Saturday, August 27, 2016

Legacy of Lexington Style

Old-fashioned at Stamey's means Lexington style.
When people want traditional “Lexington style” barbecue of North Carolina, they often travel not to Lexington but to Greensboro. The Gate City is the home of Stamey’s, which traces its roots to 1930 and was founded by the legendary C. Warner Stamey, who taught the Lexington style to other early pitmasters.

Stamey himself learned in Lexington how to make pit cooked barbecue from early entrepreneurs Jess Swicegood and Sid Weaver when he was a high school student there in the 1920s. After moving back to his hometown of Shelby, he made and sold barbecue before returning to Lexington in 1938 when he bought Swicegood’s business. He renamed it Stamey’s where he continued to develop his reputation as a barbecue pitmaster and promoter.

A photo of the founder watches over the entrance that includes several vintage photos of the business and a waiting bench.

Greensboro has two Stamey’s locations, the second one opening in the 1970s. The original one, which I visited, was opened by Stamey in 1953 as a drive-in after he had moved from Lexington. Across the street from the Greensboro Coliseum, it was replaced with a new structure in 1979 and has been operated continuously by a member of the Stamey family, currently Chip Stamey (grandson of the founder).

Tables in the dining area turn over frequently because orders are taken and served promptly.

Adhering to the style promoted by the founder long ago, the pitmasters still cook only pork shoulders and only over hardwood coals. Although Stamey’s claims a “secret” sauce, the secret is not well kept because it has provided the recipe – equal amounts of ketchup and apple cider vinegar with sugar, salt, black and red pepper -- to the Cooking Channel. Ketchup in the sauce keeps Stamey’s true to the Lexington style and separates it from the style of eastern N.C. where the sauce has no tomato (and whole hogs rather than only shoulders are cooked).

Lexington style is barbecue (using only pork shoulders) with hushpuppies and red slaw.

The chopped barbecue that I ordered came from the kitchen already adequately sauced, so I added no more at the table. The plate included red slaw (coleslaw made with Stamey’s sauce, not mayonnaise) and crisp hushpuppies (reportedly popularized as a side on barbecue plates when Stamey began serving them decades ago after seeing them served at local fish restaurants). The Brunswick stew that I also ordered was a colorful complement to the red slaw.

Brunswick stew comes with the requisite amounts of vegetables.

Credited with spreading “Lexington style” in the western half of North Carolina, Stamey nurtured several protégés such as Alston Bridges, Red Bridges, John Stogner, Doug Gosnell, and Wayne Monk. Even though I’ve been to Lexington and also eaten “Lexington style” in other cities such as Winston-Salem and Shelby, I felt closer to the tradition by being in Stamey’s and at its first location in Greensboro. The way the servers greet customers and take orders shows they know that they are preserving a legacy.

The carry-out counter stays busy throughout the day.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Morphing from a Dairy Center

The Barbecue Center was
once the Dairy Bar.
No trip near, through, or to Lexington, NC, is complete without a stop at one of its legendary barbecue establishments -- with more than 20 places to choose from. In the city that boasts the opening of its first one in 1919, the lineage of pitmasters is very royal.

The Lexington style of barbecue is so well known: pork shoulders cooked slowly over hardwood coals. It is always served with red slaw (coleslaw made with ketchup rather than the traditional mayonnaise base). The meat is usually served chopped, although sliced can be requested, and with a sauce seasoned with vinegar, ketchup, pepper, and other spices.

The wood outside tells you that slow cooking over hardwood coals is still the tradition.

For my most recent foray into Lexington, the destination was the Barbecue Center, which is the oldest barbecue restaurant in Lexington that still cooks on pits. It had its early beginnings as the Dairy Center and was known for its ice cream and banana splits, which seems an unlikely beginning for a legendary barbecue restaurant in Lexington. Barbecue now brings in the customers, but the signature dessert is still a humongous banana split.

The counter, originally in the Dairy Center, was moved to the Barbecue Center's new location when it opened in 1961.

Barbecue was added to the menu to improve business for the Dairy Center in the winter months. Doug Gosnell, who took over the restaurant in 1955, learned how to make pit-cooked barbecue, Lexington-style from the legendary C. Warner Stamey, who trained many other early pitmasters in the Piedmont area of North Carolina.

The dining area of the Barbecue Center is busy throughout the day.

The tray of barbecue that I ordered arrived just as expected: packed with chopped pork and red slaw. They and the hushpuppies were excellent. Rather than end the meal with the mountainous banana split, which reportedly weighs more than three pounds (a table of four usually shares one banana split), I settled for the much smaller and almost as famous banana pudding. 

A tray of barbecue (chopped, course chopped, or sliced) comes with red slaw.

Being able to trace its roots to Stamey places the Barbecue Center at the beginning of Lexington style. By continuing to make excellent barbecue and sides, it has a secure place in preserving Lexington traditions for a long time to come.

Banana splits are still
made at the counter.
Banana pudding is almost as famous as the banana split.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Pigs and Pedals Revisted

Returning to Asheboro, NC, to judge has been a priority since 2014 when I participated in the inaugural Pigs and Pedals cookoff. Because family obligations prevented me from attending in 2015, I was interested this year in seeing how the event had changed since its inception.

In its first year, the cookoff was well planned, organized and executed. For 2016, Pigs and Pedals was again a superior experience. A few changes had been made since the initial cookoff. Judging is now conducted in The Exchange, an attractive event space in the middle of the downtown area and very convenient to the cooking teams. The number of cooking teams also increased to the maximum that the event space can accommodate: 47.

The Smokehouse Mafia, last year's Grand Champion, sets up early.

The surprise for me was an assignment as table captain, which meant that I would not be judging and evaluating barbecue entries. It was my first time as a table captain although I had been certified early last year and had volunteered at other events. The primary duties are to assist the contest representatives of Kansas City Barbeque Society by coordinating activities at a judging table (there were eight this year), serving the judges and collecting their evaluations.

Piggy cupcakes made by a local bakery greet judges as the arrive in The Exchange.

The six judges at the table where I was assigned had a wide range of experience. Three were master judges (more than 30 contests), one was participating for only his third event, and one was recently certified and judging for the first time. Contest organizers attempt to include new judges at events and place them at tables where they can learn from experienced judges.

The Exchange, an event location, is now the venue for all judging activities.

Although I prefer to judge, I willingly had volunteered to assist as a table captain when I registered. I will continue to volunteer in more than only the capacity of judge, although the rewards of being a judge and evaluating barbecue entries are clearly the motivation for judges to participate and spend the time required to drive and attend.

Pigs and Pedals remains one of my favorite barbecue contests and I hope to attend future cookoffs – as a judge or in another capacity.