Don’t mess with North Carolinians and their barbecue. Pick a side, maybe — East v. West, vinegar v. tomato, whole hog v. pork shoulders — but, whatever you do, don’t just dismiss the meat of the matter as flavorless. That’s what Rick Perry did in 1992 — and he’s still paying a price.

Apparently, in 1992, when Perry was Texas agriculture commissioner and the city of Houston hosted the Republican National Convention, he tried Eastern North Carolina BBQ from King’s of Kinston and reacted to it with this: “I’ve had road kill that tasted better than that.”

Last week, Raleigh News and Observer staffers Rob Christensen and Craig Jarvis served up the decades-old quote in a quick blog post — and North Carolinians are none too pleased with Mr. Perry at the moment.

Presumably, Perry’s a fan of Texas barbecue — inexplicably made with beef — but that’s no redeeming quality in the eyes of NC residents, who reject even the slightest variations from the tried-and-true rival recipes that made the state famous for its BBQ. Even South Carolinians’ mustard-based BBQ sauces don’t impress their northern neighbors. Beef-based barbecue? Forget about it.

Plus, as King’s owner Wilbur King quipped, “[Perry] has admitted to eating road kill, and knowing what it tastes like. How can this person possibly judge any food?”

Incidentally, I’m with the North Carolinians here. I grew up in Oklahoma, but I never tasted real barbecue until I moved to Arkansas. I’m a Razorback, people, and, in God’s — excuse me, Hog — country, barbecue comes only from pigs.

But does any of this actually matter, politically speaking? It just might. The L.A. Times, on barbecue backlash:

“Holy Smoke” co-author John Shelton Reed, a retired University of North Carolina sociology professor, said Monday that people in his state do not mess around with this form of cooking. “Barbecue,” he said, “is the third rail of North Carolina politics.”

Don’t laugh.

In 1984, Democrat Rufus Edmisten, while running for governor, happened to call barbecue “that damnable stuff.” He lost, and blamed his intemperate description of barbecue. Recently, in a letter to supporters about the 2012 Democratic National Convention coming to Charlotte, N.C. first lady Michele Obama mentioned the southern hospitality, diversity “and of course, great barbecue.”

That landed with a thud.

It is well known in North Carolina that Charlotte does not have great barbecue.

“Even the News & Observer said if she knew of a good barbecue place in Charlotte to please let them know,” said Reed.

It’s a little early to make predictions, but let’s put it this way: Barack Obama’s victory over John McCain in North Carolina was razor thin–49.9% to McCain’s 49.5%. If Obama loses the state in 2012… well, could have been that barbecue snafu.

See? Southerners — of which Carolinians are in some ways the epitome — take food very seriously.

P.S. Shameless plug for a friend: If you’ve never tried Pork Barrel BBQ sauce, buy it! You’ll like it.

Tags: Rick Perry