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Eastern NC Barbecue Trek


Varmint
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Eastern style North Carolina barbecue is a dying breed. Slow cooking whole hogs over wood is an extremely labor-intensive task, requiring many hours, lots of wood, a strong back, patience, and a love of the craft. There are only a handful of barbecue restaurants left that make legitimate Eastern barbecue, and since I had a meeting scheduled in Greenville today, I thought it time to hit three places, two of which are legendary in North Carolina, and a third that should be.

B's Barbecue & Grill on the western side of Greenville, NC is listed by many natives as being their barbecue joint of choice. I'm not sure if it's because of the food or because of its proximity to East Carolina University in Greenville, but the 26-year old establishment always seems to be busy. Hell, they even named the road its on after the restaurant. Housed in an old corner general store, the place is as spartan as any. You place your order at the counter (or at the outside take-out window -- that may be a better choice as B's has no air conditioning), and grab a seat. If you look to your left, you'll see a table of local lawyers enjoying their lunch, while to your right will be a table of farmers in overalls getting their mid-day barbecue fix. There are no color barriers in this restaurant. Socioeconomic classes are irrelevant. Hell, there were more women eating here this afternoon than men, and that's extremely unusual.

I ordered a combination plate of barbecue and barbecued chicken (white meat). It came with slaw, boiled potatoes, and corn sticks. Adding a glass of tea brought the bill to $8.50. The barbecue is good to very good. It has a bit of smokey flavor, and the lack of smoke may be due to B's use of hardwood charcoal instead of the wood itself. Charcoal does produce smoke, but less than actual hickory or oak, the standard woods used for barbecue. The barbecued chicken, however, may be the finest example of this dish I've ever sampled. Chickens are slow cooked to the point where the skin is good and crispy. During the process, a vinegar-based sauce is brushed onto the chicken, but I sense this step is to facilitate the crisping of the skin. As a result, you have a tender chicken, with smokey, crunchy skin. If they would brine those birds, you would attain poultry nirvana. The slaw was great, simply because it wasn't overwhelmed with vinegar or sugar -- the flavor of the cabbage was the feature.

Eleven or twelve miles south of Greenville is the small town of Ayden. As you drive into town, you're impressed by these huge, antebellum houses. The downtown area of Ayden, however, is filled with vacant storefronts. One downtown place that is busy, however, is Bum's Restaurant. Owned by Lathan "Bum" Dennis and his wife Shirley, Bum's is known not only for its barbecue, but its side dishes. Bum Dennis wears a huge, gray mustache, calls everyone "buddy" and "pal", and you know that you'd be happy drinking a beer with him any night of the week. While I started to eat my food, a customer bounced his 1-year old boy on Bum's head, who was visiting with other customers. One waitress called me "darlin'" and "hun." I don't think I blushed much. Another waitress saw me taking down some notes and asked "Do you like writing? So do I. You're writing about food? Well, I write about", and she then pointed upward. This woman found religion, and I was more than happy to have her talk to me about it.

Oh, the food! I got a barbecue dinner with collards, boiled potatoes, corn sticks and tea: $6.50. Bum knows collards. I can say with no hesitation that I sampled today the finest collards I've ever tasted, and I eat collards every chance I can. These collards are not at all bitter, filled with smokey flavor. Seeing Ayden calls itself the Collard Capital of the World (and, yes, they do have a Collard Festival), I'm quite pleased that someone in this town makes such a fine sample of these greens.

The barbecue is not chopped finely, as is customary with Eastern style barbecue. It actually is more akin to the pulled pork you'll find in other states. The flavor, however, is all North Carolina. It's incredibly moist, seasoned just right. Even though I was already full from B's, I couldn't stop eating this barbecue and those collards. I really wish Bum's was in Raleigh, not Ayden.

Although I was full as a tick on the belly of a hound dog, I had to visit the other, more famous barbecue restaurant in Ayden -- Pete Jones' Skylight Inn. The Skylight Inn has been recognized by everyone and anyone. Mr. Jones has been a fierce advocate for traditional barbecue: his motto is, "If it's not cooked with wood, it's not bar-b-q." When some magazine named the Skylight Inn as the best barbecue joint in the country, Mr. Jones went a bit hog-wild (sorry) and had someone add a faux-rotunda to the top of his restaurant in an attempt to mimic the US Capitol. The restaurant thereby became even more of an icon.

