11 Iconic Foods That Originated In North Carolina

North Carolina east barbeque plated
North Carolina east barbeque plated - Darwin Brandis/Getty Images

Bordered by Virginia to the north, Tennessee to the west, and South Carolina below, North Carolina is known for more than just its friendly people, advantageous coastal geographic setting, and gorgeous natural sites. The Tar Heel State is also for known for its delicious and unique cuisine. While the culinary narrative of North Carolina fits in well with the other southeastern coastal states it sits near, plenty of standout foods set the state apart from its neighbors.

This North Carolinian has plenty of experience eating the state's formidable cuisine, which includes a number of tasty food items and styles — many of which are also available in other states. But wouldn't you rather get these flavorful foods straight from the source? From its particular styles of barbecue and iconic methods of preparing seafood to various yummy snacks, here are 11 edible things NC is famous for. These traditional food items are widely known outside the region for a reason. With high quality ingredients and incredibly distinct flavors, you won't regret exploring North Carolina's food scene.

Read more: Styles Of Regional BBQ In The US

North Carolina Barbecue

Pulled pork sandwich
Pulled pork sandwich - Thepixelchef/Getty Images

Barbecue, which originates from the Spanish word "barbacoa," has long historical roots in the state of North Carolina. There are actually two distinct styles of pork barbecue in this southern state: east and west. But what makes east and west NC barbecue sauce different? East North Carolina BBQ, a vinegar-based concoction that uses almost the whole pig, is considered to be the original. When diverse styles of barbecue first hit the East Coast centuries ago, this is the one that popped up within NC. It boasts a delicious, tangy vinegary sauce that emphasizes the meat without hiding its unctuous, slightly fatty flavors.

In contrast, west North Carolina BBQ — which comes from German descendants in the Piedmont area of the state — typically combines a tomato element (usually ketchup) with vinegar in its composition. This barbecue configuration also only employs the pork shoulder. Sometimes, brown sugar and butter are added to the recipe, which creates a thicker and richer sauce than what's seen in the east style. While both styles are popular in the state, locals from each region will argue that their area's style is best.

Despite the rivalry and differences between east and west, the way of cooking meat in the barbecue style has been engrained in North Carolina's storied culinary history for centuries. But the state's first official BBQ stand only popped up in Lexington in 1919 — swiftly kicking off the traditional availability of barbecue dishes in restaurant settings.


Cheerwine in ice
Cheerwine in ice - Joni Hanebutt/Shutterstock

Imagine cracking open an ice-cold soda with your loved ones on the porch on a warm North Carolina day (rocking chair, anyone?). Even better, imagine that refreshing beverage is Cheerwine — the beloved cherry-flavored soft drink famously known around the state. This sweet soda (yup, soda, not wine) further contributes to NC's culinary character and history.

Cheerwine is actually older than you might expect. Founded in 1917 in Salisbury, NC by businessman Lewis D. Peeler (whose family still operates the company these days), it can now be found all over the United States. Given the sugar shortage during World War I, it's said that the bottling company owner faced the task of creating a soda with less sugar than usual. The brand claims that Peeler bought the cherry-flavor recipe from a St. Louis salesman, developed the formula for Cheerwine, and the rest is history. (For the advertising buffs out there, here's a fun fact: the drink's slogan at the time was "For Health & Pleasure!")

Fast forward to modern day, and Cheerwine is still making history. Every year, Salisbury's Cheerwine Festival brings in droves of people to celebrate the unique soda. In 2023, Cheerwine partnered with Charlotte, NC's family-owned NoDa Brewing Company to create Cheerwine Ale, a wheat ale kissed by the flavor of cherry — evoking every North Carolinian's favorite soda.


Livermush and toast
Livermush and toast - Fanfo/Shutterstock

Including pork liver and meat scraps, livermush is a beloved North Carolinian delicacy that originated around the Charlotte area. Other names for the dish, amped up with spices and cornmeal for more substance, include simply liver and mush. But whatever way you slice it, it's an iconic dish with long roots of history in the Tar Heel State.

