Six summer drives that will take you back in time
The Hog Highway
Chasing 'Cue Across Eastern North Carolina
By Sandy Lang
Back Roads, Eastern North Carolina
The whole adventure was a lark, a two-day open-road bender. There was little planning. We unfolded a map during a visit with family down east in North Carolina and stitched a looping route from Wayne County southeast of Raleigh to Beaufort County in the east, to as far west as Chapel Hill—and back again. Our guide would be pork, specifically the vinegar-pepper whole-hog variety that gives the eastern part of the state its reputation for serving up some of the best ’cue in the country. We’d stay off major highways when possible, following two-lane asphalt lined with farmhouses and pine tree rows, tobacco barns and railroad crossings. My dream was to get to old-school places where the hogs had been cooked at least half the night over hot coals, and that they’d still have some left when we got there.
At Grady’s Barbecue east of Dudley (pop. 11,889), we missed our chance. This parlor looks just like I hoped it would, at a V crossroads, miles from town. By the time we rolled in after lunch hour, the pig cooked the night before was already chopped and gone. The “closed” sign was turned out. But there was Stephen Grady, the owner, still standing in the doorway of his white cinder-block cookhouse. We called out to him and he waved us inside, into the one-room building of brick pits and iron grills, of char and wood smoke. What we didn’t get to taste, we could smell. Stephen pointed at the underbelly of the cookhouse roof, where the rafters are smudged black from years of slow fires. “I burned the first roof off,” he said. That was more than twenty years ago, not long after he and his wife, Gerri, had opened the place. They’d planned to drive off that afternoon on a vacation. But hot fat and a roof built too low mixed to set the building ablaze. The couple never did take that trip. Instead, Stephen rebuilt with an almost steeple-like roofline that’s lasted for four nights of barbecuing every week, without burning, ever since. He grinned while looking at it. “I figured up that new roof pretty good.”
While we talked, Gerri went into the kitchen and pulled back the foil on some still-warm hush puppies, and she ladled up a couple of bowls of the most tender, flavorful black-eyed peas on earth. She poured big foam cups of sweet tea for us, and then we drove on. The Gradys needed to get home and rest. Stephen said he would be back that night around 10:30 to start the fires again; he had three more fresh hogs to cook, bought from a farmer about six miles down the road.
With that one stop, we’d already practically found my dream spot. But we drove on. This time we were heading to Ayden (pop. 4,622), where the wood-fired barbecue has been described as “veal-tender.” It’s the home of the Skylight Inn, known for the capitol dome that rises out of the roof of the plain brick building, staking its claim as “the bar-b-q capital of the world.” (When we were looking for the place, two local people didn’t know it as Skylight; instead, they called it “the Capitol” and “the place that looks like the White House.”) We got there during the afternoon “rush,” when suddenly six or eight people showed up, making a line almost to the door of the small half-circle dining room. Inside, there was little other sound than the rhythmic chop of cleavers on a wood cutting board; two young men worked over a foot-tall mound of barbecue under the light of a heat lamp, all in full view of the ordering counter. Like just about everyone else in line, we ordered and were handed plaid paper trays of chopped barbecue and milky green coleslaw, cups of pepper vinegar, and a plank of dense cornbread as big as your hand. Everyone was eating like it was their job, and the room was often unnervingly quiet. You could actually hear people’s maws at work—folks chewing, slurping tea. This was barbecue at its most serious.
A Barbecue Flurry
A few blocks away is downtown Ayden, which has a revitalization project going, lots of fresh paint and signs. My sister-in-law, who was raised about forty miles away in tiny Eureka (pop. 239)—where her family’s farm still grows soybeans and cucumbers—had suggested we check out Bum’s Restaurant on Third Street. There, Latham “Bum” Dennis served us a plate of pulled pork, mashed rutabagas, and greens, and then sat down to talk while we ate. Looking as fit as a man in his fifties, Bum (who later mentioned he’s seventy-two) has a large tattoo of a “Japanese lady standing sideways” in a green dress on his forearm, lots of stories, and a warm smile. When he and his wife, Shirley, bought the place from a cousin in the 1960s, they rolled kitchen equipment right down Ayden’s sidewalks. And these days, their son Larry does much of the barbecuing in the smokehouse out back. Bum says they cook over oak or ash, seasoning only with salt before the hog goes on the fire. At his farmhouse nearby, he plants a “little garden” of about eleven acres to provide most of the vegetables for the restaurant, including his delicious collard greens.
That’s the way this trip was, meeting people, talking about and eating barbecue, and settling in for long views of the countryside, sometimes feeling like we’d traveled back to simpler decades. Over and over, we were inspired to stop, or at least turn around for a better look at the scenery—Pickle Festival banners on NC 55 near Mount Olive and the massive pickle factory there; the tidy White Rock AME Church set back from Hwy. 301 in Micro; the red clay oval and bleachers at the Tri-County Kartway (intersection of NC 581 and NC 222 at Kenly); and the huge sow snorting through a pile of sweet potatoes and straw near a “pigs for sale” sign on NC 581 not far from Buckhorn Crossroads. We even made a side trip to see the jaw-dropping Nahunta Pork Center in Pikevile (pop. 719). It’s an entire grocery store of pork, with more chilled cases of ham and pork belly than I’d ever seen in my life.
