It’s All in the Red – Lexington Red Cole Slaw


Still caught in my Low Country food craze, I learned about one more cole slaw unique to the Carolinas. I am fascinated by the number of different cole slaws in the small areas of Georgia and the Carolinas.   This cole slaw is from the Piedmont (central) and western area of the Carolinas.   In this area of the Western Carolinas they have a very distinct cole slaw called Lexington Red Cole Slaw.   It’s also called Barbeque Slaw or just Red Slaw.

The slaw was created for one very specific purpose – to dress the barbecued pork sandwiches of that area.   And it’s used as both a condiment and a side item.   As a sandwich condiment, it’s also used to top hot dogs and hamburgers.   As a side with barbecued meat, it is accompanied by Carolina hush puppies and black eyed peas on a plate.

The name is not so much about the color of the saw itself, than the color of its dominant ingredients – ketchup and hot sauce. In addition to its red ingredients, Lexington Slaw contains shredded white cabbage, apple cider vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper.   Of course there are some variations which include other ingredients like white onions, or dried mustard. It actually has more of a pinkish or orange look, as the vinegar dilutes the dominant red of the ketchup, but it does look different than your typical creamy mayonnaise or vinegar cole slaw.   Typically Texas Pete’s Red Hot Sauce is used, but Frank’s Red Hot can also be used, even though it’s a Yankee invented hot sauce.   Frank’s was created by the Frank Tea & Spice Company of Cincinnati, Ohio, in the 1930s.

Lexington Red Slaw is still picnic safe because it has no mayonnaise to spoil in the hot Carolina summers.   And, it’s always recommended to be made and refrigerated overnight so all the flavors have a chance to migrate into the cabbage.

Now there’s a contentious relationship between East and West Carolina barbeque. It all comes down to the tomato. Both contain pork, the Western region using only the shoulder, and it’s served in larger chunks , while the Eastern uses the whole pig, and chops it finely into small bits.   And both use a vinegar based sauce, although the Western region throws in ketchup. As a native Carolinian you have to pick – the vinegary, smoky East Carolina or the tomatoey, subtle West Carolina version.   The East coast version is much older, invented nearly 300 years ago during the early Colonial period of the 1600s, when English colonists were just beginning to inhabit the Low Country and the tomato was not prevalent in the area.

The first reference to the tomato in North America is in 1710, when herbalist William Salmon reported seeing them in South Carolina.   They may have been introduced from the Caribbean slave trade.   By the mid-1700s, they were being cultivated on some Carolina plantations.   But tomato based ketchup didn’t follow until about 1801, when it was first referenced in the American cookbook the Sugar House Book.

Ketchup was originally a Cantonese creation, of picked fish and spices, and didn’t contain any tomatoes.   The British explorers saw it in Malaysia and Singapore and brought it back to England, but they used mushrooms as the primary ingredient, rather than tomatoes. They brought it with them to the colonies, but it then morphed into a tomato based sauce, rather than the traditional mushroom based one.   Because it was a fish based sauce, originally even tomato based ketchup had anchovies in the mix, but by the mid-1850s, American ketchup had dropped the fishiness.

The first bottled ketchup in the US was made by Jonas Yerkes in 1837. Before that, it was made by local farmers or in the home.   It wasn’t until 1876 that the Heinz Company bottled and sold their ketchup, making it an American home staple.   But one more ingredient in Lexington slaw puts us at a later birthdate.   Hot sauce made from tobacco peppers was first made around 1868 in Louisiana, by Edmund McIllhenny.   So, it was probably around the American bicentennial in 1876 or even later that Lexington Red Slaw was born.   Unlike most Southern food items that are much older, this cole slaw can be called a food product of Southern Reconstruction.

There are now all different types of ketchup that you can use in a Lexington Red Slaw.   I myself would try using the German curry ketchup in the slaw to add something unique to the flavor, but the Piedmont area purists might not agree with my non-traditional upgrade!


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