Pie & Perspective

It had been awhile since I felt the joyous urge to break out the flour, butter and sugar and make a right mess of my kitchen. I had been out of it. Uninspired. Amidst financial turmoil and rather large life changes, I couldn't find the time or the desire to indulge in one of my favorite forms of meditation. 

I was working, scrambling, picking up random gigs to make ends meet and not seeing much further than what was ahead of me each day. 

During this time, I ended up in the mountains. On a whim, while working on a story, my publisher and I serendipitously arrived on the doorstep of Smoke Signals Bakery in Marshall, North Carolina on the only day the shop is open to the public for a brief four hour window. I don't believe there are any coincidences.

I interviewed Tara Jensen, radical baker/owner/artist/magical woman and enjoyed a peaceful two hours at her homestead that felt like taking a deep cleansing breath. We lazed around near the wood fired oven, ate fat pieces of crusty bread with juicy heirloom tomatoes sprinkled with crunchy bits of sea salt and talked of bread and love. I told Tara about a blackberry pie I wanted to make before the season was over and she graciously let us peek into her artists journal. 

Over consecutive weekends after that visit to Marshall,  I baked and shared plates of pie with people I love, inspired and conscious of my need for white space and simplicity after months of seismic change.  I found Tara on Instagram and began following her beautiful feed. Soon after, I signed up for one of her pie classes. The afternoon is a small, intimate learning experience open to a maximum of six people. We make pie, eat snacks and learn the nuances of pie. I took a Sunday for myself, another breath of fresh air. 

Life is leveling out once again and I am making pie with frequency and with new confidence thanks to the skills I picked up at Smoke Signals and I've enjoyed a sweet shift in perspective thanks to those unexpected moments that grant us a little room to breathe.

Punk Wok

Squid ink noodles for the ramen bowl

Squid ink noodles for the ramen bowl

Any friend of fermentation is a friend of mine

Any friend of fermentation is a friend of mine

Pickled ramp grits, tofu, fermented fennel and cabbage 

Pickled ramp grits, tofu, fermented fennel and cabbage 

Smoked Blue Point oysters, carbonated cocktails mignonette, saltines, charred lemon

Smoked Blue Point oysters, carbonated cocktails mignonette, saltines, charred lemon

"Mossified" Ramen Bowl- roast pork, octopus, black garlic dashi, black noodles, tea egg, fennel 

"Mossified" Ramen Bowl- roast pork, octopus, black garlic dashi, black noodles, tea egg, fennel 

Sweet & Sour veal sweetbreads, english pea fried rice, fried egg

Sweet & Sour veal sweetbreads, english pea fried rice, fried egg

Fried chicken filet sandwichs, kimchee nori mayonnaise, pickles, duck fat fingerlings

Fried chicken filet sandwichs, kimchee nori mayonnaise, pickles, duck fat fingerlings

I don't know many people who look forward to Mondays. Except for people who know about Punk Wok. No, I don't have a speech impediment. You read that right.

Punk Wok is the brainchild of Chef Elliott "I do what I want" Moss who conceptualized a rather genius pop-up concept  together inside MG Road, the cocktail bar and lounge to Asheville's Chai Pani. Every Monday and Tuesday nights, Moss delights the tastebuds of Asheville's industry crowd and flocking foodists with a rotating menu of Asian inspired dishes. Think flavor bombs, fermented things and killer cocktails.  I went up there with five friends and we ordered one of everything on the menu. In my opinion, that's the only way to do it. Eat all of the things and thank me later. 

To read more, head over to The Local Palate blog where I wrote some more words

*NOTE: Punk Wok will be held weekly until July 22. Moss will then shut it down to focus on his upcoming barbecue concept, Buxton Hall Barbecue which is slated to open later this year. Also, Punk Wok during the week of June 9 will be held on Tuesday and Wednesday evening. All other weeks, Punk Wok is Monday and Tuesday nights, 6 p.m. until the food runs out. 

These Southern Things, An Evening with the Blind Pig of Asheville

I swear I'm not always writing about pigs and smoke. Except for when I am, which is often. 

That being said, let's talk about a very special dinner in that mountains that happened last weekend with the Blind Pig of Asheville. The Blind Pig crew is a roving supper club comprised of Asheville's finest chefs, known for renegade gastronomical adventures (whoever says "piped mashed potatoes" gets cut), mystery locations and, frequently, special out of town guests. 

