Everyone likes praise. But when first lady Michelle Obama listed "great barbecue" as one of Charlotte, North Carolina's virtues in hosting the 2012 Democratic National Convention, the city, even the state, was puzzled.
Barbecue? In Charlotte? Those are the questions many asked after Michelle sent out the announcement via e-mail. Almost everyone agrees: Charlotte isn't the home of "great barbecue."
"We have good barbecue in Charlotte, but there's great barbecue [elsewhere] across the state," Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx admitted to Politico. "I have had great barbecue in Charlotte that's been brought in on a truck."
One expert, John Shelton Reed, explained it in stark terms. He is a retired University of North Carolina professor and the co-author of "Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue."
"Complete the sentence: As a barbecue town, Charlotte is one, not what it used to be; two, like Minneapolis for gumbo; three, good enough for Yankees; four, not far from Shelby," he said, referring to a barbecue center about an hour west of Charlotte.
Ouch. In North Carolina, this is serious stuff.
The state's great barbecue divide runs roughly through Raleigh, the state's capital. Eastward to the coast, it's all Eastern-style: Whole hogs are cooked and served with a vinegar-based sauce and white, mayonnaise-based cole slaw. West of Raleigh, it's pork shoulders, with tomatoes added into the sauce or "dip," and vinegary red slaw.
The rivalry is polite, at least in mixed company.
"It's all about what you grew up with and what you're accustomed to," said Nathan Monk, manager of Lexington Barbecue and grandson of revered founder Wayne Monk. "There's good barbecue everywhere, as long as it's cooked the right way."
The town of Lexington, about 60 miles north of Charlotte, is to Western-style North Carolina barbecue as Rome is to Catholicism: more than a dozen barbecue joints make this a destination for 'cue lovers from Raleigh, Charlotte and everywhere in between.
Even the editorial board staff of The Charlotte Observer acknowledged Lexington's primacy, in a blog response to Michelle Obama's letter to supporters praising the local barbecue: "We appreciate the compliments, and they're all spot-on until that last one. ... Everybody knows to get the best stuff, you gotta drive north to Lexington." The post, however, is hard to find on the paper's website, and may have been scrubbed.
The mistake led Politico to question Michelle's writers: "The gaffe was enough to make you wonder whether the White House had simply cut and pasted Southern clichés to create the first lady's announcement." The site also referenced a Fox Nation blog post that points out the obvious:
"Studies show a barbecue meal weighs in at around 2,500 calories."
Oh, the humanity.