Across the United States it is summer and families are enjoying picnics outdoors with food cooked over an open fire. America's love affair with barbecue goes back centuries. Since the early days, various regions of the country have developed their own unique barbecue recipes. VOA's Chris Simkins takes us to a small community in the southern U.S. state of North Carolina where cooking and eating barbecue is such serious business there is now a barbecue battle. 

In a small community in the southern U.S. state of North Carolina, Scott Cope describes how he prepares Lexington style barbecue. "We season it and put it on the open pit. It takes anywhere from eight to 10 hours to cook."

This is barbecuing, Lexington style. In this part of North Carolina slabs of pig shoulders are slow-cooked over hickory wood coals in open pits. The meat is basted with a mixture of vinegar, ketchup, water, salt and pepper.

Restaurant owners, like Scott Cope and his family, have been cooking pork this way for decades. "This is what made Lexington barbecue famous -- it's the way it is prepared."

Lexington, North Carolina, with a population of 20,000, is now laying claim to being the barbecue capital of the world. Last year more than 150,000 people consumed 6,800 kilos of pork during the city's annual barbecue festival. The juicy meat, with its rich smoky taste is legendary here.

Lexington's first barbecue restaurant opened in 1919 when Sid Weaver set up a tent outside the courthouse on Main Street. His friend, Jesse Swicegood, joined Mr. Weaver and the two began training other barbecue chefs who eventually opened more restaurants in Lexington.

Sonny Conrad talks about the history. "A lot of them came off of those two branches and spread out and now we had, a few years ago, 22 restaurants in and around Lexington selling barbecue."

Sonny Conrad has been in the barbecue business for 50 years. He and his sons keep the lunch and dinner crowd happy with their chopped barbecue sandwiches. Sonny says Lexington has the best barbecue in the country. "We claim to have it and we think we do. We can put up with the best of them anywhere at anytime."

The battle over bragging rights is complicated by the fact there are two kinds of barbecue recipes in North Carolina. In the western part of the state there's Lexington style. Scott shares one secret, "You want to take some barbecue dip. This is our sauce, vinegar-based ketchup. And then the original red barbecue slaw."

But in eastern North Carolina people barbecue using the whole hog and a sauce made from vinegar and pepper, and no ketchup. Columnist Dennis Rodgers says ketchup doesn't belong on barbecue. "Somebody who would put ketchup on barbecue and give it to a child is capable of pretty much anything."

Caffee Cope, who runs Smokey Joe's in Lexington, disagrees and says the feud between east and west will never end. "Everybody cooks it differently down east and their sauces are different, their slaws are different. They are going to say there's is the best. We are going to say ours is the best."

While people may not agree on the taste, they do have one thing in common: cooking and selling barbecue is a learned art, passed down from generation to generation.

Scott Cope says, like many others, he was raised in this business. "I figured I was 12-years-old and my father ran a barbecue business and I kind of just hung around him while he worked watching him, my uncle Paul and my grandfather and I just grew up in it."

As the meat sizzles on the grill, everyone here can agree that family tradition, craftsmanship and the love for the taste of North Carolina barbecue aren't likely to change.