A Western Easterner
Brandon Talton (2022)
This October, I couldn’t believe it. The old phrase “when pigs fly” finally came true. In Lexington, North Carolina, pigs flew over the annual Lexington Barbecue Festival. But don’t be alarmed: these flying pigs were only pig balloons.
For the first time since 2019, the North Carolina Piedmont town of Lexington was home to the nation’s largest barbecue festival. I had heard of the festival only a few times, but only in passing.
What interested me about the Barbecue Festival has a lot to do about where I’m from, and I’m not talking about my town. I come from eastern North Carolina, about an hour and a half away from the coast. For those of you from North Carolina, you may understand why it’s important that I denote the geographical difference. So, if you’re from the Old North State, the next paragraph should be no new news. For those of you readers that are from a different state, there’s something you need to understand about North Carolina and its barbecue.
In eastern North Carolina, barbecue has a vinegar base to it. In the rest of the state that’s west of Raleigh, however, barbecue has a ketchup base. In an effort to keep our attention focused on Lexington’s Barbecue, I’ll stop here. It’s a very simple introduction to a great culinary divide in the state, and I hope I’ve given you enough to understand my intrigue in the festival and what its style of barbecue would hold for me.
Back to the western travelers of an Easterner. When I made it to Lexington’s 38th Barbecue Festival this late October, high expectations were established almost instantly. I find that it’s always a promising sign for a festival when finding parking is nearly impossible. It’s even more promising when you have to park a half-mile away in a local Boy Scout-ran lot.
Once I finally found the Scout lot and stepped out of my car, it was easy to figure out what I needed to do to get to the festival. I simply followed the masses. The streets were lined shoulder to shoulder with people making their respective pilgrimages to Lexington’s festival, which was held downtown.
At the festival itself, Lexington’s Main Street was festooned with barbecue decor and activities to keep anyone occupied for several blocks. Main Street stores opened their doors for patrons to come and go. Seeing more people pop out of the festival itself gave me the impression that this entire celebration was a surprise party for Lexington Barbecue.
Concert stages were scattered throughout Main Street. Each musician played enthusiastically before their passing audiences, almost as though they were the main act. It was easy to feel this way. Each stage was distanced far enough away from the next one, and their speakers were tuned just to the right volume which made it so a passing audience would never hear two acts at the same time. Instead, you simply faded out of one concert and into the next without ever not hearing music.
Lexington’s Barbecue Festival Overview: The Impact of Coronavirus
Michaela Bramwell (2020)
Lexington’s Barbecue Festival is a Piedmont Tradition and one of the most popular food festivals in the country. The festival is held every October in Uptown Lexington, the barbecue capital of the world, and acts as the grand finale of “Barbecue Month.” The festival includes athletic events, music, writing contests, rides, games, and some winners even receive a year’s worth of Pepsi products. Since the 1980s, the festival crowds have increased from 30,000 to 200,000.
I was raised in North Carolina, Cary, specifically, but oddly had never heard of the Lexington Barbecue Festival. I did learn at a young age that the culture of barbecue in North Carolina was very serious. I attended my mom’s coworker’s wedding on a farm out in the middle of nowhere, where the bride and groom roasted a full pig over a smoking fire, and never forgot the slow turning of its body that creeped me out so much.
Across NC there are different types of barbecue for each region. Ten blocks of Main Street are closed off for the annual festival in Lexington, NC, and are filled with hundreds of exhibitors offering delicious barbecues and tasty desserts. The event has become a community tradition that North Carolinians look forward to every year. Though I have personally never been, I liken the experience to the NC State Fair, where there are thousands of people, amazing food, fun games, and family time is appreciated.
The year 2020 was supposed to bring new beginnings and the biggest Lexington Barbecue Festival yet, but then the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. and North Carolina heavily. For the first time, in 38 years, the festival has been canceled. We can add the state’s favorite barbecue celebration to the list of COVID-19-related disappointments. The Virtual Tour de Pig has been put in the festival’s place, where riders will ride any route they choose, between October 1-10th, wearing their Festival shirt and sharing pictures on social media. Yeah, I know, definitely not the same.
The community is rightfully heartbroken as they can’t experience a yearly tradition, but the cancellation of the festival could impact Davidson County more than just emotionally.
The festival brings in millions of dollars in tax revenue every year. Hotels, grocery stores, restaurants, and gas stations in the area all see spikes in sales during October thanks to those who travel from out of town to attend. Foot traffic is one of the biggest contributors to the increase in sales. Some of these tourists have never been to Lexington, NC before and return after the festival to further explore the town.
Craig Swicegood, a manager of the Holiday Inn at the Vineyards, discussed the impact of the festival on his community, “Nothing so far has had a bigger impact than the Barbecue Festival. It is an opportunity to expose more people to Lexington. We have seen that someone may visit for one day for an event but will return at a later date to check out what else we have to offer.”
Though Lexington will still be receiving registration fees for the Tour De Pig that they say will go into the planning of next year’s festival, it’s obvious that this year’s cancellation could impact the community financially. On the other hand, the cancellation could inspire even more excitement for next year’s festival, which is said to be the biggest one yet. We just have to wait and see.
Lexington's Legacy: 30th Annual Barbecue Festival
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 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 cornbread. 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, and 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.