Departing from Alexandria, we cruised down I-95 toward the holy land of traditional American barbecue. A detour towards the Skylight Inn promptly resulted in our getting lost for an hour and a half in Eastern North Carolina, but we eventually made it to the Piedmont and checked into a hotel minutes away from downtown Lexington.
After a few minutes on Main St. we confirmed suspicions that the BBQ Festival was much less about barbecue than it was about funnel cake. The atmosphere was wholly that of a state fair, minimally tailored to pork and complete with a $2 shuttle to the local Wal Mart Supercenter. Lexington’s most hallowed barbecue establishments don’t participate in the festivities directly, instead beefing up their own production for what is one of the biggest weekends of barbecue restaurant business of the year.
Accordingly, the barbecue we sampled throughout the BBQ Festival was on the good side of tolerable. Barbecue sandwiches were served at centralized stations, placed two blocks apart on the main drag. While it was easy to call out the local restaurants that had contributed their Q to be served to the masses, it wasn’t nearly as easy to tell where any given sandwich had been prepared – at one station, meat from Jimmy’s BBQ, Speedy’s BBQ and Smiley’s BBQ was being doled out without distinction from plate to plate.
In the spirit of celebrating regional barbecue, this was hardly a problem; the unfortunate fact that none of the sandwiches was particularly eye opening helped us gloss over the fact that we couldn’t source our food. The worst sample of the day by a wide margin was a ramshackle collard greens and bacon sandwich, made from inoffensive middle-of-the-road ingredients but entirely ruined by the dry, tasteless and wilting slabs of cornbread used to hold everything together.
The best of the fest happened to be a sandwich served alongside barbecued turkey legs at an independent stand – the meat was tender and juicy with a strong scent of wood, a judicious amount of sauce and a fruity sweetness to its slaw that cut through the too-sweet, too-saucy, too-shredded servings of barbecue flying from the official Festival stands. I tried to find out where the meat had come from in hopes of trying it directly from the source, but was given what turned out to be a dead-end name of a cafe/caterer that, as far as I can tell, doesn’t exist in Lexington.
Set free from gustatory obligations by the pounds of barbecue, sweet tea and fried pie in our bellies, we greeted the reticent North Carolina sun and spent the rest of the afternoon taking in the most glorious of festival spectacles.
The Festival lumberjack competition was particularly impressive, especially when it summoned an eleven year old girl to hurl a double-edged axe into a wooden bullseye from twenty paces.
No amount of lumberjackery, however, could top the Festival pig races, a blazing fifteen minutes of glory for the pig (and billy goat!) linearly cognizant enough to be the first to cross the finish line and dive snout-first into the styrofoam plate of victory Cheetos waiting beyond.
After our day at the races, we made our way to Lexington BBQ #1 for some serious swine. Locals and visitors alike formed a line well stretching from front door to back, waiting patiently for a tray of Lexington’s finest.
We took away a pound of outside meat – pulled pork mixed with generous bits of smoky, chewy, brown from the edge of the shoulder – and a pint of slaw. A bottle of Fine Swine Wine was waiting to round out our meal at the hotel.
Sadly, the wine was nearly undrinkable. Crafted once a year in accordance with the BBQ Festival, the premier novelty of the Childress Vineyard is more or less sweet tea made from grapes: Its unbearably sweet flavor and unnaturally tannin-free smoothness is much less a complement to barbecue than it would be to Pringles. This wouldn’t feel like much of an insult if the bottle hadn’t cost us $15; nevertheless, having nothing MSG-infused to salvage our bottle of swill, we set it aside in favor of a modestly priced malbec from Trappiche.
The quality of the meal that followed did not disappoint. Lexington’s regular barbecue can seem a bit on the bland side, but when served with outside meat it creates one of those definitional moments in which the true form of a particular type of food is delivered from the gods, sucker punching your understanding of barbecue and casting a blinding light over every other shade of pulled pork that might cross your path in the future.
The next morning, we had our final Lexington meal at Jimmy’s, then hit the highway back east. I got out of the car in Raleigh to continue my week of barbecue adventure. What follows will have to remain a secret until I can get someone to pay me to eat pork!