Eastern N.C. BBQ Called Top Regional Dish in America
I forget how I learned there was an article on Eastern N.C. BBQ in the November issue of Gentleman's Quarterly, but I remember well the first thought I had afterwards. Here we go again, I thought. Another irreverent piece by a New York City writer about how the backward people of eastern N.C. eat and while he was at it, I figured he would take a couple of swipes at the state, in general, and subtly tell us how superior everything in NYC was to N.C. Boy, was I wrong.
I had never actually touched a copy of GQ, but I had seen them on the news stands and very quickly decided it was too rich for my blood. And when Christian Laettner appeared on the cover, that was enough for me to avoid the publication altogether. I mention this because I felt sort of funny when I bought the magazine. I was a little bit afraid the cashier would make a judgment of me as a person based on what magazine I was buying.
My first impression of the magazine was that it had far too many advertisements. The November issue contained over 400 pages and while I didn't count them, I would wager that at least 75% of those pages were taken up by ads.
The author of the Eastern N.C. article is Alan Richman and yes, he admits he is from or at least now resides in the "Big Apple". After reading the BBQ article, I think he is now an honorary Tar Heel.
Mr. Richman did his homework before flying into RDU and renting an automobile to tour BBQ country. He had decided in advance he would only visit establishments east of U.S. Highway # 1. which is a pretty good definition of eastern N.C. I once heard someone say eastern N.C. began at an imaginary line drawn down the center of the lobby of the old Sir Walter Hotel in downtown Raleigh. Last weekend, I took a friend by Clyde Coopers in downtown Raleigh and I was trying to explain the layout of various points of interest since I thought he was totally unfamiliar with Raleigh. As we went by the Sir Walter Hotel building, I commented on it and he said excitedly, "That's where I got married". I didn't say anything else for a while.
Back to the article. Mr. Richman telephoned in advance every BBQ establishment he could find in eastern N.C. and asked if they cooked with gas or wood. He was only interested in visiting those places that still used wood. 13 establishments assured him they still used wood but even that was deceiving. Mr. Richman learned a few tricks while he was in N.C. He found that some joints ( o.k., now I feel better that I have finally used the term we used when I was growing up to describe a place that served BBQ ) stack wood near the building to give the impression that their BBQ is cooked over wood coals. Mr. Richman says to be suspicious if the wood is neatly stacked because it may be there for cosmetic purposes only. One respondent said they used smoke and nobody knows exactly what that means. Seems like I remember having smoke used on me several times in the past, but we won't go into that here.
The locations visited by Mr. Richman are as follows:
Bunn's (Windsor) Mr. Richman who will be referred to hereafter as AR admits he was attracted to this location because they advertised they were the best BBQ around. He found no fault with the BBQ but found a lot of fault with the bun it was served on. He didn't say what the problem was and I can only assume the bun was stale.
Parkers (Goldsboro) I'll have to admit I am not familiar with Parkers near Goldsboro. I am very familiar with Parkers in Wilson and other eastern N.C. locations. AR was impressed with the fact that Parkers put a piece of pork skin on the sandwich, but he wound up eating the skin like a wafer. He thought Parkers was too generous with vinegar but otherwise didn't complain about BBQ.
Wilburs ( Goldsboro ) AR thought the sandwich was great. Ordered sweet tea and describes it as an "intravenous glucose drip". I don't think he was referring to the taste as much as the effect the sugar was having on him. I never noticed this but I'm pretty jumpy all the time so, in my case, it would be easy for the effects of the sugar to go unnoticed.
McCalls ( Goldsboro ) Rated the sandwich high and passed on the "sweet tea". On this particular day, AR had eaten three sandwiches before 1 p.m.
Altons (Goldsboro ) I could tell from the way AR was writing that he was becoming "BBQ logged" by the time he reached Altons. He commented on the "squished" roll again and definitely wanted no part of "sweet tea". I think Altons would have fared better if they had been visited earlier in the day when AR's palate was more sensitive.
Gradys (Dudley ) Says Grady's served one of his favorite BBQ sandwiches and included a photograph of Mr. Grady and his family in the article. In AR's opinion, it is worth while to go off the beaten path to find Gradys.
Jack Cobbs ( Farmville ) AR mentions heading for Farmville but never does tell us anything about the place.
Simpson's BBQ ( Edenton ) found it closed with a ribbon tied to the front door which AR interpreted to mean there had been a recent addition to the family.
Skylight Inn ( Ayden ) It's not difficult to tell that the Skylight was AR's favorite of all the places he visited. In addition to having Pete Jones pictured with a hog's head beside him art the beginning of the article, AR went over to Mr. Jones house nearby and talked with him while he was eating health food. Pete say he used to eat BBQ everyday until his doctor put him on a diet and explained that he should be dead. I couldn't believe it but Pete says his cholesterol reached 800 at one time but is now down to "about half that".
Bums (Ayden ) Is operated by a relative of Pete Jones. AR got irritated here because his BBQ fell out of the bun and probably wasn't in the right frame of mind to appreciate their BBQ. I can attest to the quality of the BBQ here and I love the building they are in which looks like it had been a department store.
Lane's Barbecue House ( southeast N.C. ) closed when AR visited.
Betty's Smoke House Restaurant-( ? ) AR liked the BBQ but found the French fries not to his liking.
Big Nell's Pit Stop (? ) It had to happen somewhere and that somewhere was BNPS. AR says the sandwich was remarkable in one respect. It was inedible. He says it is the only eastern N.C. BBQ sandwich he had ever disliked and the only one he didn't finish. Poor Big Nell. I almost want to visit her place to see what a sandwich tastes like when the meat is "watery". Maybe there isn't really a "Big Nell's ) and AR added this to make his evaluations more credible.
Don Murrays ( Raleigh ) this is the old one, not the one in North Raleigh. I had heard some good things about this place but AR wasn't impressed. Says the BBQ was "too bland ".
Stephensons- ( Willow Springs ) AR felt this place was too fancified, but put the cole slaw on the level of Pete Jones'. He also said the BBQ was good. He just got a little upset when he saw the place starting to look like all other restaurants and I know the feeling. My friends and I say, never go to a BBQ place that has a carpet on the floor.
During his 4 day stay in eastern N.C. AR ate 14 BBQ sandwiches. Unbelievably, he bemoaned the fact that he would not be able to get his hands on one after returning to NYC when his taste buds called. Oh, one thing I forgot. AR discovered Cheerwine on his visit and calls it the "sweetest drink ever made", I don't know what it is about sweetness that turns AR off so much and I was relieved when he said Cheerwine was the greatest accompaniment to BBQ ever produced. Makes we wonder about those New York City folks. Of course, I've been wondering about them for a long time but Alan Richman sounds like he's one of us. I've got a feeling he'll be back soon for a day, or two, or three. After all, he said that eastern N.C. BBQ is the "nation's greatest regional dish, surpassing even the jumbo lump- crab cake of Maryland's eastern shore".