At the end of the meal, the question was always the same: “Did you save room for banana pudding?”
Our answer was always the same, too. A resounding “no!”
That’s because we were full as ticks, as they say in the South, after sampling plate after plate of North Carolina’s legendary barbecue.
My 31-year-old son and I spent a muggy, buggy summer week driving the Tar Heel State’s highways and back roads to search out its most flavorful pork. Tucking in our napkins at seven spots in six days, we experienced a slice of Americana as thick as the smoke that infused the meat before us, rubbing shoulders with generations of barbecue royalty in the process.
A hungry visitor to North Carolina is never more than a stone’s throw from a joint that invariably has a sign with a pig on it. According to the estimable North Carolina Barbecue Society (NCBS) — a nonprofit that promotes the traditions, heritage and culture of the state’s favorite food — barbecue is dished up at some 3,000 spots statewide, including city restaurants, small-town diners, roadside shacks, even gas stations.
While any local will gladly brag up their own favorite hole-in-the-wall, we needed an impartial source to narrow this embarrassment of riches for us. And we found it. Eleven years ago, the NCBS designed the Historic Barbecue Trail, which cuts from the eastern edge of the state to the mountainous west, highlighting the iconic pits that proudly cook old-school-style, with no shortcuts.
All 22 eat-in restaurants on the trail are among the 1 percent of BBQ purveyors who adhere to the classic pit method, smoking that fine swine low and slow over wood or charcoal to give it an earthy, mellow taste.
In these unassuming spots, producing barbecue remains low-tech, hands-on, physical work, attended by patient pitmasters.
At Stephenson’s Bar-B-Q in Willow Spring, the napkins were paper, the divided plates utilitarian and the service no-nonsense. I suspected that the family that’s run this no-frills roadhouse since 1958 lavishes so much attention on the tender, tantalizing chopped pork that they don’t have energy to spare for coddling customers.
But that’s not why we’re there.
I practically swooned as my son and I dove into the $8.25 plate, sharing a generous serving of the savory meat that had been smoked out back, along with slaw, fries and hush puppies.
“This may be the best yet,” I said to my son.
“You said that yesterday,” he grinned. “And the day before that.”
It was more than our mutual appreciation for pork that prompted this barbecue quest.
Recovering from cancer surgery, my son was undergoing radiation at Duke Cancer Center in Durham, four hours from his home in Asheville, N.C. I flew down to join him for a week, sharing his temporary quarters a few miles from the hospital.
A cancer survivor myself, I knew that radiation takes less than an hour a day. While treatments typically leave patients fatigued, my strapping millennial son seemed unfazed and his appetite remained as astonishingly fierce as it had been when he was still at home busting my grocery budget.
I figured we needed a project to leaven the experience. Hitting unfamiliar towns for meals guaranteed to be extraordinary seemed just the antidote.
We tooled through tobacco fields, passed hog farms and crossed bridges over rivers the color of the sweet tea we swilled at every stop. We listened to James Brown and radio debates about Confederate statues, only occasionally slipping into the existential conversation that two cancer survivors can’t avoid. Just like in his teenage years, I found that something about driving, with eyes on the road, loosened our tongues.
With Durham in the central part of the state as our hub, we were well positioned to travel to the two versions of Carolina barbecue.
In one direction, Eastern-style, known for using the whole hog, is accompanied by a thin sauce of vinegar with spices and mayo-based slaw.
To the west, it’s called Lexington or Piedmont style, ’cue culled from the tenderest parts: pork shoulders, hams or Boston butts. It’s served with “dip,” the regional name for the reddish drizzle that adds ketchup to the vinegar-based sauce. Lexington-style slaw adds a squirt of sauce that makes the chopped cabbage side dish a puckery pink.
Some barbecue artisans hold rigid opinions about the authenticity of the style they make.
“Eastern is the only Carolina barbecue,” insisted Wilberdean Shirley, founder of Wilber’s Barbecue in Goldsboro.
“Ketchup,” he added contemptuously, “is for beef.”
At 88, Shirley’s leathery forearms attest to decades spent tending fire. Stoic and slim, he walks with the bearing of a serviceman and could likely still fit into his Army uniform from the Korean War, which hangs in a shadow box on a pine-paneled wall in the dining room.
