or even a side dish. After our meal, our waitress approached us and stated that we “simply could not leave without trying the house-famous banana pudding.” We obviously gave in to that temptation and split one three ways.

As we exited the restaurant, we could not grasp the attention of any of the employees to ask our questions; Sundays were busy and each waitress and waiter were occupied. So, we poked around the restaurant to see what diversified Smileys from the rest of the barbecue restaurants in the area. One wall was plastered with newspaper clippings displaying the multiple occasions, people, and places the restaurant had catered to. The most eye-catching was a newspaper article from Lex ington’s local paper which described Christmastime in Lexington. “It’s a local tradition in the barbecue dsc_0647capital of the world,” said James Romoser, a reporter for the paper. “And for the people who prepare the meat, it means that the days before Christmas are a sleepless marathon of cooking over a smoky barbecue pit.”

Though it was a small taste, we classified Lexington as one of the most barbecue-savvy towns we had ever visited. We left Smiley’s with full stomachs and a newfound appreciation for the ancient process of seasoning meat.

A Delicious Chat

By Jenna Hokanson – 2014

Lexington, North Carolina has been my home for my entire life. I’ve never moved or spent as much time anywhere as I have in this town. Even though I don’t know nearly as much as I’d like to know about this town, there is one aspect of Lexington that I’ve thoroughly examined: the food.

There is no place in the world that I have eaten at more than Café 35 in Downtown Lexington. Ever since the Café opened in October of 2005, my theatre friends and I have found ourselves visiting it repeatedly during rehearsals and shows at the Civic Center downtown. The Café has been my favorite place for so long, I even had my 16th birthday party there! The reason the Café is my favorite place may be because they have the best chicken salad I have ever tasted. The salad contains grapes that compliment it perfectly or it might just be the homemade chips with homemade ranch dressing on the side. I’m physically having reactions to the idea of the taste at this moment. Although the taste of the food is delicious, one thing that has always drawn my family and friends to this spot is the staff: They never fail to have smiles on their faces and welcome those of us without a question. Although it was always rare for restaurants to be so accepting of rumbustious theatre teens growing up- but Café 35 welcomed and still welcomes us with open arms.

Upon my visits, a nice blonde woman dressed in an outfit reminiscent of the professional women in the community, would always recognize me and speak to me about my pursuits. She always commented on watching me grow up and how she loved what all of her frequent customers were becoming. Once I knew we’d be doing this project, my first thought was to find out more about her instead of always answering questions about myself.

My mom, dad, and I took advantage of the fact that I had to interview the owner of Café 35 and decided to eat some of their delicious foods while we were at it! I got lucky we come when almost no one was there (a rarity) and she was available to chat. She said she’d speak to me anytime and to go ahead and order my food. I ordered my typical Lu’s Crossaint Chicken Salad Sandwich with Hot Chips and walked over to speak with the women I’ve always been curious to know.

She guided me to a nearby table and introduced herself as Linda Gosselin. She explained to me that this was her idea of retirement- that’s how active of a person she is. She and her husband decided to retire to a house on a lake in Lexington and purchase two restaurants- one in Greensboro and one here. “I like money!”, she joked. This coming year will be 12 years for Linda living in Lexington and 10 years that Café 35 has been in business.

When discussing the perks of living in such a small town, she decided that the town itself doesn’t always feel like it’s the best place to be, but the fact that several large cities are nearby allows for places to do fun activities.

Linda agreed with me in a sense that Downtown Lexington has developed significantly. She rightfully states that her restaurant became a starting point for the creation of small businesses downtown. Ever since Café 35 has been around, it became a necessity that the restaurant expand space and hours to meet the demand of the customers, 50% of which Linda states are from out of town on the weekends. The expansion of Lexington has grown as this restaurant grew. As a member of the community, I watched several boutiques, thrift stores, and other restaurants follow, or try to follow, the success that Café 35 has received. Linda in a way attributes the company’s success with the way they treat their customers, “I tell my employees to always pay special attention to the single women, children, and teens. That’s why I was always get so excited to see your group coming back. It’s because we make people feel welcome.”