The combination initially arrived in the United States back in the 18th century, when European settlers brought it over from Germany. It originally took the form of scrapple in Pennsylvania (though scrapple is different in ingredient composition than livermush), and then migrated down into NC's Piedmont area — becoming what we now know as livermush. It was especially popular during the Great Depression, as it was a protein- and calorie-rich food item that could be made on the cheap in a time of struggle. Nowadays, those who want to eat sustainably may see livermush's merits as a nose-to-tail dish, which is valid. But the history of livermush clearly goes deeper than that.

You can try this iconic and affordable NC treat at many restaurants throughout the state, but one popular spot to visit is the Brooks' Sandwich House located in Charlotte. If you know this dish well, but haven't been frying livermush up to enhance its meaty flavor while making it at home, why not take it to expert level and start now?

Texas Pete's Hot Sauce

Bottles of Texas Pete
Bottles of Texas Pete - Billy F Blume Jr/Shutterstock

You understandably might think it originated in Texas, but you'd be wrong. The iconic peppery, vinegary, and tangy hot sauce known as Texas Pete is actually a North Carolinian creation. In 1953, T.W. Garner Food Company locked down a trademark for this hot sauce. But, as it's told by the company, Texas Pete's history goes back decades before that. Patriarch Sam Garner and his sons were known for selling a barbecue sauce around NC when the company — and the original hot sauce — launched in 1929. T.W. Garner would sell other sauces and jams, but it's Texas Pete that has survived the test of time. It was reportedly even included in soldier rations during World War II. The Texas Pete factory, which was built in Winston-Salem, NC near the Garner family home in 1942, still exists today.

Word to the wise? Texas Pete is good on barbecue, whether it's east or west style. Don't forget to try it out on your traditional southern biscuits and gravy, or even with fried chicken. But if you're feeling a bit adventurous, Texas Pete -- which packs a medium heat -- is a versatile pantry staple that can elevate breakfast foods like eggs to grits, bourbon-based cocktails, homemade dressings, and even rich chocolatey desserts.

If Texas Pete isn't bringing enough heat for your palate, the line has since expanded to include a hotter hot sauce. There's also a sauteed garlic flavor, a Mexican hot sauce, and even a dry seasoning.


Pepsi can
Pepsi can - Silver Wings/Shutterstock

It's more than just a rival to the ever-popular Coca-Cola. Pepsi is an iconic beverage all of its own, one that originated in the Tar Heel State. It reportedly all began when New Bern, NC pharmacist Caleb Bradham created "Brad's Drink" in 1893, a sugary beverage that included the pepsin enzyme to help improve digestion. Kola nuts were also included in the ingredients list, adding the unique flavor the drink is known for.

It was renamed to Pepsi-Cola five years later, as the soda took off. The Pepsi-Cola Company's success grew and shrank during the first half of the 1900s, seeing everything from high sales and bankruptcy to rebranding and a reworked recipe. But once 1961 hit, when Pepsi merged with Frito-Lay, the company began to shape into the one we know today — continuing to acquire other drink and snack companies through the years and diversifying its portfolio with options like Diet Pepsi, Caffeine-Free Pepsi, and various flavored options.

Though Pepsi has its own long legacy in the state of North Carolina, some people, of course, prefer Coca-Cola. But it all comes down to a slight difference in formula that creates the strong rivalry we see between the two popular drinks today: The one ingredient that makes Pepsi and Coca-Cola taste different is citric acid. While Coca-Cola contains none, Pepsi's use of this ingredient makes for its refreshingly tart flavor.

