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.