Sep 22, 2022 - Food and Drink

Avoid making a Great Barbecue Mistake

A plate of barbecue and hushpuppies on a counter.
Lexington Barbecue in Lexington, N.C. Photo: April Greer for The Washington Post via Getty Images

It was around this time two years ago when a North Carolina U.S. Senate candidate made a grave mistake.

Flashback: Just over a month out from the election, Cal Cunningham tweeted a photo of himself standing next to a grill and a stack of what appears to be hot dog and hamburger buns with a concerning caption: "There's nothing better than BBQ—except for winning this Senate seat, of course."

  • The problem, clear as day to the same voters Cunningham was trying to win over, is that grilling does not equal barbecue. At least not here.
  • Of note: Though his gaffe made him unqualified to represent North Carolina in many residents' minds, it was actually a scandal revealing he was sexting a woman who wasn’t his wife that ultimately cost him the election.

Driving the news: Numerous politicians have made similar mistakes on the campaign trail — all of which resulted in unwanted headlines at minimum.

Why it matters: North Carolinians are serious about their barbecue, so the stakes are high. Get it wrong, and you may lose an election.

The good news is that these mistakes can be avoided, and John Shelton Reed, co-author of "Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue" and author of "On Barbecue" gave us the rundown on what not to do.

Don't talk if you don't know what you're talking about.

Know the differences between eastern and Piedmont-style barbecue sauce.

  • Bonus points if you know that "something else altogether" is going on in the mountains, Reed said.

Be true to your place, if you have one.

  • When Elizabeth Dole and Erskine Bowles were vying for a Senate seat in 2002, Reed said, they were asked at a campaign stop if they preferred eastern or Piedmont. Bowles ducked the question and lost.
  • "He paid the price for that," Reed said. "People in North Carolina, they expect you to have a preference and even if it's wrong, they respect you for it more than if you dodged the question."

Pick the right place.

  • In the throes of the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton made the wrong choice: She stopped at Midwood Smokehouse in Charlotte.
  • "She might as well have gone to a tapas restaurant," Reed said.
  • Trump, however, made a right one, Reed said, by stopping at Stamey's Barbecue in Greensboro.

A quick, non-definitive list of places Reed said may be worth visiting if you’re on the campaign trail:

“There's a great place in Winston-Salem, there's a great place in Shelby," Reed said. "Any given day, there are a dozen places in North Carolina that might have the best barbecue."

The bottom line: Have fun with it, but know what you're doing.

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