This time, I drove into the mountains with my violet headed friend Tonya toward Sherrill's Inn, a historic home in Fairview, NC, just a few miles outside of Asheville.  We were to attend These Southern Things, a special dinner collaboration featuring Asheville chefs Mike Moore of Seven Sows, Elliott Moss of Punk Wok and soon-to-be Buxton Hall Barbecue and one very special guest– culinary historian and food writer, Michael Twitty.

Michael pens the popular blog Afroculinaria where he explores his own identity and seeks to preserve and give voice to African American foodways and antebellum cooking techniques. You might know Michael from his powerful talk at the MAD symposium in Copenhagen last year. 

We pulled up to the lush hillside of Sherrill's Inn, an historic respite for stagecoach travelers and hog drovers traveling the Hickory Nut Turnpike from Rutherfordton to Asheville. The estate is hopelessly pastoral, with green gardens and wondrously complex landscaping. The house itself is approximately 160 years old and resident, John Ager has a long history of family ties to this land. 

On the hillside, tufts of smoke marked the spot. Large cast iron pots bubbled over hot coals and hand-chopped wood. Nearby, a hogs leg dangled over an open pit.  Chefs Michael Twitty, Elliott Moss and Mike Moore were on their second full day of prep for this historically accurate Southern meal. The day before, they chopped down trees for firewood and foraged for ingredients with well known wild foods expert, Alan Muskat. They dug holes, built fires and battled against the elements. Unforeseen rain the morning of the dinner, nearly drowned the hopes of live fire. Nearly, but not quite. The chefs brought in raconteur and beast savant, Jeff "Rhino" Bannister of the the whole animal debauche-feast (I just made that word up), Bovinoche to help out. 

The boys sweated and toiled in the smoky heat to prepare a feast for over 90 people. For Twitty, the opportunity to cook with two chefs raised in the South is an elemental part of culinary reconciliation for himself and his ancestors. The backbreaking work, a lesson in history as much as it was a labor of love.  In its proper historical context, the act of cooking is a unifying act, one that did not go unnoticed on this particular day.  The menu save a luscious catfish stew was served family style- fried chicken, pork barbecue, sweet, cornbread-y kush and sweet potatoes cooked in sorghum, butter and rum along with tea cakes and Edna Lewis' Tyler pie for dessert. 

Elliott Moss, Jeff Bannister on backup

Elliott Moss, Jeff Bannister on backup

Michael Twitty and Jacob taking a break 

Michael Twitty and Jacob taking a break 

(left to right) Elliott Moss, Jeff Bannister, Mike Moore

(left to right) Elliott Moss, Jeff Bannister, Mike Moore

Bluegrass music filled the smoky sweet mountain air and the sun set in spectacular fashion against the gorgeous landscape. Guests enjoyed cocktails in the garden and Twitty led a small cultural talk before the meal.  As Michael says, "the real history is not in the food, it's in the people."  My sentiments exactly. 

To read Michael Twitty's recap of the event, head on over to his blog Afroculinaria

North Carolina BBQ Tour with the boys of Namu Gaji (Part II)

*Last year, I was fortunate to join Chef Dennis Lee and Chef Jeff Kim of Namu Gaji on a whirlwind tour of the Carolinas to research barbecue for Lee's newest concept with Magnolia brewpub owner Dave McLean called Smokestack. Read the first part of the journey here

Stop #5 B’s Barbecue, Greenville NC (read about Stops 1-4 here)

We took a left on B’s Barbeque Road in Greenville, NC. Really, is there any greater sign of legitimacy for a barbecue joint than having a road named after your establishment?

In true barbecue fashion, B’s runs on their own schedule which means finicky hours and “roll the dice”  visits for barbecue tourists. B’s is open on Mondays, closed on Wednesdays. Want to call ahead and double check? You can’t. B’s has no telephones. 

A line of cars parked on the side of the two-lane road beckoned us toward the small white barbecue shack.  At 11 a.m., a line snaked out from the takeout window and the dirt parking lot overflowed with cars.  

