Living Here Guide

What is Charlotte’s cuisine? Well, it’s kinda complicated

A barbecue sandwich at Kyle Fletcher's in Gastonia.
A barbecue sandwich at Kyle Fletcher's in Gastonia. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

First, let’s clear this up: That fizzy sugar water isn’t “pop.” Here in the Carolinas, it’s called a Coke, whether it’s a Sundrop, a Cheerwine, a Pepsi or, amazingly, an actual Coca-Cola.

Now, no one will be rude to you if you call it “pop.” (Not out loud, anyway.) But it might take a while to get your order, what with the puzzled looks and the people at the lunch counter calling their co-workers over and making you say it again.

Do you really want to waste that kind of time? After all, you’ve got a new city, a new job, maybe a whole new life to figure out here in Charlotte. And there are so many other mysteries to unravel: The difference between relish and chow-chow (not much). What pimento cheese is (trust us, you’re going to love it). Why coleslaw comes on everything from your burger to your barbecue sandwich. (Because it provides contrasting texture and creaminess – nah, just kidding. It’s because our grandparents did it that way and a legacy is a legacy.)

What do you need to know to understand food here? That’s tough to answer. While you are, regionally speaking, in the Southern United States, you are also in Charlotte. And Charlotte is a city with its feet in a lot of worlds. We’re a little Southern and a little international, a little business-oriented and a little free-spirited. We’re biscuits and crusty artisan-baked bread, we’re red velvet cake and tres leche cake. And we’re Pabst Blue Ribbon and craft beer.

People have been coming to Charlotte, usually for work and for the family friendly lifestyle, since before the Revolutionary War. And all of them brought their food with them. So defining a distinct Charlotte cuisine isn’t easy to do.

Take our barbecue style: We’re close to Lexington, N.C., where “barbecue” means a pork shoulder, slowly cooked over wood coals, chopped and mixed with a vinegar-based sauce with a little tomato in it. The origins are probably German, from all the German immigrants who started in Pennsylvania and ended up here. But you’ll also find Eastern North Carolina style, which involves a whole pig and no tomato in the vinegar sauce. That’s descended from an old English style, and we like that too.

Or you can find newer, fancier barbecue that involves Texas brisket or Memphis ribs, and we embrace that because it tastes good. But if you invite someone over for “a barbecue” and serve them grilled hot dogs? They’ll be nice about it, but they won’t be happy. (See “pop,” above.)

America may be a melting pot, but Charlotte is a stew of everyone who ever moved here and stayed.

So settle in, try to get invited to a potluck (we’re a town that likes to network), and read a little more here about our food scene.

And if you really have trouble remembering that we don’t call soft drinks “pop,” just order ice tea. It will save us all a lot of time.

Kathleen Purvis: 704-358-5236, @kathleenpurvis

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