NC’s BBQ Fest on the Neuse Puts Whole Hog In Spotlight

This week we have a guest post from great friend of the blog Sean Ludwig of The Smoke Sheet and NYC BBQ. Sean recently attended the BBQ Fest on the Neuse in downtown Kinston. I have yet to make it to Kinston for the event but after reading Sean’s recap, I have added it to my ever-expanding list of barbecue joints, contests, and festivals for the eastern part of the state.

This article has been reprinted from The Smoke Sheet with Sean’s permission and a minor edit to reflect when the festival took place. Both The Smoke Sheet and NYC BBQ newsletters are invaluable resources for the barbecue-obsessed and if you aren’t already subscribed, I can’t recommend it enough.

On the first weekend in May, an estimated 100,000 attendees showed up for the BBQ Fest on the Neuse in Kinston, North Carolina. The annual BBQ Fest — held alongside the Neuse River — featured food trucks, vendors, live music, rides, family fun activities, and more on Friday night and Saturday day.

The BBQ Fest on Neuse attracted tens of thousands this past weekend in Kinston, NC. (Photo by Sean Ludwig)

But the real star of the show for die-hard barbecue fans was the 42nd Wil King Hog Happenin’ BBQ competition — the world’s largest whole hog cookoff. The competition, sanctioned by the North Carolina Pork Council, featured 40 Professional and 47 Backyard teams that cooked hogs on Friday night into Saturday morning. This whole hog competition is one of the top competitions held annually in North Carolina, alongside events like the Newport Pig Cookin Contest.

“This is the largest whole hog competition in the country,” Chris Fineran of the highly decorated Beach Boys BBQ team said. “And at the Newport competition, they have 68 cooks, and every one of them has to compete in the same Professional category. Here it is broken into two different groups. … But everybody shows up. There are probably six to eight prior Pork Council champions competing.”

The BBQ Fest hosts the world’s largest whole hog competition. (Photo by Sean Ludwig)

Competitors select their hogs using a lottery system on Friday starting at 8 p.m. and then go to work cleaning and prepping them. No special seasonings can be used, only salt. Teams cook for roughly 10 hours before judges begin tasting and testing hogs at 8 a.m. Just four judges were in charge of evaluating the 40 Professional team hogs, and four judges scored the 47 Backyard teams.

Employees from Kings BBQ Restaurant prepare chopped whole hog for the public at the BBQ Fest. (Photo by Sean Ludwig)

Almost all of the hogs and hog parts that are cooked during the cookoff end up being chopped up and served for BBQ sandwiches during the main event. The crew from Kings BBQ Restaurant in Kinston, North Carolina, is in charge of selecting what meat and parts go into the pork and chopping it up in style. The BBQ sandwiches and “bulk BBQ” in plastic containers sell out each year, with this year being no exception.

Around the U.S., traditional whole hog cooking is not easy to find, with only a handful of restaurants still serving it weekly. It takes a lot of hard work but the result is special.

“You can get some of the bacon, you can get some of the ham, the shoulders, the loins, and all that is chopped up together,” Fineran said. “With whole hog, when you put it all together, you got all the flavor profiles with the white meats and the dark meats. There’s no better barbecue.”

Fresh whole hog sandwiches for the public are prepared Saturday morning of the fest. (Photo by Sean Ludwig)

During the awards ceremony, cooks who had been up for 40+ hours finally found out the results. In the Backyard category, Kenneth Clark of Backyard Bubba won first place, earning him $300. In the professional category, Billy Narron of Wicked Pig took first place and won $500. (See more winners from the event from the Neuse News.)

Billy Narron of the Wicked Pig team from Middlesex, NC, won the top prize in the Professional category. (Photo by Sean Ludwig)

The strangest thing about the BBQ Fest on the Neuse may be that you could go to it and not experience what makes it special. On both Friday and Saturday, thousands of attendees bought tons of non-BBQ food from street vendors, watched popular country artist Easton Corbin put on a show, and checked out classic cars.

But the whole hog competition, which purposely has teams putting in so much effort Friday night and Saturday morning, is not really meant for the general public. That said, I did see a lot of people in the know walking around before the event kicked off on Saturday, and they were able to get some fresh whole hog bites from teams after they had been judged. And the masses can at least try some of the whole hogs in the form of tasty sandwiches throughout the day.

Whole hog is a special type of barbecue. (Photo by Sean Ludwig)

I certainly was glad I showed up early on Saturday morning so I could see teams finish up their hogs, observe the judging, listen to stories from pitmasters, and taste-test a few hogs. If you do find yourself near the BBQ Fest of the Neuse, you should check it out. Just be sure to make friends with the teams cooking whole hogs, and you’ll be able to get the full experience.

Sean Ludwig
Co-Founder, The Smoke Sheet

How Does a Recent Trip to Swig & Swine Stack Up to Prior Visits?

Name: Swig & Swine
Date: 4/15/23
Address: 1217 Savannah Hwy, Charleston, SC 29407
Order: Pulled pork barbecue sandwich with hash and rice (link to menu)
Pricing: $$

Monk: Swig & Swine has been hit or miss for the Barbecue Bros in the past. Speedy visited this location almost exactly 9 years prior to my most recent visit and found it to be slightly above average (and presumably not just because Speedy’s phone at the time took mediocre photos).

I later checked out the Summerville location 3 years later and liked it quite a bit more. That location at the time had enough space to smoke whole hogs while also putting out some pretty credible brisket as well. Now, whole hog appears to be a Thursday only special (at least at this location) while the brisket continues to be on the regular menu.

