North Carolina BBQ… At a Cultural Crossroads

Wilburs BBQ
BobLee
January29/ 2019

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North Carolina BBQ… At a Cultural Crossroads.

This is…

  • NOT about whether YOUR favorite BBQ Place Is/Is Not THE BEST BBQ PLACE on EARTH.  I’m sure IT is.
  • NOT about “the meat”… or how “the meat” is cooked.
  • NOT about which city or state has THE BEST Barbecue.
  • NOT about the color of slaw or definition of “a hushpuppy”.
  • NOT even about how to spell BBQ / Barbecue / Barbeque… or what part of speech it is… noun or verb.

Umpteen books and sermons have been generated on those subjects.

Today’s discourse IS about The Ongoing Cultural Evolution of BBQ.

In recents months an ever-increasing number of legendary regional / local BBQ “joints” are “going dark”.  The specific reasons vary but there is a disturbing trend.

NOTE: I don’t like the term “BBQ Joint”, but you know what I mean when I use the term.

My good friend and premier scholar on “all things Southern Culture” – John Shelton Reed – has coined the term “IHOP BBQ” for barbecue restaurants of more recent vintage that lack the eccentric atmosphere of those BBQ places many of us grew up with a deeply religious affiinity for… … i.e. franchise establishments that may / may not serve good food properly prepared but do so without the “homey familiarity of (insert name of Your Place)”.

Our subject herein are those places whose “fame” causes people to set out on pilgrimages to experience / re-experience… The Lourdes… The Meccas of BBQ.  I hesitate to list some because any list will evoke “HOW COULD YOU leave out ……!”

In North Carolina, every mini-municipality with at least a caution light has an “Our BBQ Place”. Traditionally they are small cinderblock buildings or ramshackle wooden structures that have been “grandfathered” by local Public Health inspectors.

Imagine a pin-headed bureaucrat in Greenville trying to shut down B’s !!  Ain’t gonna happen.  If an inspector visits at all it is to pick up a to-go order. KingsBBQ

The decor involves ladderback wooden chairs, plastic tablecloths, and lots of framed black/white photos of “grinning glad-handing politicians”, sports figures, local beauty queens and/or C&W singers. … The aroma of the dining room is 50 years worth of however the meat is cooked out back… Eau de Hickory ??

There is a comforting stereotype to such places. Whether it is in LaGrange or Ayden or Mount Olive or Lexington or Shelby or (Insert Your Place).

Those  places are disappearing A LOT faster than the polar icecap.

Do we need a SAVE THE BBQ JOINTS activist mob… wearing little pig snouts and waving misspelled protest signs?

In the past three months, the planet has lost The Barbecue Lodge in Raleigh… Allen Bros outside Chapel Hill… Bill Ellis’ in Wilson… with UNCONFIRMED rumors that Wilbers’ in Goldsboro is being “done-in” by the new Hwy 70-Bypass that has wiped out 90% of Wilber’s “beach traffic”.

Lexington’s legendary Speedy’s is being threatened by both highway rerouting AND federal food service regulations.  NO, NOT SPEEDY’S!

NOTE: That is Wilber Shirley in that picture up-top.  Wilber is, of course, a personal friend of The Bob Kennel and, according to TBK – “A Huge Wolfpack Fan”.

All of the above establishments date back to the 50’s and have changed very little over 70+ years.  The Founder/Owner was still an active hands-on presence over the whole operation.  Do the math… the Founder/Owners are getting OLD.   “Getting” Hell… They ARE Old.

Operating any restaurant is hard work… long hours… and re-occurring “issues” that never go away.  Because a barbecue restaurant involves long hours of meat preparation regardless of “how”, the time/effort/oversight is simply a daily reality.

Studies of family-owned businesses indicate that “the 3rd generation” is where the interest starts to dissipate.  The Patriarch had the driving passion to “birth” the business and see it thru the various growing pains.  He – its usually a ‘he” with businesses from The 50’s – creates The Brand but no one used such a trendy phrase as The Brand back then.