You won't find collards at the Skylight. The only vegetable served is cabbage in the overly sweet slaw. You won't find chicken or stew or even sweet tea at the Skylight. This place is about barbecue. I ordered a barbecue tray, which consists of a stack, with a dish of pork on the bottom, a piece of ultra-dense cornbread in the middle, and a tray of slaw on the top. With a fountain drink (they have both a Coke and a Pepsi fountain!), that cost me a grand total of $3.50.

Tasting the barbecue reminded me why Pete Jones has received all the accolades he has. His barbecue is quite close to the way I make it -- each bite crunches from the small bits of skin (or "pork brittle" as Malawry calls it) he cuts into the meat. This results in perhaps the best flavor and textural combination possible. You're reminded of the work that goes into this dish from the constant "clunk, clunk, clunka, clunk" from the two cleavers wielded by the man behind the counter, chopping the barbecue. Sauce is almost non-existent with this barbecue, as you really don't want to do anything to diminish the pork. It's incredibly rich, and you can't eat a lot of this stuff, but damn, it's awesome.

If I had to choose a barbecue to eat every day, I'd choose Bum's or Wilber's in Goldsboro. If I had to choose a barbecue as my final meal, I'd take the Skylight's -- that's the memory I'd want to take to my grave. I may end up in hell, but I would certainly have had a bit of heaven prior to my descent.

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B's Barbecue in Greenville

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The combination plate from B's. I love corn sticks for one reason: I don't eat them, leaving more room for barbecue and chicken. Otherwise, they're a waste of stomach space.

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The side of B's, showing the take-out window.

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B's has a street named after it, but apparently, they can't spell "barbecue."

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Bum's Barbecue in Ayden

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A barbecue dinner plate from Bum's. Damn fine Q and collards.

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The menu from Bum's. A hamburger for $1.35???

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The woodpile behind Bum's.

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The Skylight Inn, in all its glory. Note the collard truck.

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This is how you a barbecue tray is served to you at the Skylight.

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A better view of the Skylight's barbecue. Note the brown pieces of skin cut in.

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Chopping the Q.

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The billboard for the Skylight. That picture of Pete Jones must be 25 years old. He has to be in his 70s now, but he still works the counter. A man of very few words.

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Perhaps the single most impressive woodpile I've ever seen was this one behind the Skylight.

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

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I forgot to include one beautiful piece of information. Before you get to Ayden's historic mansions, you pass a Piggly Wiggly that has a large sign in front, advertising whole barbecue pigs for 99 cents a pound. Folks in this part of the country are very serious about their barbecue.

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

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Wow, Varmint. What a lovely photo essay. Made me a little homesick and wistful.

Great pictures and story, Varmint!

Definitely worthy of National Geographic!! Got to express my admiration for this piece .. when's lunch? :laugh:

Melissa Goodman aka "Gifted Gourmet"

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Collard Festival Schedule

Be sure to get there in time to have the Collard Queen bless you and make sure to get a t-shirt!

This is my favorite combo festival! You can't beat purple hulls and hot rod tillers. They really "tear it up" at this one. ANd yes, thank you very much, I actually went last year as it is not too far from my parents lake house. The t-shirt was worth the trip.

You too can look like a Pea and Tiller Queen in this fabulous T-Shirt!

Brooks Hamaker, aka "Mayhaw Man"

There's a train everyday, leaving either way...

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what a fun post! Looks like the folks who made the street sign are the same that painted the sign of Bum's window..both are spelled barbque...perhaps its just a local derivitive?

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what a fun post! Looks like the folks who made the street sign are the same that painted the sign of Bum's window..both are spelled barbque...perhaps its just a local derivitive?

That spelling is appropriate only with the dashes. They left them out of the street sign!

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

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Dean,

The guy doing the double bladed chopping action-what is the yellow stuff on the meat in front of him? Is that just a lighting thing, or do you guys put scrambled eggs on your pulled pork? (not that this would be a bad thing :wink: )

Brooks Hamaker, aka "Mayhaw Man"

There's a train everyday, leaving either way...

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Totally a lighting artifact. I had to get to my meeting, so I didn't have the time to make sure I got everything just right. I really should have taken a video of him in action, because the rhythm of his chopping provided a great background sound. The best way to describe his cadence would be to think of the beat of the Who's "Magic Bus."