The clientele at B's was a wonderful mix of locals- black and white, senior citizens and workers on their lunch break. Dressed in royal purple t-shirts, sisters Tammy, Judy and Donna McLawhorn hustle in perfect union, manning the takeout window and the line inside that stretched to the creaky screen door.  At B’s, the barbecue is smoked over Kingsford charcoals. The barbecue chicken tasted of 4th of July cookouts and the pulled pork came with an assertive vinegar sauce with flecks of red pepper. B’s also serves long skinny cylindrical straws of underseasoned masa in lieu of hushpuppies. Corn sticks. 

We ate carefully, knowing we had to stomach three more stops that day. The lunch rush gathered around the outdoor picnic tables and people talked of the day’s business over plates of barbecue. A cookhouse attendant came out to inquire into the health of a gentleman dressed in a civil servant uniform. Neighbors waved at familiar faces. The beloved B’s at the center of it all. 

Stop#6 Skylight Inn, Ayden NC

Next, we took off toward Ayden, North Carolina, the self-proclaimed BBQ “Capitol of the World." Picture small town USA with its gun stores, dusty antique shops with streaky front windows, open fields and dirt parking lots. Then, imagine a stately white dome rising like a Phoenix out of the rural ashes and you have the Skylight Inn. In case you miss the startling dome, a billboard proudly announces the Skylight Inn and its philosophy- “If it’s not cooked with wood, it’s not BBQ.”    

In the dining room, a curious sound filled the air. Rhythmic steady pounding coming from the kitchen. Framed by the kitchen window, Mike Parrott, an imposing man with a goatee like Metallica lead singer James Hetfield, wielded two large cleavers, one in each hand.  He is the head chopper at the Skylight Inn. Headphones in, Parrott chopped whole hog atop a large cutting board with mesmerizing force. He tossed one cleaver to the left in one singular motion, slapping both cleavers onto the juice soaked cutting board. We called him the Barbecue Samurai. 

Parrott poured nearly an entire half-gallon of vinegar over the mound of decimated pork, seasoning with intuition and then returned to the concentrated pounding of the meat, blistered skin and all. We were so entranced by beat of whole hog barbecue that we had to be jostled out of our stupor once we reached the front of the line. 

There are two choices at the Skylight Inn- a pork sandwich or a pork plate with cole slaw and cornbread. We sat down to a plate of meaty hand chopped pork laden with bits of crispy pork skin and fat. The slaw was fresh and cold, crunchy and bright. The cornbread is a generations old recipe, pan cooked, doused in lard and pork drippings and cut into dense yellow squares. 

Lee took a bite of the cornbread. “This tastes like straight masa.” 

The pork at Skylight Inn was arguably the best on our trip thus far. Lee repeatedly took slow bites, examining the bits of skin and fat scattered throughout his pork plate, cataloguing the flavor into his cranial archive. 

Bruce Jones, owner of Skylight Inn.

Bruce Jones, owner of Skylight Inn.

Manning the front was Bruce Jones, second generation owner of the Skylight Inn. His father, Pete Jones also known as “The King of Barbecue” opened the Skylight Inn in 1947, the fifth generation of barbecue in his family. Jones works the front of house, industriously wiping down counters and tidying tables in his bright red apron. I approached him about seeing the pit. He told me we would have to talk to his son, Samuel. Once again, we were told to go "around back" where a pile of oak logs stood at the ready and a field full of collards hung in the backdrop. 

In the pit at the Skylight Inn

In the pit at the Skylight Inn

Inside, concrete blocks lined the pit, a similar setup of rebar laid over smoldering coals. A brick fireplace stood inside the cookhouse, red coals alight.  Unlike the chimney-like dungeon of Wilber’s, a small beam of light poured in through the open skylight. Concrete blocks created a primitive pulley and lever system for the lids that cover the pork during its 14-hour cook.

Mr. James, a 30-year Skylight Inn veteran (once the head chopper and veritable family member) stood back, taking a smoke break while Samuel obliged us in a discussion of his favorite subject. 

Mr. James

Mr. James

Dennis Lee, Sam Jones, Jeff Kim

Dennis Lee, Sam Jones, Jeff Kim

Consequently, Jones had just returned from a trip out west. Jones and the SF crew connected on kindred contacts. The food world became incredibly small inside that legendary cookhouse in Ayden. 

