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The Tar Heel State is home to many unique eats, drinks, and condiments. But something you may have never thought about it is that so many famous foods hail from North Carolina. That includes familiar chains and brands that are known throughout the nation and beyond our borders!
And you know what makes this post even better? There are some cool and interesting stories behind these famous North Carolina foods. Knowing more about how and where they started makes our experiences with them even more special.
This post is part of our series on all the awesome things to eat and drink in North Carolina.
Famous Foods from North Carolina
In the battle for our minds at breakfast time, Biscuitville is where we usually turn first. The franchise was born in Graham, Alamance County in 1966. But at the time, the store was selling fresh pies as Pizzaville and by 1972, had six locations across North Carolina and Virginia.
In an attempt to generate income during the morning, owner Maurice Jennings started baking his family recipe for biscuits. They became so popular that they out-sold the pizzas. And while the first “Biscuiteville” opened in Danville, Virginia in 1982, eventually all of the Pizzavilles transformed into Biscuitvilles.
What do you get when a former KFC executive and a Hardee’s franchise owner get together in Charlotte? That’s right. Bojangles!
The first Bojangles opened July 6, 1977, as a quick service walk-in only fried chicken restaurant. Biscuits are a big part of operations, too, inside 700 Bojangles locations. The company is also the official team sponsor of the Carolina Panthers.
If you’re out any time of day (especially breakfast) and pass a Bojangles, you’ll see the parking lot and drive-thru packed with folks who know it’s “Bo Time!”
Probably one of my favorite things about warm summer days is having the window down. And when passing a Cook Out, the smells of a backyard grill fill our car, begging us to stop for a burger or some barbecue, but always a milkshake.
Cook Out started in 1989 in Greensboro and has grown to nearly 200 locations throughout much of the South. Some locations have dine-in space but many are take-out only. Personally, ordering at a window brings back a bit of nostalgia that’s lost in most restaurants these days.
The national burger chain Hardee’s was born in September 1960 when Wilber Hardee opened up his fast and affordable restaurant in Greenville. He got the idea after visiting the state’s first McDonald’s in Greensboro and saw how successful a restaurant could be at selling burgers and fries.
The original menu was simple: hamburgers, cheeseburgers, fries, fried apple pies, milkshakes, and soft drinks. It cost 15 cents for a hamburger and 20 cents for a cheeseburger.
The biggest difference between McDonald’s and Hardee’s was the char-grills that Mr. Hardee used from the beginning to give his simple burgers more flavor.
In the 1930s, Vernon Rudolph’s uncle purchased a secret yeast donut recipe and a copyrighted name (Krispy Kreme) from a New Orleans Chef. Several years later, Rudolph started selling doughnuts out of his Pontiac in Winston-Salem.
Soon, the demand for the doughy confectionary pillows grew so big that Rudolph turned his production facility into a retail spot.
Today, Krispy Kream is known throughout the South by its green roofs and glowing hot sign (it’s on!). And if you’re planning a trip to a distant land, keep an eye out because these melt-in-your-mouth doughnuts are found across the world.
Brands from North Carolina
Mt. Olive Pickles
We don’t need to tell you this, but Mt. Olive Pickles are kind of a big dill! Lebanese immigrant Shirley Baddour founded the company in 1926 after buying up surplus cucumbers and priming them.
He wanted to sell the pickles to another company but struggled to find a buyer. When Mount Olive Pickle Company was officially founded, it had 37 shareholders, with all production done by hand.
Today, Mount Olive Pickle Company is the largest pickle brand in the nation and approximately one-third of their cucumbers come from independent North Carolina farmers. Each December, you can celebrate the new year in style during the kid-friendly New Year’s Eve Pickle Drop!
Did you know that the first commercially sold peanut butter cracker came from a coffee salesman in Charlotte? In 1913, Philip Lance bought 500 pounds of Virginia peanuts for a customer who then decided they didn’t need them after all.
Instead of returning the peanuts to the farmer, Lance decided to roast them up and sell them. His peanut selling business soon was a success and he started making peanut butter.
In order to showcase the tastiness of his delicious peanut butter, Lance’s wife and daughters spread it between two crackers and thus, the peanut butter sandwich was born.
In 2010, the company merged with Snyder’s of Hanover and today, can be found in convenience stores and vending machines nationwide.