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

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Totally a lighting artifact. I had to get to my meeting, so I didn't have the time to make sure I got everything just right. I really should have taken a video of him in action, because the rhythm of his chopping provided a great background sound. The best way to describe his cadence would be to think of the beat of the Who's "Magic Bus."

I was wondering the same thing...but was too intimidated to ask. You BBQ people are very, very serious about the stuff! and now I'll have Magic Bus stuck in my head all day. :laugh:

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People try to cook us down (Talkin bout my Barbeque)

Just because we smoke it around (Talkin bout my Barbeque)

Things they do look Awful Good (Talkin bout my Barbeque)

Barbeque thigh is mighty bold (Talkin bout my Barbeque)

This is my Barbeque

This is my barbeque, baby

Why don't you all just s-smoke away (Talkin bout my Barbeque)

And try to dig the Q all d-d-day (Talkin bout my Barbeque)

I'm not trying to cause a big s-s-saucesation (Talkin bout my Barbeque)

I'm just talkin bout my B-B- Barbeque (Talkin bout my Barbeque)

I will not be able to get this song out of my head all day. Thanks Dean. I guess it's better than McArthur Park (Somebody left the BBQ out in the rain :wink: )

Edited to say: Apologies to Pete Townsend. He deserves better than this :laugh:

Brooks Hamaker, aka "Mayhaw Man"

There's a train everyday, leaving either way...

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Now back to our regularly scheduled discussion of BBQ minutia:

What is a corn stick? Cornbread? Fried corn Meal in a stick (I could see this as a good thing)? What gives with this potentially fine foodstuff.

I've got to get over there. I have a major hole in my "things Southern" c.v.

Brooks Hamaker, aka "Mayhaw Man"

There's a train everyday, leaving either way...

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Corn sticks are corn bread that have been cut into stick-like shapes and then fried. There must be some law that requires them to be horribly dry and tasteless, as I've yet to eat one that I enjoy. The only decent way to eat them is to follow the advice of Bob Garner: use them as an edible spoon with your Brunswick Stew.

And yes, Brooks, you do need to get up here. Early June is still available. :wink::laugh:

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

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Corn sticks are corn bread that have been cut into stick-like shapes and then fried. There must be some law that requires them to be horribly dry and tasteless, as I've yet to eat one that I enjoy. The only decent way to eat them is to follow the advice of Bob Garner: use them as an edible spoon with your Brunswick Stew.

And yes, Brooks, you do need to get up here. Early June is still available. :wink::laugh:

That's a shame. They sound like a good idea. Then again, come to think of it, so did my plan for fried okra on a stick-but potential investors were a little scared of the downside of that scheme. :laugh:

Brooks Hamaker, aka "Mayhaw Man"

There's a train everyday, leaving either way...

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Thanks, Varmint! Last spring I hit Skylight on my way down to Florida. I think it was my first taste of Carolina barbecue. I'll have to make B's and Bum's destinations for my trip this summer. Can't wait to be eating barbecue again. (Oops, I mean barbque.)

JJ Goode

Co-author of Serious Barbecue, which is in stores now!

www.jjgoode.com

"For those of you following along, JJ is one of these hummingbird-metabolism types. He weighs something like eleven pounds but he can eat more than me and Jason put together..." -Fat Guy

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Amen, and thanks Dean for a very thoughtful post.

I think Pitt and Greene County right there next to it are two of the Eastern NC counties that have good BBQ credentials. I think these three restaurants are interesting as the BBQ atmospherics in each of them are so different.

Skylight Inn is probably more of a tourist attraction (see above postings and billboards/faux Capitol Rotunda on it) than a restaurant. This is not a dig on Pete Jones and his family, it's just the way it is I think.

B's: Greenville is probably the most cosmpolitan city in that area (Sorry Scotland Neck!), and I think that college/hospital/regional center rubs off on B's since its so close by. Whiskey decanters comprise some of the sauce bottles for example, and I don't think that notion would sit as well down the road at Ayden.

Bum's: I don't remember if Dean mentioned it, but Bum is Pete Jones's cousin, part of the Ayden BBQ mafia I guess. Dean hit the nail square on the head about this storefront restaurant, it's as much of a community center that Ayden probably has. I also like this place because IT IS NOT A BBQ RESTAURANT. It makes a great BBQ, pit cooking it for Pete (Jones') sake, but its breakfast offerings and its country lunches like boiled ham plates, are just as popular I think.

