In a city where a majority of our BBQ restaurants fall to the corporate side and styles blend together under one large canopy of “BBQ,” the 34th Annual Barbecue Festival in Lexington, North Carolina is a good reminder of what BBQ should be.
Each October, close to 100,000 people from all over North Carolina gather in Uptown Lexington to celebrate all things Lexington barbecue and consume 15,000 pounds of succulent, smoky, tangy chopped pork. In fact, the event has been named as a top festival in the country by Delish, USA Today, and Fodor’s Travel. The Library of Congress has even named it a Local Legacy Event.
This year’s barbecue festival takes place on Oct. 28 from 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m.
So, what’s the big deal about Lexington barbecue?
For the North Carolina barbecue uninformed – and given the number of transplants to Charlotte, that’s a lot of readers – two styles of barbecue exist in the Tar Heel state. Eastern-style is typically found in Raleigh and eastward. There, the barbecue is whole hog with a vinegar based sauce. Eastern barbecue traces its roots to the Caribbean.
Lexington-style barbecue, which is also referred to as Western or Piedmont, uses pork shoulder with the addition of tomato to the vinegar based sauce. Lexington barbecue traces its roots to Pennsylvania Dutch settlers, who combined what was already being cooked in the region with their practice of cooking pork shoulders. This is the only style of barbecue you will find at the festival.
What to expect at the Barbecue Festival
As I mentioned previously, lots and lots of barbecue. The festival runs along North Main Street between 5th Avenue and 3rd Street. Dispersed throughout the festival are three barbecue centers selling pork sandwiches and pork plates. While the tents are staffed by different iconic Lexington barbecue restaurants, the food is the same in all three tents.
“That’s the beauty of the event,” Stephanie Saintsing, the executive director of the festival, said. “It’s not about the restaurant. It’s about the history and heritage of Lexington barbecue.”
In addition to plenty of good eats, the barbecue festival celebrates all things swine with pig races at the Hogway Speedway, and a 50-ton, pig-themed sand sculpture. Other fun events to keep you occupied in between feedings include the Barbecue Carnival & Family Area, with kid friendly games and rides, a lumberjack competition (because why not), King BMX Stunt Shows (more fun than you think), Team Zoom dog shows (who doesn’t love dogs doing tricks?), a car show, arts and crafts booths, music stages with local and national acts, and the barbecue festival wine garden.
While admission to the festival is free, there is a cost associated with the barbecue festival wine garden: $9 in advance and $15 the day of. The fee will get you access to wine samples from North Carolina wineries and private bathrooms.
After the festival, head over to the Breeden Insurance Amphitheater in the depot district for a concert from On the Border, an Eagles tribute band, and a fireworks show.
If you go
While Lexington is only an hour drive from Charlotte, parking around the festival can be quite difficult. Think 100,000 people descending upon a town of less than 20,000. If you don’t want to test your fate with parking lots around the festival, below are three alternatives:
- Park at the Lexington Walmart and take the trolley – $2 per adult and free for children 12 & under
- Park at Childress Vineyards and take the trolley – $3 per adult and $2 for children 12 and under (bonus for the option of sipping a glass of Fine Swine Wine, made special for the festival, at the vineyard)
- Take the BBQ Express Train – One day a year, Amtrak makes a special stop at the historic Lexington train depot for those traveling to the festival from Charlotte or Raleigh. Get your tickets here!
Photo: Bryan Richards