The Founder’s sons/daughters grew up with the (very profitable) business and their on-going involvement was “a given”.   Their sons & daughter, alas, not so much so.  That 3rd generation sees how hard grandddaddy worked as well as their parents… and their passion often isn’t inherited.   There are exceptions… that prove the rule.

Many of those hometown bedrock and quite eccentric BBQ places are now at that 3rd generation point.

In Kinston in the 60s there were two BBQ choices – King’s  and The Barbecue Lodge (AKA “Mr Kornegay’s).  One’s choice was often based on proximity.  I was a Barbecue Lodge guy.  It was about two miles from home.  Every trip back home in the 70s, 80s, early 90s included a meal at The Barbecue Lodge. … UNTIL… one visit in the mid-90s and Mr Kornegay’s was a Mexican All-You-Can-Eat.  YIKES!!

In the ensuing years it has vacillated between Mexican and Chinese.  25 years later, I can’t drive by without thinking “That’s just not right…” and wishing for one more “Barbecue / Brunswick stew combination with an extra side order of barbecue…”

NOTE:  A new 70-ByPass is destined to by-pass King’s in the next 6-8 years.  FWIW… in the 50s, King’s is where I first noticed “separate facilities” for “Coloreds”.

Now there is Ken’s Grill on Hwy 70 in LaGrange… just 4-5 miles further out than “Mr Kornegay’s”.  “Ken’s” is Kens Grillthe stereotype described up above.  I’ve been 3-4 times… but it’s not “where I grew up”.

For Southern Baby Boomers, Your Growin’ Up BBQ Place is special.  A fancy IHOP BBQ Restaurant just isn’t the same.

That said… I’ve never had a religious attachment to “barbecue”.   Many do and I respect that.  Some take it to the extreme which can get a bit scary.

I prefer chopped-pork with a vinegar-based sauce, slaw and hushpuppies because that’s what I grew up with.   I’m fine with Western NC barbecue too… and I’ve enjoyed both Arthur Bryant’s in KC and Sonny Bryan’s in Dallas.  Never been to The Rendezvous in Memphis, but will if I’m ever in Memphis again… if it’s still there.

The whole Southern Barbecue “Thing” has mirrored my Baby Boomer Generation as has so much of American culture.  Barbecue restaurants evolving (dissolving?) with “the times” joins many aspects of cultural evolution.

There were so many of us Baby Boomers that, I guess, our plaintive cries of NO! NO! in defiance of cultural evolution may be louder than past generations… alas, I fear “our culture” is, like the dinosaurs, destined for a bottomless tar pit somewhere.

Today in The R/D/CH Triangle there must be 20+ restaurants that advertise as “a barbecue restaurant”… IHOP ones as well as quasi-traditional.  The difference is whether they have a Board of Health certificate displayed… and do the framed b/w pictures by the cash register include any grinning politicians… athletes… or beauty queens that all look like Esther Williams.

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Want to learn more about Southern Barbecue Culture?  John Shelton Reed is Da Mancheck-out his website – TrueQue.org

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2,000 MORE BobLeeSays… LINK

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PS:  In this, their 12th month on this Planet, my Granddaughters – Twinkle & Scooter – have been subjected to two weeks of SUB-ZERO (not sub-freezing… SUB-ZERO!) temperatures and two feet of snow in Madison WI.   YIKES!

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BobLee

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Jim
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Jim

Having grown up in Grifton, Haddock’s Grill out by DuPont on Hwy 11 was our meeting grounds for a Sandwich and a Pepsi in the mid to late 60’s. Absolutely loved Scott’s in Goldsboro, Wilbers, and my go to place Parkers in Wilson. Spent many a night doing Rotary BBQ with Fats Sauls (originally from Eureka) refighting the European Portion of WWII. He was a legend cooking for the VFD, Rotary, and just about anyone in the community who needed his help. When chopping and spreading his personally made sauce, you ignored the cigar ashes dropping into the mix.