Jones began working full time at the Skylight Inn in 1998 but worked front of house before he could even reach the top of the dining table. He is the unofficial spokesperson of the Skylight Inn. Some call him the Prince of Barbecue and his no-frills cookhouse, traditional Eastern Carolina technique and family-bred work ethic made this encounter the pinnacle of our trip east. 

Jazzed from our run-in with Jones, we left Ayden and booked it toward Chapel Hill.  By this time, our meat consumption had reached capacity and we weren’t even finished yet. Lee broke out the apple cider vinegar, which we happily passed around the car, taking swigs to keep the meat sweats at bay. Pro-tip, y’all. 


Stop #7 Allen & Son Barbecue, Pittsboro, NC 

Allen & Son in Pittsboro straddles the invisible line that separates Eastern Carolina barbecue from the Piedmont style found in Lexington. Opened in 1969, Keith Allen stays true to tradition. He still chops his own wood and cooks pork shoulders low and slow over a mix of wood and charcoals. 

We arrived during the calm hours between lunch and dinner and essentially had the place to ourselves. By this time, our appetites had waned and our pace, slowed.

The wood paneled walls inside were covered in Tarheel motif with baby blues and whites at every glance. Despite our decreasing appetites, we owed it to the trip to cover the table in food again. This time, it was a fantastically shreddy Brunswick stew (the best we had), the porkiest pulled pork and a smattering of fried stuffs-okra, hushpuppies, tater tots and fried pickles. 

At Allen & Son, Lee opened up about his kitchen philosophy, his early life growing up in a house full of female cooks (and fermented things) and how cooking, for him, is a personal act.  

In the 1960‘s, Lee’s aunt moved to Boston to open what is now the oldest Japanese restaurant in the city. Her move enabled his family, the Lee sisters, to emigrate to the US. Today, Lee’s mother owns Dahmee, a Korean, Thai and Japanese restaurant that helped to influence Lee’s own sensibilities. Consequently, Jeff Kim worked in those kitchens too. Those early experiences of family, food and tradition were what flooded Lee’s consciousness when the culinary itch claimed him. Today, Lee owns Namu Gaji with his two brothers, Daniel and Dave. 

As a chef, Lee is calm and deliberate, conscious with a slightly serious edge which I recognize as discipline. His laugh is infectious and when you have the privilege of hearing it, you feel as if you have accomplished something. Jeff Kim is cut from the same cloth which, I imagine, is why these two are friends. His demeanor is laid back and kind. Also, he was responsible for all the Cat Power we listened to while driving. 

The dining room at Allen and Son

The dining room at Allen and Son

Stop #8 The Pig, Chapel Hill

Our last stop in North Carolina was a last minute wild card recommendation. The Pig is a modern spot serving smoked meats and non-traditional offerings. No cookhouse or primordial pits. They do, however, make their own hot dogs, bologna and fixin’s and work with the Natural Hog Grower’s Association to use sustainable product. By this time, though, everyone was feeling porked out.

But, we ate anyway because we’re professionals. 

Porked out at The Pig

Porked out at The Pig

Stop #9 Scott’s Barbecue, Hemingway, SC 

The last day of our trip was reserved for a holy pilgrimage to one of the most revered  joints in the Carolinas. The boys were catching a flight home that afternoon, but we drove hours south nonetheless. A Carolina barbecue tour isn’t complete without a trip to Scott’s in Hemingway, SC.

Rodney Scott is the pitmaster here but was absent the day we visited. A quick phone call revealed Scott’s whereabouts- in San Francisco of all places. Southern hospitality did not escape Scott despite absence.  He readied his mother, Ella Scott (who founded the place with her husband Roosevelt “Rosie” Scott in 1972), for our visit.  The white house with turquoise paint detail is a beacon to barbecue enthusiasts serving some of the finest pit cooked pork. A dilapidated sign adorns the front and a church pew appropriately waits to give rest to the faithful. 

Standing on Hemingway Road

Standing on Hemingway Road

Inside, a woman dressed impeccably in a red jacket, black highwater pants and gleaming white socks and shoes looks up as we enter the screen door. 

“Are you...Keia?” 

“Yes, hi!” 