While Café 35 has been a primary focus for Mrs. Gosselin, she is also an active community member on the board of Lexington. Because of this, I asked what improvements and new innovations are happening in the town. She spoke very generally about the idea of an Amtrak stop finding it’s way in the next two years, which would bring business from other states and from larger cities in the triad. There is also the possibility of Lexington connecting with Norfolk,VA through Southern railways. She feels this would help alleviate the number of people who left Lexington due to the closing of Lexington Home Brands, New Bridge, Duracell, and Cadillac. This event truly stripped the middle class down, but Lexington seems to be working it’s way up. Linda thinks that if the larger jobs were more open for the youth in the community, we’d have more people staying in Lexington, rather than immediately leaving once they’ve graduated college. The new mayor is also of the younger generation and she expects the council to grow into a younger mindset now that he has been elected.

Linda’s outlook on how the community at large can grow speaks to the fact that her restaurant has only been growing in popularity since I first fell in love with it as a young teen. Speaking with this spunky, driven, and well-spoken woman inspired me to look toward growth in my home. She was a true representation of the hints of gold that I’ve never taken the time to find in my home town until now. Her words filled me up. Almost as much as her delicious food.. almost.


Sweets Off Main Streets

By Jenna Hokanson – 2014

The old, creaky floors, red candy buckets and candies and toys from the 1940s bring a whirlwind of nostalgia when you open the door to The Candy Factory. Located in Lexington, the factory is the perfect place to satisfy your sweet tooth. Whether you prefer homemade fudge and chocolates, or are in need of a bite of your favorite childhood candies, this is the place for you. Just look for smiling customers and the red and white, striped pig outside. You won’t want to miss it!


Jenna and pig

Lexington’s Legacy: the 30th Annual Barbecue Festival

By Brynna Bantley, 2013

Lexington, North Carolina: Barbecue Capital of the World. To some, this may seem a daunting and mighty title to uphold; but for the citizens of Lexington, it’s simply tradition.

Lexington is nestled in the western part of North Carolina’s Piedmont region, with U.S. Highway 64 running through its center and time-honored barbeque sauce running through its veins. This town, whose spirit partially centers around the classic American cuisine, found it suitable to pay tribute with an annual barbeque festival. Mr. Joe Sink, Jr. founded the festival in 1984, unknowingly launching a ritual that would become one of the Country’s most popular food festivals. Upon its conception, the first festival provided some 3,000 pounds of barbeque to approximately 30,000 people. This year, the event celebrated its 30th anniversary by welcoming over 200,000 visitors to uptown Lexington. I, fortunately, was one of those guests.

On Saturday, October 26th, 2013, two fellow barbeque-lovers and I traveled on Highway 64 from Elon to the Mecca of barbeque. My excitement was through the roof as I could hardly wait to get my share of pulled pork, coleslaw, and corn bread. Seeing as the festival is always held on one of the last two Saturdays in October, the drive is sure to be a scenic one, and indeed it was. The prime time of the season when leaves are transforming into their deep reds, oranges, and yellows, provided for a beautiful and picturesque drive.

When we approached the outskirts of the town, it was evident that this was going to be a crowded, congested affair. Not yet near the center of town, people already roamed the middle of the streets, forcing cars to pull over and park in makeshift lots which seemed to be sitting directly on top of people’s front yards. We paid $3 to park, got out of the car, and were immediately swallowed into the flow of people heading towards what we could only assume was uptown Lexington. We passed multitudes of people handing out flyers, menus, free energy drinks, all of which I took but then immediately regretted; I should have brought a bigger bag.

Finally, we reached what seemed to be the beginning of the festival’s route. Tents, booths, and vendors lined the streets and side roads of uptown Lexington. A town of normally 19,000 was now, somehow, hosting over 200,000 people. To say there was very little elbowroom would be an understatement. Quickly overwhelmed, I decided to look up a map of the festival on my phone for guidance. I stared in awe at the diagram that showed nine blocks of over 400 exhibitors that lay ahead of us. Six stages were also noted on the map, soon to be graced by country superstars such as Darius Rucker, Joe Nichols, and Brett Eldridge, along with many more talented artists. My heart sped up at the thrill of seeing Darius Rucker perform, for free no less! I made a mental note to make it to Stage 1 by 3:15.