Doug
Guest
Doug

A good hussy story,”my trophy wife killed off a barbecue empire? is much juicer than a by-pass killed my business.

Doug
Guest
Doug

Restaurants open and close for many reasons. Some obvious, some not so obvious. As many already know Bill’s Barbecue in Wilson suddenly closed in mid January. Bill’s son had opened Marty’s Barbecue on Ward Blvd in Wilson well before Bill’s closed. I have a friend in Wilson I’ve known and worked with for over 30 years and asked him the other day why did Bill’s son open up Marty’s? I received the following reply: “It’s a multi year saga. Long story short, the young hussy Bill married few years ago decided she knew how to run the business better than… Read more »

M. Smith
Guest
M. Smith

Great article. Sad to see this happen. One book on this subject your readers should check out. Our Vanishing Americana. Discussion of all of these iconic NC places going away. http://lorimerpress.com/2011/08/our-vanishing-americana/ I was at Lexington BBQ recently, and I came across perhaps the bridge between East and West- Do they all have that exact same broken brick floor? Seems like I recall tha from Parker’s in Gnvl. And on the subject of the new places… Sam Jones is a new space, but that Cue is incredible. Thx for your great insights on the important subjects of our time (and State)

Frank Styers
Guest
Frank Styers

My favorite BBQ place in Farmville closed late last year Jack Cobbs BBQ. To us in ir from Farmville it was the best ever and for sure it was the leanest BBQ I’ve ever had! No trash at all just seasoned well and clean. Has always been a must for us tailgating at ECU. Here to age of Rudy Cobb, Jacks son was its demise as no one wanted to do the work to pit cook the pigs all night to serve the next day. Will miss it and the ribbs!

fayettewuf
Guest
fayettewuf

I don’t argue tastes and preferences. I do applaud trying to hold on to traditions. Honestly, I judge BBQ joints by their brunswick stew. I won’t list the traditional jmnts that fall short in the stew department to my taste, which was formed by the stew a man named Mr. Brittain Webb cooked. The guarantee that he was cooking your stew guaranteed the success of any stew sale for any group in southern Edgecombe county. His recipe is still a closely held secret and still sells stew.

JoeRal
Guest
JoeRal

Excellent column and replies – brings back a lot of my very similar memories. My home town in SE NC had a great BBQ spot, hang-out, with drive up cars and curb service available. Good slow cooked wood BBQ but the best was the roast pork sandwich. 1/3 lb of stacked sliced BBQ shoulder, sauce, mayo , L&T on toasted bread. A meal, at $.40. After, the local BMOCs would back out and peel-off in their hot ’57 – ’58 Chevy or Ford and we’d listen as they also ‘got rubber’ in 2nd and 3rd gears. Great times – now… Read more »

Doug
Guest
Doug

Re: Red Hot & Blue has 25 restaurants and corporate offices are in Winston-Salem. A few years back RH&B finally opened a restaurant in W-S at possibly the worst location imaginable. It was actually pretty good in an IHOP’y way and I went a lot knowing I wouldn’t have to fight crowds. The restaurant closed after a couple of years and the firm never reopened another.

Baltimoreheel
Guest
Baltimoreheel

Ah one of my fav topics. Even though I live in baltimore now my heart still resides in my “bbq joints” back home in Lexington and Thomasville. Starting in Lexington “Lexington Bar-B-Que Center” opened in ‘64 or so. Ate there as a child, still eat there when I come back home (on rare occasions now). Owner died a few years ago and now run by his wife and family. Ironically hot dogs and nana splits are the best there for me. Nana splits size is for family!!! Biggest ever. Hot dogs are wonderful. BBQ however not the best. I have… Read more »

Former96Heel
Guest
Former96Heel

Here is my ignorant Carolina question. Do other states have their variety or version of small restaurateur that fits this same mold as the BBQ shack? I imagine the Jersey diner may be close, but is there regional fare like this elsewhere I missed growing up here? Ohio chili parlors maybe? Philly cheesesteaks I guess?
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My side of the state also had fish camps, which are also on life support, but the Cue place was so much better, food-wise. Just imagining how sad to have grown up in a world without a local smokehouse BBQ joint.