“Rodney said you’d be coming” 

She immediately walks to the back and prepares our barbecue plate. The charm inside Scott’s is endless- from the canned meats for sale to the old-school sodas and cheeky signs proclaiming the rules of the place. Not to be missed is the wallpaper sized smattering of newspapers taped to the wall. Press, accolades and praise, too numerous to count. 

Aunt Ann and Ella Scott at the counter

Aunt Ann and Ella Scott at the counter

We take our clamshells filled with pulled pork and chicken, along with styrofoam cups of baked beans, milky cole slaw and a sandwich bag of soft white bread to the picnic table outside. The pork from Scott’s barbecue is hand pulled, not chopped. So, the result is substantial meaty shreds of flavorful pork. Scott’s barbecue sauce is peppery and vinegar based, of course.  They are known for frying up the pig skins and serving it alongside the barbecue, usually given to those who ask. 

Before leaving, we strolled to the cookhouse where a few men were cleaning the pits for the afternoon.  Out back, the signature burn barrels of Scott’s, made of salvaged industrial materials, transformed the back area into a barbecue junkyard meets medieval landscape. 

As we wrapped our lightning fast trip, one couldn’t help but feel that we had stumbled upon sacred spaces, those places that eschewed the forward motion of time and instead clung to tradition, embracing live fire as a way of life. 

I couldn’t help but wonder what parts of the trip would be etched into the mind of my fellow travelers or how this journey would translate into Lee’s barbecue philosophy. All I knew was that we had seen and experienced things that would remain with us and that the people we had met on the road would be reincarnated into the new face of barbecue, Lee's own interpretation, backed by throngs of tradition. 

North Carolina BBQ Tour with the boys of Namu Gaji

There are rites of passage in a food writer’s life. First travel assignment. First cover story. First pilgrimage to a food mecca. First full fledged meat assault. In my case, it was a serendipitous chain of events that afforded me the opportunity to join a couple of San Francisco chefs on a barbecue tour through the Carolinas. 

Here’s the short version of how it went down:  For my first trip to SF last year, a chef friend recommended I eat at a restaurant called Namu Gaji. I ate there on my last night in town and met the chef’s girlfriend who mentioned that her chef/ partner/love was headed to North Carolina to explore barbecue culture as research for a new restaurant concept. I boldly got an email address and then politely asked to tag along. Mind you, I had never met the chef in person. 

My email went something like this: “Hi, you don’t know me, but I live in Charlotte and would like to join you on your barbecue tour. I’m not a stalker. Can I come? Pretty please.” 

To which Chef Dennis Lee replied yes, much to my astonishment which brings me to a learned philosophy: You’ll never know if you never ask. 

What ensued was a whirlwind trip of the Carolinas, nine barbecue establishments in three days. 1,034 miles by car with two Korean boys from San Francisco. My very first meat odyssey. Baptism by smoke. 

Lee’s gustatory journey would be a study of whole hog barbecue, experiences he would use to inform his newest restaurant venture, a no-frills barbecue counter and brewpub with Magnolia Brewery owner Dave McLean called Smokestack. Lee would also travel to Austin and Kansas City before concluding his research.

Our trip began with a single shotgun to the head. The night before Lee and his street food chef (and best friend) Jeff Kim arrived, a young sow gave its life to furnish the unofficial welcome to the Carolinas. After a full night of service in SF, the two chefs hopped a red-eye to Charlotte and arrived bleary-eyed to a small house in Rock Hill.

I recruited friend and barbecue provocateur “Dan the Pig Man” Huntley for the party. Smoke billowed from the Pig Man’s smoker while folks milled about the charming front porch, sweet as the tea clinking in their cups. The sacrificial sow, shrunken and coal black, waiting patiently to be loaded into a large, rustic bread bowl.

Four men including Kim hoisted the hog to its serving dish. Inside, a table was covered pot-luck style with side dishes- pickles, macaroni and cheese, collard salad and a sampling of barbecue sauces in mason jars. 

The Pig Man in his butcher black apron, red-faced from the smoke and the giggle juice in his big-gulp sized mug, opened the onyx carcass with an audible crack. The pig, splayed open, revealed rose colored meat. No sooner did the boys take a seat, plates full, that the Mason jars came out. Moonshine. Handmade and potent. This brings me to another guiding Carolina principle- if Dan the Pig Man asks you to go out to his truck- always go. That is, if you like moonshine. Kim takes a sip of the ‘shine. Even with hints of vanilla bean, Kim’s face bunches into a pucker akin to a baby having its first taste of lemon.