B's BBQ chicken is indeed BOSS. The royalty of its texture, the tartness of its vinegar and the moistness of its meat are really special. I hear it used to be even better. As a buddy of mine at another bbq restaurant says about it, "Hasn't been the same since the men died." I never tried it when these mysterious men were roaming the Earth, and since there are still dudes back in the smokehouse preparing the meat this may be a case of too much smoke going to one's head, but its good chicken.

PS. Has anyone ever had a B's rib? They are rumored to be in existence, but they are said to sell out early or be only for the staff. It reminds me of the Sword in the Stone, Lady in the Lake, or the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but like all good apocrapha its good to spread the rumor!

William McKinney aka "wcmckinney"
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My Dad now lives in Scotland Neck...I've heard they're some pretty good barbeque places there. I usually ate barbeque that a friend of my dad's made. I've had Wilbur's in Goldboro...very good. Its hard to find good collards. Kings BBQ has decent collards. I don't think their barbeque is that special. I also love getting good barbeque chicken. That's a hard thing to find. I miss Squire's in Garner. I've never come across a corn stick...I think that's a good thing, though. I do have an old recipe for a Scotland Neck Pig Roast. Its very interesting.

I'll have to try the places you mentioned, Varmint. I'll bet my dad will table his heart healthy diet for a day. :laugh:

it just makes me want to sit down and eat a bag of sugar chased down by a bag of flour.

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Woohoo! Good read, Varmint. I enjoyed that a lot. Made me damn hungry, too. I was in Greensboro Thus. and Fri. but didn't get to eat any barbecue. You should have heard me beg to hit Stamey's drive-through on the way to the airport. Pathetic, really.

I did have an excellent discussion about Eastern NC versus Western NC style, which was only interrupted by my Kansas companions' startlement that our BBQ was made from pork. :shock: When we patiently tried to explain that as tasty as hot cow with red sauce can be, it ain't barbeque, he claimed that barbecue was invented in Kansas City, and what would we know about it anyway? It took a mighty effort to restrain myself. It is simply not polite to kneecap a client in public.

I think I'm gonna smoke me a pork butt this weekend. My kids have never had NC style barbecue.

Take care,

Chad

Chad Ward

An Edge in the Kitchen

William Morrow Cookbooks

www.chadwrites.com

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When we patiently tried to explain that as tasty as hot cow with red sauce can be, it ain't barbeque, he claimed that barbecue was invented in Kansas City, and what would we know about it anyway?

Who boy, you must be having a slow day at work and are clearly looking for a fight! :laugh:

I am thankful that I am safely in the middle on this issue (geographically and personal tastewise).

While I love pork as much as anyone, I think that it would be difficult to argue that all of that tasty Hill Country Brisket is not barbeque. I like 'em both.

Brooks Hamaker, aka "Mayhaw Man"

There's a train everyday, leaving either way...

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I had lunch consisting of smoked brisket and beef sausage. I'm happy to call it barbecue.

I love those arguments, but they really exist for shits and grins. We've had a lengthy dialogue about what constitutes "real" barbecue, and although I don't have time to get into any debate about that particular issue, I will say I know what I like when it comes to barbecue: mammalian meat slow cooked over wood. It's not just smoked, either, as that's different (but still good). The closest a lot of NC barbecue comes to wood is when it sits on a plate sitting on a wood table, but folks still call it barbecue. It really ain't worth a damn, but it's still "called" barbecue.

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

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mammalian meat slow cooked over wood

This would be a good name for a band.

As would Pork Butt :biggrin:

Still doesn't beat my favorite band name of all time: Sissy Boy Slap Party :shock:

And, yep, the argument about what is and what isn't barbecue can be a lot of fun as long as you don't take it too seriously. It was more than passing strange to hear some members of my Kansas traveling party express surprise that NC barbecue was pork. Brooks, it would be like somebody peering into your big pot and saying, "Wow, you make your jambalaya with rice?"

Thanks for the great report, Varmint. I really enjoyed it -- and I'm inspired to cook up some Q this weekend. Using, of course, the One True Barbecue Sauce Recipe (all others being but pale imitations) :raz: Now, where did I put that scroll, whose existance was revealed to my grandfather in a vision of a talking pig? I know its around here somewhere.

Chad

Chad Ward

An Edge in the Kitchen

William Morrow Cookbooks

www.chadwrites.com

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