Mayberry Jim
Guest
Mayberry Jim
Gary Barker
Guest

The best part of BBQ was the individual proprietors. All independent individualist that could be counted on for a good story. I treasure the times the owners would stop by our table while we enjoyed their fare. It saddens me each time I learn of an old time place or owner passing on.

ENC1
Guest
ENC1

Ken’s, King’s, Parker’s, Bill’s you have a Final Four of BBQ IMO…..I do admit The Pit in downtown Raleighwood is good Q but the silver ware and plates too fancy for me (also don’t need a bar in a BBQ joint IMO).

Former96heel
Guest
Former96heel

Will this be a bl top ten in views?
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I knew the third generation of Maurice’s Piggy Park in SC. Talk about big shoes you really don’t want to try to fill. They knew better than any, times change, even though they are running the restaurants all the same.
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Beyond the joints, there is still lots of good new cue out there. The ihop versions even go out on the limb and have turkey and brisket, which the old school places would never have considered.

Banks Randolph
Guest
Banks Randolph

Great article BL! As always your timing is impeccable. Not long after you posted this ode to cue did Stephen Colbert describe all of us as “poor flavor deprived bastards” with our love for BBQ. Poor fellow has no doubt ever tasted Wilbur’s or Honeymonk’s (as the original Lexington BBQ is known) finest.

FWIW one of my criteria for good cue is the woodpile. No woodpile in the back and I keep on driving.

UncBlue
Guest
UncBlue

My guess is they will survive and saved by those willing to work the required long hard hours. Saved by Hispanics. Good for them.
BTW-still elated the Folt is gone!

DM Carpenter
Guest
DM Carpenter

BobLee:
Your mention of Shrine Brunswick Stew made me smile. My Lodge used to have an annual BBQ Fundraiser, until someone decided that a ‘golf tournament’ would be more fun. I have fond memories of the Tyler and I meeting on a Sunday after church to make the sauce and slaw.
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May 18, run out to the Fairgrounds, and graze at the 14th Annual PigJig.
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Was it not Rufus Hisownself, who committed political Hari-kari, by declaring his dislike for BBQ?
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Outstanding column.

Jim McCabe
Guest
Jim McCabe

Never been to Skylight? That’s heresy! First heard about it when I worked in the Reagan Administration in Washington. They held an annual BBQ cook-off between SC and NC. Ole Pete Jones blew away the competition. It was after that when my BBQ snobbery began. Only pork cooked over hard wood for me.

Your unconfirmed rumor about Wilber’s is very upsetting. I’m still grieving over Allen & Son shuttering their doors this past December. Another true wood burner up in smoke.

Really enjoy your column. Keep up the good work.

James Gaster
Guest

I am 61 years old and I grew up in Fayetteville. I remember my dad loading up the family on an occasional Saturday afternoon and driving to to Parkers in Wilson for dinner and then back home. I love BBQ, all styles but being raised on Eastern NC that is my favorite. I have enjoyed Wilber’s, King’s, Bill’s and B’s. I always try to visit Stamey’s when in Greensboro (Has it Reopened since the fire?). I also enjoy the mustard based SC bbq. I currently live in Wilmington and make do with the local offerings, but I am always ready… Read more »

Doug
Guest
Doug

BobLee, your Skylight Inn and B’s fix is easily correctable. But be forewarned, Skylight doesn’t do Brunswick Stew. Luckily for Raleigh, Sam Jones, scion of the Skylight Inn, will soon open in Raleigh. Despite the recent demise of some temples there are slivers of good BBQ news.

Queen City
Guest
Queen City

If B’s in Greenville ever offers free WIFI or creates a twitter account I will stop going there. Loved your article….

