A Taste of North Carolina

You know this beautiful state as the backdrop for some of Nicholas Sparks’ greatest books, but what’s it like to really live there? Sometimes the best way to experience a place is through the local eats and treats.

When you want to explore true tar-heel cuisine, you go to the expert, Scott Mason—TV reporter and author of Tar Heel Traveler Eats: Food Journeys across North Carolina. And if you want to talk North Carolina food, you start with barbecue.

Test Your BBQ IQ
A deep-rooted tradition, barbecue defines this region. “I think the hours that go into cooking it over hot coals all night long has something to do with [its popularity],” says Scott. “Good barbecue comes with a lot of hard work.” And this style of barbecue isn’t firing up your grill and wowing guests with some burgers and dogs, this is a technique of cooking meat for several hours at low temperatures with smoke from a wood fire, known as the pit. And in North Carolina, it’s much more than just a cooking style—it’s an iconic, cultural force with a fierce rivalry between regions.

But who makes it best, Eastern-style or Western-style? Here are the facts: Eastern NC pork barbecue uses a vinegar-based sauce and the “whole hog” is cooked, serving both white and dark meat. And Western North Carolina pork barbecue uses a ketchup and vinegar-based sauce and only the pork shoulder (dark meat) is eaten. Scott doesn’t think this long-running debate between the two styles will end anytime soon, but adds, “In a way, it’s not really about who has the best but about the joy that comes from cooking and sharing the barbecue. That’s something all North Carolinians can take pride in.”

Go Beyond Barbecue
Rich southern dishes are also on the menu, from fried chicken and biscuits and gravy to collard greens and black-eyed peas—just don’t forget to wash it all down with a sweet iced tea. And as Scott will tell you, it’s not about choosing the fanciest restaurant, it’s about cozying up to those hole-in-the-wall spots filled with delicious food and local people. “I’ve sat in wooden booths at old-timey restaurants and watched people eat, often from plastic plates, and they seem so happy and content,” he says. “It’s as if the food is like a warm blanket, wrapping them in warmth and comfort.”

Scott recently traveled to Marion, NC to get a taste of liver mush, another North Carolina must-eat. According to him, years ago when times were tight, workers would carry sandwiches made from this meaty paste in metal lunch boxes to their factory jobs: “It was a good cheap meal that would keep without being refrigerated.” Made from pig liver, head parts and cornmeal, then spiced with sage and pepper, you can get a tasty bite of this traditional eat (also sometimes called liver pudding) at the annual Livermush Festival, held every summer in Marion.

Keeping the Company of Food Companies
OK, so you knew about the barbecue and country-style dishes, but did you know Pepsi was first poured in North Carolina? Yup, Pepsi-Cola began in a drugstore in New Bern in 1896 where pharmacist Caleb Bradham was looking to create a fountain drink that would help digestion and boost energy. And did you know the Krispy Kreme craze started here too? In Winston-Salem in 1937, Vernon Rudolph sold his first donuts for 25 cents a dozen! And Wilber Hardee opened the first Hardee’s restaurant in 1960 in Greenville, where he offered “charco-broiled” burgers for only 15 cents, plus fast service and a drive-through window.

And no, Texas is not where Texas Pete hot sauce got its spice. It was actually Winston-Salem, NC where three brothers, Thad, Ralph and Harold Garner, their father and “Mother Jane” first made the sauce in pots on the cook stove in their family home. Their recipe remains a secret to this day. Now, travel over to the corner of Cucumber and Vine in Mount Olive, where the Southeast’s favorite pickles were first crunched. Mt. Olive Company Inc. started brining cucumbers for other pickling firms and from its modest beginning has grown to become the second best-selling brand in the country. And lastly, raise a glass of Cheerwine to Salisbury, NC. It was there that this cherry-flavored soft drink known as “nectar of the tar heels,” was first sipped in the basement of L.D. Peeler’s wholesale grocery store.

Eat Where the Locals Eat
When you’re in the mood for really good grub, Scott advices to go for the diner, a little hometown place with a faded awning. Or maybe it has a ripped piece of cardboard in the window with the daily special scrawled on it. Inside you’re sure to find a soothing soundtrack of conversation, with a clanging register keeping the beat. Scott can’t get enough of these little places. “They’re what red clay is to North Carolina, a dusty but distinctive part of the foundation,” he says. “Where the waitress asks ‘What can I get you sweetie?’ I smile back at her and think—this is my kind of place.”