By Lea Efird
North Carolina is home to varied traditions and cultures.
As a new resident or visitor to the great state of North Carolina, NC Folk wants to offer you a survival guide of sorts – a few tips to get you ahead of the learning curve when it comes to calling North Carolina home. You may want to write some of this down – or at least follow the links below, for some helpful videos and blogs about “what to expect when you’re expecting” to spend time in the Tar Heel State (yes, that’s our official state nickname!). Though by no means exhaustive, this guide should help you hear “You’re not from around here, are you?” less often.
Foods and Foodways
Where should we start? Some quick notes:
- Barbecue is a food, not an event. Some of the best pulled-pork BBQ in the world is North Carolinian, but you have to decide what side of the sauce debate (tomato- or vinegar-based) you’re on before attending a cookout. And never ask anyone for their recipe, since it’s probably a closely guarded family secret.
- There are tons of food franchises that got their start in NC, including Texas Pete, Pepsi, Cheerwine, Cookout, Bojangles, and Krispy Kreme.
- Sweet tea is the lifeblood of the South. Just know that you don’t have to always make it as sweet as your friend’s grandmama does.
- Traditional Southern food is only the beginning. The variety of cultures here means an eclectic blend of foods from all over the world.
- Grits, gravy, biscuits, and more; try them before you turn your nose up!
Language and Idioms
Any new place has its own special language, and NC is no different. Put aside your expectations of Southern accents, because the variety of speech in the state will floor you. The multitude of languages spoken here, as well as English dialects from all over the state, make this an interesting place to ask for directions. North Carolina is home to over 180 unique languages. How’s that for diversity?
Watch this Youtube playlist to see some of the dialects you may encounter when traveling around NC.
Before you start asking people if they saw the “big game” last night, keep in mind that in North Carolina, professional sports are blasé compared to our intensely storied collegiate level ones. Though the Carolina Panthers (NFL) and the Carolina Hurricanes (NHL) have big followings, the true test of being a North Carolinian is a thorough knowledge of college basketball (even if you don’t really care whether Duke or Carolina wins). High school sports are also an important part of small town culture, so if you’re living in rural NC be sure to understand local teams, their histories, and their football rivalries (especially if you have children in the school system).
Tobacco Road and the College Sports Rivalries
So you’ve probably heard of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University. They are both incredible schools doing groundbreaking medical research, and UNC is the oldest public university in the country. You probably even know that the Tar Heels and Blue Devils have a rivalry; however, nothing runs so deep in NC as the love-to-hate feelings between the two universities. Yes, both schools also consider NC State University somewhat a rival, but the true rivalry is in the battle of the blues on Tobacco Road. The coaches are legendary, there are five national championships apiece, and the fans – especially students – are totally crazy about their teams. FYI, don’t plan any business meetings or try to entertain friends during the ACC basketball tournament or March Madness. Your boss and friends probably won’t show up unless you have the game on in the background.
Check out UNC’s student newspaper, the Daily Tar Heel, and its collection on the rivalry, as well as the rivalry’s Wikipedia article for the latest stats on the universities’ games as well as the history of the competition.
The sport of North Carolina: NASCAR
So if you’re not originally from the South, there is a strong likelihood that you don’t understand why there are millions of people who obsess over cars driving around in circles. NC is the original home of NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing), and Charlotte houses the NASCAR Hall of Fame. The sport has a rich history, with about 75 years of stock car racing beneath its belt. Stock car racing is the official state sport of NC, and many of the sport’s most famous drivers were born Tar Heels (Dale Earnhardt, Buck Baker, Lee Petty, and Richard Petty among them). Much of the research and technology for the sport comes out of the NC area, and many of the teams (associations of drivers, with owners who provide the cars, etc.) are based within a 90-mile radius of Charlotte. The iconic Southern sport, it’s worth giving a try on a Sunday afternoon (even if you take a nap during the middle laps of the race, like most viewers).
Old vs. New South
The South of today is infinitely more diverse than the region’s public image would have you believe. Far from only white and black citizens, NC has a very interesting blend of nationalities, ethnicities, and cultures within its borders. These groups are split up by historians and folklorists as Old and New South groups. The Old South refers to Native Americans, Caucasians, and African-Americans, while the New South is made up of more recent communities of immigrants, like those from Latin America and South Asia. Make sure to venture out in your new home to see what cultures your town lays claim to!
More information on diversity in NC:
North Carolina has the largest American Indian population east of the Mississippi and the eighth-largest in the US, according to NCpedia. The state-recognized Native American tribes include: the Meherrin, Lumbee, Cherokee, Coharie, Haliwa-Saponi, Sappony, Occaneechi Band of the Saponi, and Waccamaw Siouan tribes. More information can be found at this website.
The most populous “new” immigrant groups are South Asian and Latino, of multiple nationalities and language groups (including Latinos of indigenous [Native American] backgrounds). Some of these groups include Cambodian, Montagnard, and Hmong communities, as well as Latinos from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
Check out our Youtube playlist on the New South for videos about food and music from these groups. Make sure you subscribe to NC Folk’s monthly newsletter, Folklife Flashes, to get the latest information on North Carolina folk culture from around the state.
North Carolina is home to thousands of artists that perform everything from metal to jazz to folk to soul and back again. There is no quick way to explain NC’s music history, but these sites should help!
The Blue Ridge National Heritage Area and PineCone Traditional Artist Directories are a good place to look around for music. NC Folk also has several music-based Youtube playlists of live performances and featured artists.
Some of the most famous old-time, folk, blues, and jazz musicians are Tar Heels: Nina Simone, Thelonious Monk, Etta Baker, Libba Cotten, John Coltrane, Charlie Poole, Maceo Parker, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, and many more. Check out this Wikipedia page for a brief summary and lots of great links to musicians themselves.