This piece was written as a column for GateHouse Media.
I hail from a state that offers a no-fail plan for world peace. It’s not from politicians or pundits, peaceniks or pedagogues. No, my friends, the secret lies in how the people of North Carolina have learned to live with a difference of opinion so deeply ingrained that’s it almost genetically encoded. The bone of contention? Barbecue sauce.
If you didn’t have the privilege of being raised in a BBQ-centric state, this may seem a bit far-fetched. But those of us who have lived with the tension, endured the heated debates, and been dismissed or demeaned because of our sauce preference know better.
To paraphrase Norman Maclean, the author of A River Runs Through It, there is no clear line between religion and [North Carolina barbecue]. And religion is something you don’t monkey with.
The sauce saga began over 300 years ago with the introduction of a tangy, vinegar-based sauce—a vestige of Caribbean and West Indian influences that included vinegar, salt, and black and red pepper. The turning point came in 1876 when Heinz introduced a new-fangled concoction called ketchup. Soon after, the western part of the state led by German immigrants in Lexington, North Carolina, began experimenting with a different, sweeter tomato-based sauce. Like a Baptist church that stopped lovin’ Jesus, this was the ultimate blasphemy.
Brother began to turn against brother, family against family. Everyone jumped into the fray, and the name calling continues to this day. For example, Dennis Rogers, a columnist, western sauce advocate and the self-appointed “Oracle of the Holy Grub,” once publicly referred to the eastern recipe as “imitation BBQ.” At the other end of the spectrum, author Jerry Bledsoe, a rabid eastern sauce advocate, and the self-professed “world’s leading, foremost barbecue authority,” once wrote in the Raleigh News and Observer, “”People who would put ketchup in the sauce they feed to innocent children are capable of most anything.”
This is war, and it’s a war not unlike many of our modern headlines. In fact, most of our global problems break down into the same formula as the NC barbecue ruckus: someone is trying to mess with something that is “holy” to someone else.
Some people treat money like it’s holy. Others give holy status to land, power, oil, truth or barbeque sauce. Given this parallel, perhaps our global leaders might consider studying how North Carolinians have engaged in a generations-old fight without annihilating each other.
Our solution is quite simple. Step one: we remember what we have in common. North Carolinians may fight over the sauce, but in the end, we are all lovers of what it enhances: pulled pork. What if Democrats and Republicans tried this approach? Our two parties fight over, well, everything. But in the end – Democrats or Republicans – we’re are all Americans.
Step two: North Carolinians realize that while we disagree on the means, the end goal is the same: we are all just trying to make a better barbecue sauce. What if we gave the same consideration to those who walk a different path? What if we assumed the good intentions of those who are different and offered them the benefit of the doubt?
Step three: We put all the sauces on the table and share a meal together. Oscar Wilde once said, “After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relatives.” I found out the truth of this statement growing up in Charlotte, the war-torn border of the barbecue wars, which meant we knew a thing or two about compromise. For example, during holiday dinners family members gathered around our table would include people from eastern and western North Carolina, South Carolinians (who worship a completely different, mustard-based sauce), and even, gasp, Texans, who prefer brisket to pulled pork. My mother, always the diplomat, would place all the different meats and sauces on the table, give one of her “looks” to the gathered barbecue enemies, then announce like a general on a battlefield, “Now sit down and eat. And let’s agree to disagree.”
And that, my friends, is how you accomplish world peace. Like mixing a beloved barbecue sauce, it just takes a dash of diplomacy, a pinch of patience, and equal portions of empathy and respect. So, the next time you feel your blood pressure spiking over the daily news, imagine pulling up a chair, putting all the sauces on the table, and enjoying a meal with those with whom you disagree.