We walked along N. Main Street, passing vendor after vendor. The merchandise was what you might expect from any typical town festival: handcrafted jewelry, hand-knitted scarves, artisanal bath soaps, and carved wooden bowls. Something there seemed to be significantly more of, however, was pigs. Not actual pigs, but pig-themed paraphernalia. Aprons with pigs on them, ceramic pig figurines, pig outfits for your dog, even Bibles with pigs on them. Anything you can think of, I assure you, was at the Lexington Barbeque Festival and was undoubtedly decorated with pigs. Spread throughout the town, if you were to wander down the side streets as I did, you could also see giant colorful pigs, part of a public art initiative called “Pigs in the City”. These oversized pigs were made primarily of fiberglass and were all painted by local artists. My personal favorites were “Swine Lake”, dressed as a ballerina; “Girl Snout”, the Girl Scout pig; and “Rain or Swine”, a pig accompanied by his very own umbrella.

So, we made our way through the festival, pig by pig, hoping that we would soon find the kind of pig we came for: barbequed. Every few feet, we encountered wafts of delicious smelling food. A woman would pass with a savory Bloomin Onion, then a man with roasted corn on the cob. We were salivating and starving, searching desperately for some highly-acclaimed Lexington ‘que. But everywhere we looked we were met with the usual fried delicacies (and the unusual, including, no joke, fried butter) instead of pulled pork and Brunswick stew. I am inclined to say that no such food tent even existed at the Festival, for I never saw one. Nevertheless, we voyaged onward through crowds of people and past countless attractions.

After having spent the majority of the day wandering and exploring uptown Lexington, we decided to call it a day and head out. Don’t fret though; I had not yet aborted my mission to find authentic Lexington barbeque. Perhaps it would be better anyways, I thought, to stop at a small local joint instead of elbowing my way in line at one of the tents (if one even existed). So we made our way back to the car, after having a brief panic attack over forgetting where we parked, and left the mass organized chaos that was the Lexington Barbeque Festival.

Back on Highway 64, I stopped for gas and kept my eyes peeled for any small barbeque joints that caught my attention. Not too far out, right on the side of US Hwy 64, stands Randy’s Restaurant, serving Lexington Style Barbeque and Country Cookin’. From the looks of it, an old brick building with a low roof and few windows, you wouldn’t think much of the place. Indeed, it’s not the fanciest of establishments, but holds it’s own in terms of quality food and service. We were immediately seated amongst small families and groups of co-workers who seemed to be on their lunch break. I made the assumption that this was a local joint, frequented by folks who wanted quick, quality food at a reasonable price. And reasonable it was; I ordered the pulled pork barbeque plate with coleslaw, green beans, and cornbread, all for six dollars. At last the time had come, the meal for which I had been waiting.

A barbeque aficionado of sorts, I rated this meal high on my list. The coleslaw, I ordered white as opposed to red, was finely chopped and had an even flavor profile between sweet and savory, not too vinegary yet not too mayonnaisey. The green beans were reminiscent of home, cooked for hours with bacon and onion, and reminded me of some of the best BBQ I’ve had from my native Atlanta, Georgia. The pulled pork was the most foreign thing on my plate, for I have never encountered barbeque sauce with such a thin and vinegary consistency. Iconic of this region in North Carolina, the standard is a vinegar-based “red sauce” seasoned with vinegar, ketchup, and pepper. It was unlike the thicker, sweeter barbeque sauce that I’m used to, but tasty all the same. I devoured the meal, having worked up an appetite from the day’s excitement, and was finally satisfied with my Lexington BBQ experience.

The Annual Barbeque Festival was a spectacle of a lifetime, a spectacle that has been recognized the world over for its excellence. The event has been listed as one of the Top Ten Food Festivals in the U.S. by Travel and Leisure Magazine, as one of the Top Ten Great Places to Celebrate Food by USA Today!, and as one of the 1000 Places to See in the USA and Canada Before You Die in the book based on the best-selling series. Needless to say, the Annual Barbeque Festival survives off and thrives on the faithful tradition of Lexington Barbeque; a tradition that started a hundred years ago and shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. As any connoisseur would know, Lexington truly is the best of the best; it’s barbeque, and it’s festival, are legendary.