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One family, three different competitors face off in barbecue cook-off

Charlie Meeks, left, poses with his son Lee, center, and his grandson Charles Turnage before they get ready to cook their hogs for this year’s state barbecue championship in Raleigh.
Charlie Meeks, left, poses with his son Lee, center, and his grandson Charles Turnage before they get ready to cook their hogs for this year’s state barbecue championship in Raleigh. ehyman@newsobserver.com

Among the competitive pit masters who spent Friday night slow-cooking whole hogs in a downtown Raleigh parking lot for this year’s state barbecue championship were three generations of the same family.

But they weren’t helping one another. They were competing against one another.

On Saturday morning, Charlie Meeks, 79; his son, Lee Meeks, 43; and his grandson, Charles Turnage, 17, all of Newport, will find out how well they fared. This is the first time all three have competed against each other, and they are hopeful about the results.

“We’d like to be first, second, third,” Charlie Meeks said.

His son chimed in: “I’d be tickled if one of the three got on the stage.”

Charlie Meeks, a retired prison superintendent, was the first to get involved in competitive barbecue in the late-1980s. His home in Newport, about 130 miles southeast of Raleigh, is the site of the country’s largest whole hog barbecue contest.

That’s not surprising given that this style of barbecue – a cooked whole hog, chopped fine and served with a vinegar sauce – has really only taken root in Eastern North Carolina.

Along the way, he became quite the competitor, even winning the state championship in 2001.

His wife, Dorothy, even participated, decorating their barbecue setup for the showmanship portion of the competitions. She retired from the barbecue circuit after placing first in showmanship at the state championship in 1998.

However, Lee Meeks notes, there is a limit to his mother’s embrace of his father’s hobby, which has brought in dozens of trophies that fill shelves and take up a good bit of floor space in the utility room at the couple’s home. “That’s as far as Mama will let them in the house,” Lee Meeks explained.

He helped his father cook competitively throughout the years before starting to compete himself. Only once has he placed higher than his father, coming in sixth at a contest in Swansboro; his father placed seventh.

Turnage, the youngest of this competitive crew, became interested after helping his grandfather, father and uncle compete. He really got bit by the barbecue bug when he placed first at a contest in the student category as a sixth-grader.

His barbecue skills have advanced since then. At this year’s Newport cook-off, he came in first, and his grandfather came in second.

That contest qualified grandfather and grandson for the state championship. Lee Meeks came in first at a contest in Burgaw this summer to qualify for it.

Lee Meeks said one key to his father’s success is his barbecue sauce.

Asked what is in that sauce, Charlie Meeks responded: “It’s got vinegar in it. Crushed red pepper. Honey. Brown sugar. Salt and pepper.”

Prodding him for more information will only result in a sly smile.

His son knowingly shook his head: “He usually tells about seven of the nine ingredients.”

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