“My wife hung it up 20 years ago. She was real proud of that,” he said.
Most days, customers will find Shirley going over receipts in the office of the restaurant he slapped his name on in 1962.
“I’m too old to keep working but I don’t know what to do with myself since I lost my wife last year,” he confessed. “You could say I’m going to retire soon, one way or the other.”
On Sunday, free of doctors, we awoke ready to roll. Only one historic pit stop within 100 miles was open on the Sabbath. The keepers of the flame are also apparently keepers of the faith: Perhaps reflecting that, none of them serve alcohol, which my craft beer-loving son found almost tragic.
The Sunday outlier was in the old town of Madison near the Virginia border, where we found an after-church crowd ordering moist Lexington-style pork at Fuzzy’s Bar-B-Que.
We parked ourselves down the counter from four elderly gentlemen silently chewing barbecue sandwiches.
“They’re here every day for lunch. Two widowers, one divorced and one whose wife can’t stand him,” explained a waitress in an “Oink Oink” T-shirt.
The original Fuzzy who started serving customers in 1954 is long gone, his drive-in replaced by a cafe that seats 100.
But his signature reddish sauce still sits on every table. Hilda Vestal, who has run this historic site for 19 years, is closemouthed about the tangy 5-gallon vat she mixes up most mornings.
“Fuzzy’s recipe is a secret,” she said. “I’m the only one who knows it and I know it by heart.”
We wondered if we would get tired of the taste of barbecue after eating it every day, sometimes twice, but that didn’t happen. Every plate and every historic restaurant gave us a fresh take on the form.
Waiting for our table at Hursey’s Bar-B-Q in the town of Burlington, we admired lobby photos of famous diners — presidents, country music stars, NASCAR drivers and, this being North Carolina, prominent college basketball coaches.
After laying waste to a luncheon combination plate, my son and I introduced ourselves to restaurant manager Tyler Hursey, the 23-year-old great-grandson of the pork pioneer who started the business that still carries the family name.
With little coaxing, he walked us through the fragrant kitchen to the smokehouse, opening a cast-iron door to let us peer in at two dozen roasting pork shoulders, dripping on the glowing coals below.
“I started working here when I was 10, wiping tables and mixing the banana pudding. Kept me busy and out of trouble,” Hursey said. “This is all I ever wanted to do.”
Each of the seven historic pits we visited gave us memorable meals, but perhaps the most distinctive was the pork served at Grady’s BBQ, housed in a renovated pool hall at a country crossroads outside Dudley and one of the few African-American-owned spots on the trail.
Glistening in the mound of smoky meat we spotted specks of golden pork skin, which the barbecue-wise know as bark.
“Bark means smoky, salty, chewy goodness. I look for that and when I see it, I’m Pavlov’s dog,” said Trey Ledford. A passionate lifelong barbecue fan and traveling musician, Ledford can rattle off his favorite stops on the road. Grady’s is high on his list.
“I like it when the meat is not so homogenized, when every bite looks a little different, and the bark ensures that,” he said.
Proprietor Gerri Grady typically shows up at the spotless white clapboard restaurant at 3 a.m. to cook vegetables and bake desserts; her husband, Steve, is steps away, chopping wood, tending the embers and turning the meat in the cinder block smokehouse.
“Our secret is dedication, prayer and the pleasure of serving people,” she said.
Grady’s dining room holds nine booths where eat-in customers can view yellowed newspaper rave reviews and a wall full of framed certificates with Grade A ratings awarded by the county health department.
As Grady wipes down a nearby table, I compliment her on my meal and she nods pleasantly.
When I mention the cleanliness of the place, her smile widens.
“Oh, let me hug your neck!” she exclaimed, and did. “We work hard to comply with the rules and we love it when customers notice.”
As we exited Grady’s, I spotted a dark penny lying in the gravel near our parked rental sedan. I picked it up and handed it to my son.
“I’ll keep this,” he said, smiling and slipping it like a souvenir into his jeans pocket. “I can use all the lucky barbecue juju that I can get.”
Kevyn Burger, of Minneapolis, is a freelance writer.