For northerners in the United States, there remain countless unfounded misconceptions about the South. People are fat. People are rednecks. People are racist. Sure, some of them are, but many above the Mason-Dixon line could be described the same way. Despite consistent bad mouthing and classist snobbery, one thing is universally acknowledged as better down South: the BBQ.

An almost mystic pull to down-home, no-frills dining brought me to North Carolina for a weekend. Though I had toured Texas BBQ and Memphis, and sampled barbecue at a number of places throughout Virginia, I’d largely ignored North Carolina in the past. Yet, the style is the most frequently copied (and ruined) in my regular BBQ consumption. “Carolina pulled pork” sandwiches litter menus at bars and taverns up the eastern seaboard; an opportunity to investigate the authentic origins of the ubiquitous dish was impossible to resist.

Trips like this one prove disastrous when billed as a “quest for the best.” Rather than fall into that trap, our-three day excursion was organized with a more modest goal: to begin to understand one state’s BBQ heritage and localized traditions within.

Here’s what we knew going in: North Carolina BBQ is broken into two types—Western and Eastern. Western BBQ, also called Lexington-style, uses a vinegar-based sauce (or dip) with added tomato paste/puree and brown sugar and spice. In the East, mild vinegar melds with white sugar, hot peppers, and pepper to form the sauce. The flavors produced in both regions are distinct, but by no means consistent from pit to pit.

Trips like this one prove disastrous when billed as a “quest for the best.” Rather than fall into that trap, our-three day excursion was organized with a more modest goal: to begin to understand one state’s BBQ heritage and localized traditions within.

While these basic definitions held true on our travels, they could never speak to the level of nuance and individual flavor from place to place.

I flew into Raleigh-Durham from Philadelphia to meet my fellow travelers. My friend Adam has been a regular accomplice on Americana-related trips, and over time he has developed into a font of information about BBQ. His research and interest informed the itinerary, which I filled out with a few needed museum stops and a visit to Chuck Eldridge at the Tattoo Archive in Winston-Salem. We began in the west, and moved slowly eastward, eating as much as we could handle along the road.

What follows is a brief account of the food consumed and the questions raised through those meals.

The West: A&M BBQ to Lexington

Less than an hour after arrival, we stepped into A&M BBQ in Mebane, NC. Situated just off the side of the highway, A&M has a cavernous dining room, dotted with simple folding tables and chairs. The sparse interior and low merit of design is indicative of the Carolina BBQ experience—it is just about the food. I ordered what would become a standard meal of chopped pork, hush puppies, and a sweet tea. The “dip,” or sauce, at A&M would stand as the thickest of the trip, the use of tomato paste quite evident. Sadly, it was unbalanced, drowning out the essential flavors of the meat. Perhaps it is not surprising that the place has since closed.

Leaving A&M, I wondered if I’d meet a piece of pork that held the taste of smoke.

Our next stop was some 50 minutes away near the boarder of Virginia. Short Sugar’s, located in Reidsville, has a 1950s diner vibe. Booths and a long counter allow visitors ample space to enjoy a full menu of sandwiches, burgers, and (of course) BBQ. At Short Sugar’s the sauce contains a dose of cinnamon, a winning element. Thinner than A&M’s, and considerably tastier, the Short Sugar’s sauce melds more impressively with the meat. With moist and tender pork, the place felt like our first true entry into the North Carolina BBQ scene. I topped the meal off with a hearty serving of peach cobbler. Six people ate two courses each for less than $40. Stuffed, we headed to High Point for a night’s rest.

The region of Western Carolina is a hub of manufacture. With High Point at the center, it’s the cradle of American Furniture production. The small city has a quaint and surprisingly pretty downtown. The streets are filled with furnishing shops and unique reminders of heritage. For example, one building is designed as the world’s largest high chest, complete with massive concrete socks spilling from the drawers. In fact, High Point’s public monuments fold in heritage beautifully at every turn. John Coltrane attended high school in High Point, and the city has erected a statue of the saxophonist in a central square. Beside the likeness sits one of the best pieces of public history I’ve ever encountered—a full timeline of Coltrane’s life with a listening station of key works.

These points of interest were visited in swift fashion early on our second day. By 10am, I’d built up a powerful hunger and was well prepared for Lexington. As mentioned, the terms Lexington BBQ and Western BBQ are virtually interchangeable, and the town has so many renowned spots that picking one would be impossible. So naturally we chose three, then hit them up in quick succession over the course of two hours.

First up, Lexington BBQ. Billowing smoke rises up from the building, situated (once again) just off the highway. Aside from phenomenal food, Lexington BBQ offered two grand surprises. I ate a pork-skin sandwich. Utterly amazing. Following that, we found ourselves being ushered into the pit. Amid some 1,200 pounds of meat, the pitmaster—a 20-year vet—described the process of smoking pork, then pulled out a piece fresh from the smoker. Handing me a piece of bark (the crisp outer browned layer of the pork butt), he introduced me to heaven. With this gesture, he had set an amazingly high standard for Southern hospitality.

The pleasant old waitress [at BBQ Center] also produced the largest banana split in history, ordered only because of the massive size promised.

BBQ Center is only five minutes away from Lexington BBQ. Naturally, we got there in four minutes. Once more, I ordered chopped meat and hush puppies. Once more, I happily tasted a different take on the Western sauce. But perhaps more impressive than the BBQ—and I say this so reluctantly—is the Center’s fried pork-chop sandwich. A culinary wonder. The pleasant old waitress also produced the largest banana split in history, ordered only because of the massive size promised. Seeing me in a state of overfed pain, she suggested we head to Speedy’s, “the only place in town I’d recommend.” No argument—what harm was another 10-minute drive to a third lunch?