Since then, pitmaster Anthony DiBernardo has since become sole owner of Swig & Swine, buying out his initial partners Queen Street Hospitality Group in 2019 while also co-founding the fantastic Holy Smokes barbecue festival, which I went to last year and hope to be back at again in the near future

Back to the West Ashley location, which I understand to be the first of the now three-strong chain. Coming off the Rancho Lewis experience the prior night, I wasn’t exactly in a particularly hungry state even after a short hike at the Morris Island lighthouse at Folly Beach. I opted for a simple pulled pork sandwich (yes, yes I know but that’s how its listed on the menu) with a side of hash and rice.

Comparing this with Melvin’s BBQ a few days prior, I like the pork sandwich less and the hash and rice more. The pork was large portion but a bit on the bland side even with some nice chunks of barked chopped in. Unfortunately it seemed as if it absolutely had to have one of the sauces from the table poured on. The vinegar sauce certainly helped the cause.

The hash and rice was thicker than what I had at the James Island Melvin’s with more flavor. This is actually the opposite of what John Tanner experienced on his visit so take from that what you will. For me, it was my favorite part of the meal

Had I read Speedy’s review before hand, I would have gotten some smoked wings and opted for the sausage sandwich special for that day. Whoops, shame on me.

Swig & Swine seems to do a brisk catering and bulk pick-up business on the weekend as from our view on the patio we saw several cars back in, open their tailgates, and pick up large aluminum pans of barbecue and sides. I like to imagine that they were going to a fun outdoor party. On that day, they would have enjoyed a beautiful spring low country day and some above-average-but-not-quite-transcendent barbecue.

Atmosphere – 3.5 hogs
Pork – 3 hogs
Hash and Rice – 3.5 hogs
Overall – 3 hogs

North Carolina BBQ and Community

Monk: NC State’s Homegrown articles and videos offer tips and tools for gardening, cooking and sourcing food in North Carolina. This video focuses on our favorite NC foodway, barbecue.

There’s a surefire way to start a fight with a native North Carolinian. It’s not arguing about which university is tops in the state — clearly it’s NC State — or the best basketball conference — everyone knows it’s the ACC.

No, if you want to get into a knock-down, drag-out, try suggesting that something is superior to North Carolina barbecue. It doesn’t matter if you’re extolling the merits of Memphis dry rub or the tastes of Texas brisket, you’re guaranteed to get major pushback from a true child of the Old North State.

We are passionate about our barbecue in these parts, says Dana Hanson, NC State Extension specialist in meat science and a self-proclaimed barbecue purist.

“That tradition has carried over hundreds of years here,” Hanson says. “It’s become part of our DNA, part of our food culture in North Carolina. We raise pork, and we know how to cook it too.”

In this edition of Homegrown, we take a deep dive into the tradition and the community aspects that make North Carolina barbecue so exceptional.

Melvin’s BBQ Switched (Back) to Wood Smokers in 2015 and Hasn’t Looked Back

Name: Melvin’s BBQ
Date: 4/13/23
Address: 538 Folly Rd, Charleston, SC 29412
Order: Two meat combo platter with pork, turkey, slaw, and hash and rice (link)
Pricing: $$

Monk: Back in 2015, Melvin’s BBQ owner David Bessinger saw the light. As Robert Moss notes at the time in his piece for Southern Living, he saw the writing on the wall and made some changes to his two Charleston-area restaurants that had been smoking on Southern Pride gas-assisted smokers since the early 80’s. He switched to offset wood burners from Georgia-based Lang BBQ Smokers and hasn’t yet looked back. I had overlooked Melvin’s on several Charleston trips since 2015, which turned out to be a mistake after sampling their fare on a rainy Charleston weekday. Melvin’s has two Charleston-area restaurants: one in Mount Pleasant and this location I visited on James Island just a mile from the Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint that opened roughly 4 years back.

Melvin’s now has brisket on the menu, one of the big changes from 2015, but I stuck with pork and turkey with a side of hash and rice and slaw for my order. Cornbread is included with the combos and a pickle bar has an assortment of pickles and onions. All served on a Texas-style platter with butcher paper, a couple more of the changes from 8 years prior.

The pork was piled in a generous serving in the shape of a take out container, and on its own it was fresh and plenty smokey with chunks of bark chopped in. One of the non-Texas-influenced changes from 2015 was switching back to pastured pork, and while I didn’t taste their prior pork I have to assume it makes a difference. I sampled the spicy mustard barbecue sauce and while I’ll never be a huge mustard fan, I did enjoy this spicy version both with the pork and the turkey.

Opting for the lighter option of turkey instead of brisket, I was really pleased with Melvin’s version. It was perfectly moist and tender, with a nice peppery crust. Would definitely order again.

I was not getting out of Charleston with some hash, but was a bit let down by what Melvin’s served. It was a bit thinner in consistency than what I’ve tried (and enjoyed), and not as flavorful. Definitely a let down, and I had a better version of it a few days later at Swig & Swine (more on that soon). The slaw, too was also on the runny side.

Melvin’s has been family-owned by a branch of the famed Bessinger family for well over 80 years, since 1939. Had owner David Bessinger not had the foresight to switch back to all wood cooking, I wonder if they would have made it to the 80 year mark. In any case, I’m glad he did and that I finally took a chance on a joint I had wrongly be skipping over for the past few years. Give them a try if you’re in Charleston.

Atmosphere/Ambiance – 3 hogs
Pork – 4 hogs
Turkey – 4 hogs
Sides – 3 hogs
Overall – 4 hogs