Pepsi is probably the most famous North Carolina brand, even if it doesn’t fall into the “foods” category. Its original name was Brad’s Drink, first sold out of a drugstore in New Bern in 1898.
The original recipe for “Brad’s Drink” was sugar, water, caramel, lemon oil, nutmeg, and natural additives. Caleb Bradham hoped his fountain drink would help with digestion and energy, and unknowingly created a product that today, nearly everyone has enjoyed at least once!
Today, you can visit the Birthplace of Pepsi in New Bern and enjoy a cold one fountain-style with some popcorn. Inside, there’s a gift shop and museum filled with vintage items, where visitors can learn more about the history of Pepsi and buy unique products.
Bright Leaf Hot Dogs
The traditional red of Bright Leaf Hot Dogs comes from artificial coloring, but these dawgs aren’t packed with the preservatives found in many of its competitors. And based on their popularity, shorter shelf life isn’t a problem because they go fast after production.
You’ll find them all over Eastern North Carolina, but also other parts of the state and even in Virginia. The Smithfield-based parent company Carolina Packers remains small, with 100 employees making grillable products for us to enjoy.
Cheerwine might’ve never existed if not for Pepsi declaring bankruptcy during World War I because of sugar price inflation. The drink was Salisbury grocery store owner LD Peeler’s response to rising prices!
Peeler sought to make a cola with less sugar and found that by adding wild cherry flavoring, it would produce the required sweetness without the added cost.
The drink remains popular and today, there’s an annual Cheerwine Festival held in downtown Salisbury each May. There, you’ll find Cheerwine-themed foods, special merchandise, and plenty of cherry cold Cheerwine!
The family couldn’t come up with a name that sounded spicy enough, so a marketing adviser suggested it be called “Mexican Joe” to invoke an image of heat and spice. But that didn’t fly!
Family patriarch Sam Garner wanted an American name so the name crossed the border over to Texas. Pete happens to be the nickname of one of the Garner brothers. And that’s how Texas Pete was born.
Today, it is found in many homes and restaurants throughout the nation and beyond!
Styles of Cooking
The small fishing town that sleeps along the Calabash River in Brunswick County is now known as the “Seafood Capital of the World.” Featuring lightly battered and deep-fried seafood, over 1.25 million diners have flocked to these restaurants.
And just how did this small fishing community reach this fame? Jimmy Durante, a national radio talk host let the secret out by making Calabash his signature sign-off. “Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are,” he would say.
We know barbecue is done elsewhere but will proudly profess that nowhere else does it quite as well as North Carolina. We won’t get into the nitty-gritty of which style is better, because both Eastern and Western-style barbecue have interesting origins and bring tons of smoke and flavor to your plate.
If you want to research NC barbecue for yourself, important western stops include Lexington and Shelby and in the east, Greenville, Kinston, and Wilson. However, the state is filled with barbecue restaurants that offer up the right amount of smoke and sauce for you to write home about.
When ordering a red hot dog or burger, serve it up Carolina style! Traditionally, “Carolina Style” is chili, onion and coleslaw and sometimes mustard joining to pack a flavorful punch.
The term became more nationally known when Wendy’s offered a “Carolina Classic” option on its menu for a limited time. It was only available in the Carolinas, but the nation took note!
Livermush is a regional Southern staple that’s typically found on breakfast menus around Cleveland County. Similar to the Pennsylvania Dutch’s scrapple, by law, North Carolina livermush must contain 30 percent pig liver.
Mack’s and Jenkins Foods produces almost 40,000 pounds of livermush a week, making it clear that the name is not scaring anyone off.
Typical livermush is seasoned with sage and black pepper and often best when “split and dropped” to make it cooked crispy and thin. Put it between a biscuit or cut up over grits, and give it a try!
Bonus: Sweet Potatoes
We know you can find them in other parts, but did you know that almost half of America’s sweet potatoes are grown in Eastern North Carolina?
So when you’re chowing down on one next Thanksgiving, remember that this famous food most likely came from North Carolina!
Our Thoughts and Yours, Too!
Thanks to interesting stories and fun origins (even you, sweet potatoes!), these famous foods from North Carolina are more than just another reason why we love this state. Hopefully, they’ll stand out to you during your next trip out for shopping or for a bite to eat.
Which one of these famous foods is your favorite? Got any more that we need to add to the list? Let us know and we’ll be happy to investigate further!