Speedy’s proved to be the worst place for a third meal. Why? The portions are massive. But the pork is a marvel. Huge chunks of chopped pork, perfectly balanced sauce, a really American atmosphere. Speedy’s was exactly what one expects out of a BBQ spot. Low ceilings, creaking wood, and fast service. They tout the latter selling point well with the name, which amounts to the most obvious marketing utilized by any of the visited locations.

Culture stops: Tattoos and furniture

Now midway through day two of the tour, it was time for a culture break.

Winston-Salem is known for a few things: Wake Forest University. Cigarettes. More cigarettes.

Few people are aware the city is now home to one of the premier collections of tattoo memorabilia, ephemera, and history. Chuck Eldridge recently returned to North Carolina, and with him came the Tattoo Archive and Paul Rodgers Research Center (Rodgers being a North Carolina guy and one of the most famed suppliers of tattoo equipment in the 20th century). Eldridge’s space is beautifully appointed. A large public space displays decades of fascinating tattoo lore. His own workspace is equally exciting, filled with books and books of glorious drawings. Much to the apparent disinterest of my companions, Eldridge and I discussed the growth of tattoo publications and the history of bicycle frame manufacture. Noticing the group losing patience, I bid my farewell, with one more trick up my sleeve while in town.

On the outskirts of Winston-Salem lies Old Salem, a historic village with living history and some delicious Moravian baked goods. But what I was really after was the Museum of Southern Decorative Arts. Housed in an old supermarket building, the collection is a comprehensive sweep of Southern antiquities (for the European reader, yes, these are not that old). Deciding it a good time to flex my academic muscles, I convinced a nice old lady to pull a chair of storage for me. I stood looking at it, drooling, and blabbering for a quarter of an hour. I must have looked insane. Adam mentioned that the experience was strange. Time to move on. We had a 45-minute drive and more BBQ ahead.

Allen & Sons and Chapel Hill

Chapel Hill served as resting point for night two. Five substantial meals under the belt in less than 24 hours had set a strong tone, the trip to Lexington a high standard. In Chapel Hill, the noted establishment is Allen & Sons. Reviews were consistent—a love or hate theme. Allen & Brothers is also more refined and more expensive than the rest. Apprehension was high.

I’m almost ashamed to admit that I loved Allen & Sons in one key aspect: I could taste process. Hickory-wood smoke pure and simple. Sauce an afterthought. Admitting this propensity for the obvious felt somewhat shameful, but at least I could confidently declare that the rest of the offerings fell flat. How, I wondered, could the meat be so perfect (in my subjective view) and yet Allen & Sons not fully deliver? Would perfection ever be achieved on the trip?

The barmaid was exactly the type I fall for. Gorgeous, with hints of a rough past. Alas, the combination of sound and a full stomach left me bereft of courage.

I contemplated these thoughts while wandering through the town. Unlike my alma mater, University of Wisconsin-Madison, where the town was always bursting with bars and excitement, Chapel Hill is a bit sleepy. We visited the Dean Dome (a side project throughout the trip was to look at and enter all the major college basketball venues the area is known for) and drank at a basement bar. A band with decent guitars played, ruined by a tactless drummer. The barmaid was exactly the type I fall for. Gorgeous, with hints of a rough past. Alas, the combination of sound and a full stomach left me bereft of courage.

The East: Wilbur’s, King’s BBQ, and Greenville

Day three promised a shift in flavor. The East lay ahead, and with it Wilbur’s BBQ, perhaps the most famous in the state. Adding a little heat, by way of the chili-infused Eastern sauce, to the voyage was an exciting prospect. As was the move away from the “academic” climbs of Chapel Hill, Durham, and Winston-Salem. We’d mapped the day to finish in Greenville, home of Eastern Carolina State University, a school I knew of only for football.

Wilbur’s proved oddly difficult to find. Oddly, because it is located on a straight road with no significant turn offs. Difficult because we confused the local and the business routes. Eventually, we found Wilbur’s. Immediate disappointment. The place is massive, catering to enormous groups and bus tours. While the spots visited in the West had ample seating, Wilbur’s was geared to the tourist. Shirts in every imaginable bad color spilled from the entrance counter. Waitresses scrambled through the rooms. They had a sour demeanor. One became angered when Adam asked if the chicken came with sauce. He was told, “It’s there,” with a finger pointing to a lightly spiced bottle of vinegar.

The best thing in town was a giant sculpture of a pirate. The rest was genuinely frightening.

Whole hog is the specialty of Wilbur’s. The place has put Goldsboro on the map. Having a mixture of body parts chopped, rather than just the shoulder we’d grown accustomed to, was a welcome change. It was not, however, enough to make up for the fact that Wilbur’s just didn’t have the charm of Lexington. The bastion of Eastern BBQ had let us down.

But, it hadn’t prepped us for the worst.

Twenty miles further east, and after a detour to a great fishing shop, we came upon King’s BBQ. More touristy. More of a factory. For the first time in three days, we encountered the smell and taste of grease and all that is bad in America. My order didn’t help—wishing to combine the two items I’d been eating into one, I chose a “Pigs in a Puppy.” An invention of King’s, this item was produced by stuffing a hush puppy with pulled pork and frying to a crisp. It was the dish that put me over the edge. It felt like a sad experience to end the eight connected places.

Disillusioned, we gathered remaining strength and hit Greenville. A ghost town. A place where even the locals are quick to tell you to leave. One did. A single-toothed proprietor of the town’s skate hhop. He told me, frankly, that there wasn’t a single good thing to eat within miles. I suppose his lack of teeth made living there possible. The best thing in town was a giant sculpture of a pirate. The rest was genuinely frightening.

Three days. Eight giant meals. Hundreds of miles driven. The lesson learned: People in North Carolina take BBQ very seriously, and they certainly place a highly localized stamp on a plate of pork.