Rocky Mount, NC: Where Barbecue is a Tasty Tradition

Eastern vs. Western North Carolina Barbecue Debate

In North Carolina, it’s not polite to discuss the following subjects: politics, your favorite shade of basketball blue and barbecue. If you do have the courage to approach these subjects, be ready for a fierce debate—particularly concerning the Eastern vs. Western North Carolina barbecue…and many don’t realize that Rocky Mount has a barbecue tradition as deep as those in Memphis or Kansas City. If you’ve any doubt, look no further than the Eastern Carolina BBQ Throw Down that occurred Oct. 9-10 in the revitalized downtown Rocky Mount.

58 BBQ Categories

The professional cooking competition featured 58 different opportunities for participants to win based on Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) categories (chicken, pork ribs, pork & beef brisket). The Eastern NC BBQ Throw Down is much more than a chance to celebrate: It represents the true Carolina spirit of good friends and good food, the direct result of what happens when history and tradition merge. The event drew competitors from as far away as New Jersey.

The Grand & Reserve Champion Awards

The Grand Champion: went to Redneck Scientific

(pictured below)


NC BBQ Throw Down Winner

Reserve Champion: Smoke This BBQ

(pictured below)

NC BBQ Throw Down Second Place

A Tasty Tradition: Rocky Mount Pig Pickin'

Kansas City and Memphis may get more press, but don’t be fooled: Rocky Mount has a pig-pickin’ tradition just as strong as the other barbecue “giants” in the country. In the early 1900s, former Rocky Mount resident Bob Melton created the first sit-down barbecue restaurant in North Carolina.

While the restaurant was destroyed during the flood of 1999, the city Parks and Recreation Department created a Barbecue Park on the site to commemorate the culinary cultural impact on Rocky Mount and on North Carolina. Dedicated in 2014, the park features a fishing pier, recreational activities, and historical signs that explain the legacy of restaurants such as: Bob Melton's Barbecue, Buck Overton's Barbecue, Josh Bullock's Barbecue, the Lincoln Park Restaurant and Motel and Brown's Chicken and Barbecue House.These restaurants helped revitalize the local economy, provided jobs and reduced poverty.

According to Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue by John Shelton Reed, the Eastern North Carolina version of barbecue featured in Rocky Mount may be closer to the dish’s original origins than its Western (and oft-maligned) cousin.

Barbecue and North Carolina

Barbecue was invented in the 1500s, most likely in the Caribbean region. Don’t expect the barbecue featured in the renovated downtown to be THAT authentic – the original bill of fare included meats like alligator as opposed to pork. Lemons and red peppers completed the meal. The Spanish introduced pork to the Caribbean, and it soon became the meat of choice. This Caribbean cooking tradition was brought to the South by 19th-century slaves and Haitian refugees. 

While the recipe was brought to Eastern North Carolina, there had to be some adjustments. In the 19th century, lemons were difficult to obtain if you lived north of Florida. Vinegar was used as a substitute, creating the delicious blend we know today. As for the other varieties, Reed stated that the different styles began to evolve after Heinz introduced ketchup around 1876. 

Is it any wonder that North Carolina barbecue even gets the attention of the Food Network? If you have any doubt, check out this recipe.

Did you miss the BBQ contest? No worries. There’s plenty of great ‘cue to be held across the city. Downtown revitalization has also played a part in securing the Rocky Mount culinary tradition for years to come: The Prime Smokehouse, located near the historic Douglas Block, provides some of the tastiest treats with a side of jazz.

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