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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