Good Eats

Wayne Monk on Western NC Barbecue

By Jed PortmanNovember 2, 2012

Last weekend, the town of Lexington, North Carolina hosted the twenty-ninth annual Lexington Barbecue Festival, a celebration of western North Carolina barbecue featuring local pitmasters, regional craftspeople, and one very talented Elvis impersonator.

Before we hit the festival, we stopped by Lexington Barbecue to spend the early morning hours with Wayne Monk and his crew as they prepared the day’s pork shoulders and slaw. Monk is the grand old man of Lexington barbecue. There are more than twenty barbecue joints in Lexington, one for every thousand residents, but most consider Monk’s—known locally as "The Monk"—the can’t-miss. The folks at Lexington Barbecue don’t actually participate in the festival, but host record-setting amounts of barbecue pilgrims during festival weekend each year.

Wayne Monk was a teenage curb hop at a local barbecue joint, delivering food through car windows, and, despite his best efforts to break out of the barbecue business, found it calling him back until, finally, he gave in and opened his own place in 1962.

What makes it the best? “I think we work harder than the rest of them,” Monk told us. “I think we try harder than the rest of them. And we hire some good people.” Most of Monk’s employees are either in the family—his son Rick is slowly taking over management responsibilities, and Rick’s son works at Lexington too—or have worked with him for long enough that they might as well be.

As a few local people and deliverymen filtered in to fill glasses of Cheerwine and read the newspaper hours before Lexington Barbecue’s 10 a.m. opening, Wayne Monk took a minute to run us through the elements of western North Carolina barbecue.

MEAT: “We cook only shoulders. We think that the shoulder is the best cut of the whole pig. The ham is dry, and the belly is all fat. Most of our pork is coming from Smithfield, Virginia. It’s either Smithfield or it’s Hormel, out of Minnesota.”

WOOD: “Most of it’s oak. We’ll use hickory if we can get it, but most of it’s oak. All our oak is local. Anything with bark on it seems to work well for us, so we’ll buy the slabs and let them season a little bit before we use them. A lot of places have switched over to gas, but we won’t ever do that unless we have to. And I don’t see that happening anytime soon.”

METHOD: “We salt the meat real heavy and put it on the pit. Then we cover it with a sheet of cardboard before we start cooking. The cardboard holds the heat on the meat a little bit, but mostly it catches ashes. The shoulders spend about ten or eleven hours on the pit, at maybe 225 degrees. They can cook in eight hours, but we’re going to give them longer. And then, after you cook them, you want to let them lie there a couple hours. You don’t want to jump on there and start using them too quickly. They need to lie there and rest a little while. The grease drips out of them, they get more tender. Then we take them out and chop them up.”

SAUCE: “I copied somebody else’s recipe. I modified it a little bit, but in this town all the recipes are pretty similar. It’s vinegar and ketchup—we put ketchup in about everything except the iced tea—salt and sugar, and two or three peppers. And then water. It’s a mild sauce. We want to be sure you can taste the barbecue. You put a thick sauce, like an A-1 steak sauce, on the meat, that’ll cover up the taste. We don’t do that. A-1’s fine, but it’s not what we’re after.”

SIDES: “Hush puppies, baked beans, red slaw. One lady developed the slaw recipe, back years and years and years ago, and we all copied it. We play with it a little bit—the sugar, the vinegar content, the ketchup, how fine you chop it—but our recipes are a lot alike. If you’ve got a good thing going, why change it?”