Krispy Kreme's Original Glazed Doughnut

Krispy Kreme storefront
Krispy Kreme storefront - Egexplorer/Getty Images

If you've ever gone to Krispy Kreme, you know that its original glazed doughnut is a beloved treat. What you may not know is that it first came to be in Winston-Salem, NC in 1937. Per Krispy Kreme, founder Vernon Rudolph reportedly "bought a secret yeast-raised doughnut recipe from a New Orleans French chef," set up shop, and sold his wares to grocery stores in the area. Duke University's The Chronicle reports the alleged chef in question may have been a Kentucky cook named Joseph G. LeBoeuf. While Krispy Kreme's original recipe has been kept top-secret for decades, it's believed that LeBeouf's included fluffed egg whites, sugar, shortening, skim milk, flour, and mashed potatoes (yes, you read that right). Once shaped and fried, the doughnuts were covered in a thin glaze.

As popularity grew, the first Krispy Kreme opened up — a hole-in-the-wall location at Rudolph's doughnut-making factory. It's since become an iconic mainstay of every North Carolinian's breakfast, after-school treat, and everything in between. The 1960s saw the chain hone in on the famously bright white, red, and green branding we still see at locations across the U.S. today — not to mention the "HOT NOW" light that signals when fresh doughnuts are flowing.

Next time you visit Krispy Kreme and grab a dozen donuts, branch out past the classic glazed. You may get a bit lost exploring the different flavors, so allow us to help you out with our ranking of Krispy Kreme's doughnuts.

Lance's Peanut Butter Crackers

Lance peanut butter crackers
Lance peanut butter crackers - Noderog/Getty Images

Lance Inc. is known for many packaged goods, but its most iconic is its peanut butter crackers. It all began in 1913, when Charlotte, NC-based food distributor Philip L. Lance founded the company. He'd reportedly purchased 500 pounds of peanuts for a deal that ultimately went south, per the company. But as the old saying goes, when life gives you peanuts, make peanut butter. Lance roasted and sold bagged peanuts for five cents, later making peanut butter, and eventually debuting the peanut butter sandwich cracker at his family's suggestion.

Surprisingly, the company really began to boom during the Great Depression, due in part to this snack's low nickel-a-pack cost. A few years after hitting its first $1 million in sales, the ToastChee peanut butter sandwich cracker as we now know it — with peanut butter spread between two orange, cheesy crackers baked by Lance Inc. — officially hit the market in 1938. The rest is history. As historian Tom Hanchett said in a 2020 WTVI documentary (via Charlotte Magazine), "Lance's is one of the great success stories of Charlotte and the Carolinas."

Lance has since expanded its range of products, including reduced fat peanut butter, cheddar cheese, or whole grain sandwich crackers, and even gluten-free crackers. If you have a peanut allergy, Lance's vanilla crème sandwich cookie is an underrated, nut-free alternative snack. But it's the OG peanut butter sandwich cracker that put this NC company on the map and remains a nationwide favorite.

Mt. Olive Pickles

Mt. Olive pickle jars
Mt. Olive pickle jars - JHVEPhoto/Shutterstock

In the small eastern town of Mount Olive, NC — and on the corner of Cucumber and Vine Streets, no less — the Mt. Olive Pickle Company's factory still sits on its original property from when it was founded by Shickrey Baddour in 1926. The company claims that it began by brining cucumbers so as to avoid local food waste, before eventually pickling, jarring, and selling them on its own.

While we ranked Mr. Olive's crunchy, salty, and tangy baby dills, in particular, high on our list of the best grocery store pickles, its signature sweet bread & butter chips are what made this pickle brand popular. And its legacy as the country's largest independent pickle company remains intact decades later. The jars, with easily recognizable green-and-yellow labels, oddly don't include the word "pickle" — but any North Carolinian is familiar this brand's impact. For example, Mt. Olive's products even played a part in streamlining the controlled fermentation process throughout the industry in the '70s, following research conducted at NC State University's U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Fermentation Lab.

Mt. Olive Pickle Company's line of pickles seems ever-expanding, from classic kosher dills and sweet gherkins to specialty pickles like sugar-free bread & butter chips. And for a spicy twist on two NC classics, you can even find a Buffalo-style kosher dill pickle that's made with Texas Pete's hot sauce.

