A southern state best known for being a pioneer in aviation, North Carolina is home to a plethora of delicious comfort foods and iconic drinks. Being the birthplace of some of the world’s most recognizable brands, there are plenty of dishes and beverages worth trying while in the Tar Heel State.
A great way to experience the local culture, in no particular order, here are 10 of the most famous foods and drinks in North Carolina:
For more than 100 years, Cheerwine has been one of the most favored sodas in the South. Created in Salisbury, North Carolina by L.D. Peeler in 1917, Peeler called it Cheerwine because he felt it had a “cheery” look and taste. By the 1920s, demand was so high that the company bought its first delivery truck and the Cheerwine craze began.
The original Cheerwine is a wild cherry-flavored soda, however, they now offer a seasonal holiday punch flavor as well as sugar-free options. You can even purchase Cheerwine syrup to use as a drink mixer, ice cream flavor, or marinade. One of the most refreshing ways to enjoy Cheerwine is in a float, which consists of vanilla ice cream, maraschino cherries, and whipped cream.
If you’re not in the mood to make it yourself, you can easily head to a local burger joint and order one. Church Street Depot in Waynesville is a popular stop for a float. Such a beloved beverage across the South, in 2017, the company kicked off an annual Cheerwine Festival in Salisbury and included live music, food trucks, beer gardens, kids’ activities, and a craft fair.
Krispy Kreme Donuts
Krispy Kreme is one of North Carolina’s worst-kept secrets. While there are now more than 700 stores worldwide, with 350 in the United States alone, just few decades ago, a hot Krispy Kreme donut was just a local treat in Winston-Salem.
In 1937, Vernon Rudolph began making donuts to sell to local grocery stores. The baking pastries smelled so good that passersby would stop and ask if they could buy a warm donut. To accommodate his hungry community members, Rudolph began selling the donuts on the sidewalk in front of his bakery.
When the first Krispy Kreme location opened, a pastry empire was born. Today, Krispy Kreme donuts come in dozens of flavors (including a Cherrywine variety, if you want to get extra Carolinian). Their shops also offer coffee, frozen drinks, and other baked goods. There are 31 locations in North Carolina, so you shouldn’t have any trouble getting your sugar fix.
Barbecue is a staple of southern cuisine, and hot dogs and hamburgers are often the stars. In North Carolina, however, no grilled meat is complete unless it’s prepared Carolina-style. Carolina-style dishes are topped with chili, coleslaw, onions, and sometimes mustard. The combination of toppings originated in the Piedmont region of North Carolina.
The coleslaw provides a slight sweetness and crunch that nicely complements the spiciness and texture of the chili. Carolina-style dishes are so popular that they were featured on Burgerland, a travel-focused TV show, in 2013. Melvin’s Hamburgers and Hot Dogs in Elizabethtown is an iconic burger joint that serves Carolina-style fare.
Texas Pete Hot Sauce
Despite its name, Texas Pete Hot Sauce does not hail from the Lone Star State. Legend has it that in 1929, the Garner family from Winston-Salem created a new recipe for hot sauce. They wanted to give it a name that would convey how spicy the concoction was. They put a cowboy on the bottle and named him Texas Pete, and a family legacy was created.
Still owned by the Garner family, the company now sells new products like wing sauce, sriracha, salsa, and barbecue sauce, however, the original hot sauce is still the star of the show. Popular at cookouts and delicious with a number of foods, including chicken wings, potato salad, pork chops, and dumplings, you’ll find yourself adding it to nearly everything.
If you try Texas Pete hot sauce while traveling in North Carolina and find yourself hooked, never fear. You can have a variety their products shipped directly to you from the company’s website.
Of the foods and drinks on this list, Pepsi is unquestionably the most famous product from North Carolina. The cola was created in 1898 by Caleb Bradham. He hoped to replicate the success of the Coca-Cola company, so he named his new drink Pepsi-Cola. He began selling it out of his pharmacy in New Bern, North Carolina.
