When clouds of aromatic smoke billow into the Piedmont’s October skies, you know the Lexington Barbecue Festival is cooking, with about 150,000 hungry locals and visitors jamming downtown Lexington’s Main Street. Roughly 15,000 pounds of chopped barbecue – Lexington style, with reddened vinegar-based sauce and smoked shoulder – are served and sold on a single day.
This year, it’s Oct. 24.
The city’s reputation for solid barbecue goes back more than a century. Oddly enough, this famous event was only started in 1984, long after ’cue hounds began to earnestly debate the relative merits of Lexington and Eastern North Carolina styles. (The tussle continues; partisans of each have stymied the other’s attempts to designate an official state barbecue.)
Visit North Carolina – the state’s travel and tourism arm – has gone a bit further on its website, writing that Lexington “has become almost synonymous with North Carolina barbecue at its best.”
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Various N.C. barbecue maps usually require an inset to locate the many barbecue restaurants in the Lexington area. The one offered locally – and free of charge – is the size of a calendar page and lists 50 places; about 10,000 of these maps are given out every year.
You can pick one up at the Lexington Visitor Center, 114 E. Center St. That’s two blocks from Main Street, where the festival will be held on the roughly nine blocks between Third Street and Fourth Avenue.
At the Oct. 24 festival, by-the-sandwich meat is sold out of three huge tents operated by four choice Lexington restaurants: The Barbecue Center, Smokey Joe’s Barbecue, Speedy’s Barbecue and Stamey’s Barbecue.
The free-admission festival runs 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Lines can be longer toward lunch and supper times.
But you’ll find more than meat at the event. The grandstand on the square offers a full day of music that culminates in a 3:30 p.m. jam by country artists Craig Campbell, Lauren Alaina, Granger Smith and William Michael Morgan. There are five other outdoor stages, including one set aside for kids. Music featured on various stages ranges from beach (The Embers and Jim Quick & Coastline start the day on different stages) to Departure, a Journey tribute band. There’s also a stage inside the Edward C. Smith Civic Center.
A wine garden featuring Yadkin Valley wineries ($15) features tastings. A Childress Wineries booth at the festival will be selling a commemorative Fine Swine Wine; the label was designed by N.C. artist Bob Timberlake, who will be autographing bottles sold that morning. A beer garden will be up and running as well.
Besides a carnival area for kids, there’s a juried arts and crafts show, a lumberjack sports show with chainsaw athletics, bicycle stunt shows, a climbing wall, pig races and a pair of car shows – one for antique vehicles, one for ’Vettes.
New this year is a Friday pre-party (6-10 p.m.), with free admission and free music.
The festival’s centerpiece is a 50-ton sand sculpture on Main Street; as in past years, it was crafted in advance for photo opportunities.
That display, of course, always features pigs.
Oinks for the memories
Lexington is an hour northeast of Charlotte. Take I-85 North to Exit 87; follow I-85 Business North to Exit 86, then U.S. 29 Business East – Main Street – to the festival area. Details: www.barbecuefestival.com.