Calabash-Style Seafood

Hand dipping Calabash-style seafood
Hand dipping Calabash-style seafood - Inthon Maitrisamphan/Shutterstock

In the southeast of North Carolina, you'll come across the fishing village of Calabash. This place was called Pea Landing prior to the late 19th century. But it's situated on the Calabash River — which has always been a source of food for the locals, whether they sold the fish they caught or kept it for their families to eat — hence the modern name.

What truly puts this village on the map of culinary treasures, however, is its lightly battered and deep-fried Calabash-style seafood. This style began emerging in the first half of the 1900s with oyster roasts, though freshly caught fish, shrimp, and other seafood can also receive the Calabash-style treatment. Sisters Ruth Beck and Lucy Coleman are credited for solidifying this roasting technique in their respective family restaurants. Coleman is said to have built a shelter near the docks to host these oyster roasts in 1940, where she reportedly used the family preparation method and dipped fish in evaporated milk, flour with salt and pepper, and cornmeal before frying. This reportedly evolved into what we know as Calabash-style today.

These days, there are countless restaurants in Calabash serving this style. Moreover, it has reached out past Calabash, and you can enjoy it all around North Carolina. But for the true historian of North Carolina food -- and Calabash locals -- you will find the most authentic version of this seafood preparation right there on the coast of the Calabash River.

North Carolina Oysters

Oyster with hot sauce
Oyster with hot sauce - Bauhaus1000/Getty Images

Oysters can be found all over the East Coast, but they've held a special place in North Carolinian cuisine for centuries. While Native Americans who lived in what is now NC ate plenty of oysters, they later became important to the economy as a trade commodity during colonial times. By the late-19th century, this delicacy was being shipped in droves around the country, to the likes of New York and San Francisco. However, the popularity of North Carolina oysters soon became a long-standing issue.

One important piece of oyster history is the Oyster War of 1891. North Carolinians traditionally used tongs to harvest oysters, but eventually found themselves facing off — literally, with guns and cannons — against out-of-state fisherman and pirates who would use deep-water dredges, causing harm to the oyster bed environment. Backed by the state government, the North Carolinians' cause was legally won within months. But due in part to overfishing, the number of oysters in NC's waters has decreased over time. For example, in 1902, 800,000 bushels were harvested. By 2018, this number had lowered to 158,000 bushels. In more recent years, environmental efforts have been made to restore these depleting oyster habitats.

Despite the decrease, oysters are still important to North Carolina's culinary character. They're widely eaten either raw or roasted — and enjoyed with condiment pairings like hot sauce or horseradish. If you've been to the Carolinian coast, you've probably been fortunate enough to experience an oyster roast.


Sonker close-up
Sonker close-up - johnlck/Shutterstock

Sonker is thought to have originated in Surry County, NC back in the 19th century as a frugal (and delicious) way for families to use up fruit. But what exactly is sonker, and how does it differ from cobbler? A traditional cobbler requires mixing fruit with sugar and lemon juice and topping the mixture with biscuits. Sonker — another dessert that consists of fruit and sweetened dough — differs in that you will bake the fruit mixture before placing the dough (which is a simple mix of the usual ingredients you'd expect) on top. This process eases the burden of cutting out biscuits or making a more complicated crust from scratch.

Though there are various theories on how this NC dessert got its name, a popular one is that it's derived from the term "sinker" -- indeed, as this concoction does its magic in the oven, the fruit does "sink" below the dough. Finally, traditional sonker is served with a so-called "dip" of sorts placed on top, which consists of a mixture of sugar, milk, vanilla, and other spices.

For those who want to explore this sweet North Carolinian creation for themselves, there's an attraction called the Surry Sonker Trail. With about seven stops on the trail, it ensures you will get a solid taste of the treat. To celebrate this Surry County classic further, you can also attend the annual Sonker Festival in the town of Mount Airy.

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