Mayberry Jim
Guest
Mayberry Jim

I believe you are correct; the author was John Shelton Reed and the book title was simply “Barbecue”. I think the word came from “barbacoa”.

Mayberry Jim
Guest
Mayberry Jim

Once 10-15 years ago while travelling where there were no other choices but NPR, I heard them interview a fellow who had written a book about the evolution of BBQ in America. It sounded as if he knew what he was talking about, and the regional differences in meats and seasonings came down to what was available (plentiful and cheap) at the time that area was first “settled”. He stated the first BBQ was in the coastal regions and all they had was pigs, vinegar, and salt, and maybe pepper. Then as settlement moved westward, they added sugar, and when… Read more »

Wolfdon
Guest
Wolfdon

About 30 years ago I spoke to Bill about catering a group of about 300 fellow workers at Ft Belvoir , Va . The deal fell thru due to the skepticism of my boss who was a native of Rome NY and had no idea. I learned from Bill that they had been catering Ted Koppel and group over on the Eastern shore of Maryland for years. Don’t know whether Ted partook of the pork but thought this was an interesting item at the time.

Kent Hobson
Guest
Kent Hobson

BL, Being from the western Piedmont (Camel City), I’ve had the privilege of dining at some of the best Lexington style BBQ establishments. (none of my favorites are a “joint”) I grew up on Hill’s BBQ, then Blackwelder’s, then Sherwood BBQ. Now it’s Little Richard’s in Clemmons. Having relatives in the Eastern part of the state, I first sampled BBQ Lodge in Kinston. Then I saw the light and went “down East” to school (ECU). Well, there was Parker’s in Greenville that had a family style fare that starving college boys just loved. There are great things on either side… Read more »

robedixon
Guest
robedixon

I really do not have a my barbecue joint. We generally hit Parkers in Wilson when we want some cue since it is the closest mileage wise that meets our fix need. When I was younger every Saturday night in Ktown meant Dad and I hitting up the Barbecue Lodge. This was his and my one go out meal each week so it was special. Like you I look at it occasionally on the way to da beach and wonder what reincarnation restaurant will be the next occupant. I suppose as time passes no one will be alive to remember… Read more »

Old Alpha Wolf
Guest

Hmmmm, BBQJew says Ole Time is not wood. Google (that;s never wrong) says they are wood…

Bill Funderburk
Guest
Bill Funderburk

Loved the article. I grew up in Charlotte but went to UNC in the ’60s and fell in love with the eastern style, like Ed Mitchell’s pulled whole hog, peppered vinegar and coleslaw sandwiches.

The same tread away from “joints” is occurring in Alabama. One of Alabama’s most famous joints was Tuscaloosa’s Dreamland. Big Daddy served ribs, sauce, and white bread…period. People stood outside, ordered, and left. The “brand” was bought out and now expanded to multiple cities and the menu includes ’bout every dang thing you can eat under one restaurant roof. It’s nothing special now.

Doug
Guest
Doug

Not much I can add other than I’ve eaten BBQ at The Rendezvous (ribs) and enjoyed it but the best BBQ I’ve had out of NC was at Moonlight Bar-B-Q Inn in Owensboro KY and two or three other places in the area I can’t recall the names of but one was in Hopkinsville, KY. Scott’s BBQ in Hemingway, SC is great and if I’m the Goldsboro area I prefer Grady’s in Dudley. Barney Kornegay at The Barbecue Lodge in Kinston made my favorite potato salad. My simple, almost foolproof, guide to good BBQ is if you don’t smell wood… Read more »

Arnold '69
Guest
Arnold '69

When our community still had a volunteer fire department their fund raiser was a barbecue every November. I certainly wish I could get it now as haven’t found anything quite like it in the few places I’ve been.

Jay
Guest
Jay

My wife is from Greensboro. We have to hit Stamey’s every time we visit. Nice location by the Coliseum. That BBQ place will likely out live us both.

