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.

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