By the time we got to B’s Barbecue in Greenville (pop. 60,476), the evening streetlights were already coming on, and its well-known “sold out of food” sign was tacked to the door. At the very large, busy Parker’s Barbecue in Wilson (pop. 47,804), where the servers are all men in white uniforms and paper hats, a manager told me they’d just served 120 Harley riders who’d called ahead, getting everyone seated in two dining rooms, and in and out within forty-five minutes. The manager, Kevin Lamm, also gave me directions to the Whirligig Farm I’d heard about in nearby Lucama (pop. 854). “Yeah, we used to go there at night…when your headlights hit the auto reflectors, it’s pretty cool.” I couldn’t wait to get there. So we followed Kevin’s directions, the most helpful of which was “You’ll think you’ve driven too far, but keep going.” After about eight country miles of anticipation, I got out of the car and stood there in astonishment. A man with a metal shop, Vollis Simpson, began creating these fantastical sculptures years ago, a growing collection that whir and clang into quite a racket up in the pine trees. It’s like watching an open-air kaleidoscope. I could have stayed much longer, just looking up and listening.
But we didn’t want to miss Allen & Son Bar-B-Que in Chapel Hill (pop. 54,492), so we kept going and made it in time for pulled pork with the most smoke flavor we’d taste on this trip, along with a warmed slice of cream cheese pound cake for dessert. Then for a taste we hadn’t planned, we made a fast stop for a modern take on the comforts of barbecue, at least in the look of the parlor. The Q Shack in Durham (pop. 217,847) smokes a wet and peppery pulled pork, along with pulled chicken, Texas-style brisket, and ribs. (One of the founders is Scott Howell, who has the very popular restaurant Nana’s a couple of doors down.)
And here’s my lasting memory from the barbecue flurry: this from about a hundred miles earlier in Farmville (pop. 4,606), where there was an art deco marquee announcing a stage production of To Kill a Mockingbird. We stopped a few blocks farther down Main Street at the square cinder-block building that houses Jack Cobb & Son, and carried our trays of barbecue, slaw, and stewed cabbage outside to sit in its ramshackle (but tidy) screen house. That’s when it hit me, what a simple thing this all really is. If you chase barbecue dreams, someday, somewhere you’ll find yourself this way, too, sitting on a rusty folding chair in a town you’d never driven through before, eating vinegar-drenched lukewarm meat and sweet fried hush puppies from a foam tray. There’s no music. There’s no beer. But you take another bite with your plastic fork and think, damn, this is good.
Carolina Pit Stops
Where to Eat and What to see on the Hog Highway
1. Grady’s Barbecue
Former sawmill operator Stephen Grady opened the parlor in 1986. He minds the wood coals while his wife, Gerri, cooks up the sides and makes the dining room sparkle. 3096 Arrington Bridge Rd., Dudley, 919-735-7243.
2. The Skylight Inn
Along with slaw and planks of cornbread, the paper trays or sandwiches of fine-chopped wood-fired barbecue are the only menu items in this dome-topped parlor, recognized by the James Beard Society. 4618 Lee St., Ayden, 252-746-4113.
3. Bum’s Restaurant
The wood is piled high, the barbecue is pulled, and many of the vegetable sides come from “Bum” and Shirley Dennis’s own garden for this tidy restaurant they started in the 1960s. 566 Third St., Ayden, 252-746-6880.
4. Nahunta Pork Center
Follow the yellow signs for the “Largest Display of Pork in the Country” to where NC 581 meets the Nahunta Crossroads. There, rising up from the farmland is a complex of white buildings and a grocery-size retail store with sausages, souse, bacon, country hams, and every other pork product imaginable. 200 Bertie Pierce Rd., Pikeville, 919-242-4735.
5. B’s Barbecue
“Hard to find unless you know where it is,” this corner takeout opened in the 1970s serving wood-fired barbecue to lines of customers. Whenever the food runs out each day, the doors are closed. 751 B’s Barbecue Rd., Greenville, no telephone.
6. Parker’s Barbecue
With dining rooms big enough to seat tour-bus groups or packs of Harley riders, the restaurant offers loose-chopped barbecue carried to tables by servers in paper hats. 2514 U.S. 301 South, Wilson, 252-237-0972.
7. Whirligig Farm
A roadside folk art wonder that’s inspired the nearby city of Wilson to hold an annual Whirligig Festival. This year’s event is November 7–8 and includes a barbecue cook-off. (artsfestival.wordpress.com.) Wiggins Mill Rd., Lucama.
8. Allen & Son Bar-B-Que
Even with the SUVs and hybrids parked out front, this sit-down restaurant feels like a country place, with gingham tablecloths, sweet pies, and smoke flavor in the barbecue. 6203 Millhouse Rd., Chapel Hill, 919-942-7576.
9. Q Shack
North Carolina meets Texas in this urban-edged tribute to smoked meats—from pulled pork and ribs to brisket and chicken. 2510 University Dr., Durham, 919-402-4227.
10. Jack Cobb & Son Barbecue Place
Begun in the 1940s, this place has nothing fancy, just a fine chop and a sauce of vinegar and peppers, with a choice of slaw and cooked vegetables. The only seating is in the screen house. 3883 South Main St., Farmville, 252-753-5128.