BTW, you were right about the Bama trivia question I left you two weeks ago – before Clemson beat the Tide this month the last team to beat Bama by 28+ points was VT, 38-7, at the 1998 Music City Bowl. Most of that Hokie team returned the next year, along with a freshman QB by the name of Vick. – Jay

Mark Corbett
Guest

Mr Kennel is correct about Wilber being an enormous NC State fan. He is also a major supporter of the Democratic Party, and his restaurant is considered the de facto hq of the Wayne County Democratic Party. That said, I doubt he shares many of the views of those currently causing the extreme leftward-shift in said party. Although I am on the other side on those two subjects, I can personally attest to the fact that he is a fine man, an upstanding citizen, and very generous. I have been involved in many church/scout/etc fundraisers over the past 35 years,… Read more »

Robert P. Kennel
Guest
Robert P. Kennel

BL, this truly a classic both in writing style and history !! . I’m partial to Wilber’s although I was out of state so long that I sometimes spelled it “Wilbur’s”. Agree with your whole piece. . We had an NC State Alumni picnic (with Barbeque) each summer when we lived in N. Virginia for 22 years. It was always the second Sunday in June with kids out of school but before vacations started. In the early years Bryce Younts from the Alumni Association or Jimmy Bass from the Wolfpack Club would pick up the barbeque in Raleigh or Louisburg… Read more »

Harper Cooper
Guest
Harper Cooper

I grew up on Arkansas BBQ. Pretty Good Stuff. Now, I live with Texas BBQ. Pretty Good Stuff.. The meat is basically the same (or should be) and how it is smoked has some variations. But, it is all in the taste buds. I don’t care for the eastern vinegar flavoring myself . I like the tangy, spicy stuff (politicians or no politicians). You are correct. It is the first generation mom and pop stores that continue the tradition that people will drive miles and miles just to get some of that finger licking stuff.
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NCSU68Grad
Guest
NCSU68Grad

Nice piece, BL. . My DW likes Danny’s in Cary. He has closed the Morrisville location (was larger, but no profitable) and has limited lunch hours on Miami Blvd. Brisket is her choice…so we go there a lot. We help with the annual church BBQ and purchase enough to tide us over…..and have been known to frequent the Smithfield enterprise (Chicken and Q) for the hot dogs as well as their “family pack”. . There was a recent discussion on Brunswick Stew on a Wolfie site. Some interesting factoids about BS, as well as some REAL BS. My late inlaws… Read more »

John Shelton Reed
Guest
John Shelton Reed

Thanks for the kind words, and for posting the link to the website for the Campaign for Real Barbecue. You’re absolutely right that the old-time, wood-cooking, family-run places are an endangered species in the Carolinas. They deserve at least a farewell.
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Tooting my own horn: After the 2016 elections i wrote an op-ed for the N&O about the relationship between NC barbecue and the national Democratic party that you might check out:
https://www.newsobserver.com/opinion/op-ed/article119551983.html

Jon Ham
Guest
Jon Ham

I just thought of your daughter, son-in-law, and the grandbabies when I heard the weather report for Madison on radio a few minutes ago. I hope they bundle up. Also, a Kero-Sun heater saved us many times over the years when the power went out, especially in January of ’85 in Richmond when it got down to -10. It’s always good to have an alternate heat source at those times.

Kenith
Guest
Kenith

Barbeque and politicians, now there is a subject for many columns. I honestly believe one of the reasons Fred Smith lost in the primary a few years ago was his “I am gonna have a rally and serve barbeque in each of our 100 counties” campaign. You just cannot take White Swan que anywhere west of the Pee Dee river and expect good results, either the stuff does not travel well or they just have a different idea of roasted pig. Now I love all of it and had bypass surgery when I was 38 to prove it. Once I… Read more »

Eddie.R
Guest
Eddie.R

An observation re: pictures of politicians in BBQ places…. I defy you to find a picture of a current-era Democrat politician in a traditional BBQ place. Why might that be ??