Lee, on the other hand, takes a shine to the ‘shine. His favorite is the original version, unadulterated and full-throttled. He returns to the mason jar throughout the evening, twisting the ringed cap to steal a swig. That evening, Huntley holds court in the living room, talking pig, fire and “frog eyes.”  We languish on the porch with budding chefs and Southern foodies, chatting up the weary travelers who are now fortified and washed in the blood, ready to dive head first into the land of pig and smoke. 

Lee getting indoctrinated into the the holy order of the 'shine

Lee getting indoctrinated into the the holy order of the 'shine

The itinerary for the trip was ambitious. Four stops on Monday and Tuesday and then a grand finale at the southernmost destination in Hemingway, South Carolina. 

Here’s the rundown:


A Hyundai Sonata pulls up to my home early Monday morning.  Dennis Lee steps out, reppin’ hard in his Namu Gaji hoodie and SF hat. A late night texting session with Chef Mike Moore of Seven Sows in Asheville leads us to our first destination, M&M Meat Locker in Hendersonville, one of the last vestiges of old-school meat markets. Coolers sit stacked outside the small butcher/packer. Residents of Hendersonville drop off their fresh kills  for processing and fabrication. 

We are met by Mike Moore and his cohort, fellow chef Elliott Moss. Moss opened the Admiral, a well-loved Asheville establishment years ago. He now hosts Punk Wok on Monday and Tuesday nights and is currently working on a new concept. On this day, he looks as if he has just stepped out of the 70’s with a knit beanie and oversized ombre sunglasses that are equal parts Jeffrey Dahmer and Ron Jeremy. Moss and Moore are close friends, brothers made in the kitchen.

The nature of their relationship is best illustrated by this SAT-inspired analogy---     Moore:Moss :: Lee:Kim 

Chef Mike Moore with his grandaddy's rabbit box and the tattooed meat temptress painted on the wall at Seven Sows 

Chef Mike Moore with his grandaddy's rabbit box and the tattooed meat temptress painted on the wall at Seven Sows 

Moore, who is as genuine and friendly as they come, schooled us in Southern foodways. He talked of his life experience growing up in Wilson, a small town in Eastern NC not far from one of our BBQ stops. Over a batch of local bourbon at his restaurant, Moore waxed poetic on Southern traditions showing us his grandaddy’s rabbit boxes while Moss talked of his youth growing up in Florence, SC. They would join us for lunch at our first stop. 

Stop #1- 12 Bones Barbecue, Asheville

12 Bones is a BBQ joint in the River Arts District of Asheville. The old, industrial locale belies the relative newness of the restaurant itself. The signs at the door offer explicit directions on “how to order”, a hallmark of old-school establishments. Our table was covered in barbecue sauces, a nominal clue toward the non-traditional nature of the place.The blueberry chipotle ribs were tasty, albeit new age. The pulled pork was good, not too smoky. The best part of the meal besides the collards and corn pudding (which was more like cornBREAD pudding) was the company.  It was equal parts respect and education happening at the picnic table under the awning. We never saw ribs again. If it ain’t pulled pork, it ain’t Carolina barbecue. 

     From left to right:Elliot Moss, Mike Moore, Dennis Lee, Jeff Kim

     From left to right:Elliot Moss, Mike Moore, Dennis Lee, Jeff Kim

Stop #2- Lexington Barbecue, Lexington, NC

The white building that is Lexington Barbecue stands in the same place it did  when Wayne Monk first established the restaurant in 1962. Locals refer to the place as “The Monk” or “Honeymonks,” after its founder.  A screen separates the kitchen from the outside. Smoke billowed from the smokestack and inside, Rick Byrd, a 27-year veteran cook shovels coals and tends to the full oven lined with pork shoulder, Lexington’s signature cut. We press our faces to the screen to watch. Byrd invites us “around back” where hickory logs are piled Jenga style. On his forearm, a tattoo reads “Hell hath no fury at all." Apt for man working in a Hades hot kitchen much of his life.  