The soda quickly became popular and the company did well for around two decades. However, the wars and economic hardships of the early 1900s weren’t kind to Pepsi-Cola, and in 1931, Charles Guth purchased the company. Not selling quite the same drink as what was invented more than 100 years ago, without Caleb Bradham’s recipe and branding, we may not have known Pepsi at all.
If you find yourself in New Bern, be sure to check out the Birthplace of Pepsi Store, located at 256 Middle Street. The store is located in the original Bradham Pharmacy, where it was first sold in 1898. At the store, you can purchase souvenirs and gifts, learn about the soda’s history, and, of course, enjoy a cold Pepsi.
While the word “livermush” may sound unappetizing to you, it’s quite nostalgic for many North Carolinians. Most popular in the western part of the state, at its essence, livermush is a combination of pork liver, meat scraps, and cornmeal that are fried or baked into a loaf that’s typically eaten for breakfast and lunch.
Livermush likely came to North Carolina with the Germans in the 1700s. It was passed from generation to generation and is an important part of North Carolina history, as it’s hard to find anywhere outside of the Piedmont region.
Livermush festivals are held annually in the cities of Shelby, Drexel, and Marion. You can find livermush in grocery stores and restaurants in the western and central regions of the state. Brooks Sandwich House in Charlotte serves livermush sandwiches, which, in true North Carolina fashion, can be ordered with chili, mustard, and onions.
Sweet Potato Pie
North Carolina is the number-one producer of sweet potatoes in the United States. In fact, more than 100,000 acres of this root vegetable are harvested in the state every year. North Carolina sweet potatoes make up dozens of delicious dishes that you won’t want to miss while there. One particularly popular Southern dessert made from it is sweet potato pie.
Sometimes used as an alternative to pumpkin pie at the holidays, the filling is custardy and sweet. It’s often made with hand-mashed sweet potatoes, rather than a puree from a can. Homemade sweet potato pie is a must-try if you can find it, but if not, you have other options.
Mama Dip’s in Chapel Hill is a popular Southern restaurant offering country-style foods like cornbread, fried chicken, and, for dessert, delectable sweet potato pie.
Shrimp and Grits
Creek-caught shrimp and wholesome grits are an iconic breakfast combination in the South. The dish is thought to have originated in South Carolina, but the most popular version was created by North Carolinian Bill Neal.
Neal, a chef at Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, spent several years perfecting his shrimp and grits recipe. The recipe calls for cheese, hot sauce, mushrooms, green onions, bacon, and chicken broth to be added to the shrimp and grits. Crook’s Corner served the same version of the dish for nearly 40 years but unfortunately closed its doors permanently in 2021.
Of course, you can still find shrimp and grits at other locations in North Carolina. Sea Level NC in Charlotte serves up many different types of seafood, including shrimp and grits, with great reviews.
Collard greens are a Southern staple that thrives in North Carolina. They are a member of the cabbage family and have deep roots in African American culture. They can be eaten raw as salad greens, or cooked in a comforting side dish. The traditional way to cook the greens is to boil them with ham, onions, and garlic.
Many recipes include apple cider vinegar, red pepper flakes, and various spices. The resulting dish is savory, flavorful, and satisfying. They’re often served with cornbread. Southern Harvest Soul Food is a highly favored restaurant in Jacksonville that offers collard greens– try them with the shrimp and grits for a delicious Southern meal.
Ruth’s Pimento Spread
Ruth’s Salads opened in Charlotte in 1953, producing salads and spreads based on local woman Ruth Ross’s recipes. Today, the company delivers its products to grocery stores all over the eastern US. Their most famous spread is their pimento cheese, which is a combination of shredded Cheddar cheese, pimentos, and mayonnaise.
Used on sandwiches as well with pretzels and crackers, you can get Ruth’s Pimento Spread at Publix, Food Lion, Walmart, and a number of other stores. You can also find it served with appetizers and sides in restaurants throughout North Carolina. The Pimento Tea Room in Holly Springs features pimento spread in several of their menu items.
From breakfast to dessert, North Carolina’s most famous food and drinks will have you loosening your belt and going back for seconds. If you find yourself in the Tar Heel State, make plenty of time for trying the local fare– you won’t regret it!