He showed us his method pork shoulder gets a simple dousing of salt and pepper and is then placed onto the grates over hickory wood smoke. Byrd uses a simple piece of cardboard to keep the ash from traveling upwards. In the restaurant, polite women smocked like hospital nurses zip around the restaurant exchanging pleasantries and pouring refills of tea. Our server, who has never eaten a piece of pork in her life, took the order. Coarse chop barbecue, slaw, hushpuppies (which were definitely shaped like cat turds) and a pig skin sandwich.

Served between a soft white bun, that sandwich was crunch and smoke and fat and everything that is good in this world, save the carcinogens that boosted its character.  

“That’s going on my menu, ” said Lee. 

The coarsely chopped pork shoulder came in tiny cardboard boats.  On the table was quintessential North Carolina vinegar based barbecue sauce. But, this one had a touch of sweetness from the very Lexington addition of ketchup. Texas Pete, ubiquitous in the Carolinas, donned the table too. Collectively, we considered this our first true stop. 

Lexington was good. Many swear by it. We had nothing to compare it to yet, but later, it would occur to us that Lexington has it’s own thing going on. Pork shoulder. Red slaw (that’d be slaw with the ketchup-y barbecue sauce mixed in) and Rick Byrd. 

Stop #3 Wilber’s, Goldsboro NC 

Though we would travel farthest for our last stop in Hemingway, South Carolina, Wilber’s in Goldsboro felt far like time travel is far.  Church billboards and motor home parks dotted the landscape. The closer we got to Goldsboro, the more skeptical we became that Wilber’s would be open.  Every restaurant, it seemed, was closed for the evening or shuttered for good. 

Jeff Kim wondered aloud, “Is this place even going to be open?” 

My Google search said yes. We arrived after dark in rural Eastern Carolina, The neon sign was a beacon in the dark. If driving east wasn’t time travel enough, stepping through the door at Wilber’s was like a wormhole inside the wormhole. 

Linoleum red checkered tablecloths lined the tables.  Faded Air Force posters and athletic memorabilia covered the wood paneled walls. Our server, smocked in a navy blue apron and crisp white shirt, brought us a basket of hushpuppies for the table, Goldsboro’s answer to the bread basket. We ordered a plate of pulled pork, half a chicken, brunswick stew, collards and fried chicken livers. Also, tea with the best crushed ice, like Pizza Hut back in the day, right down to the red melamine cups. 

The barbecue sauce at Wilber’s was thick with black pepper, added with a heavy hand reminding me of a  Caribbean jerk sauce.  Chicken gravy came with the meal, a salty combination of chicken jus, butter and hot sauce which turned out to be a thinner, more chicken-ier version of a buffalo sauce. It made the chicken livers palatable. Our server, Keith Edwards had been working at Wilber’s for 26 years and had never left Goldsboro. He worked at the driver’s license office by day and weekend nights at Wilber’s.

Jeff Kim, sweet tea

Jeff Kim, sweet tea

On our way out, a quivering old man who intuited that a young lady with a funny haircut and two Asian fellas weren’t from around these parts asked me if I had met Mr. Wilber Shirley, the establishment's namesake. The word is that the long-time tradition of pit-style barbecue was grandfathered in by the people of Goldsboro. They’d been cooking whole hogs over smoldering coals for so long, the community wouldn’t have it any other way. The supposed agreement is that once Mr. Shirley dies, the restaurant must go to using gas. 

“That man right there is Mr. Shirley,”  said the man, pointing to the soda shop counter where a couple of men sat in swivel seats. 

I walked over to the slim owner, said hello and thanked him for the meal. He nodded, didn’t seem all that interested, but let me snap a picture. 

Mr. Wilber Shirley

Mr. Wilber Shirley

Upon leaving, we noticed smoke coming from the back of the building and asked to see the cookhouse. Edwards told us to meet him around back.

A bonfire burned in the dirt parking lot and a large pile of wood laid out under the open sky.  A young girl danced around the open fire, her father hanging in his pickup, presumably picking up or dropping off an employee. The cookhouse was small.  Inside, primitive boxes made of concrete were laid with rebar to create a “grate".  Certified kitchen, it was not. The concrete walls were covered in an eerie black slick, decades of hog cooks lacquered to the walls. A gas-mask, reminiscent of kamikaze fighters, hangs on the wall. Goldsboro’s solution to breathing easy in the cookhouse.

Just then, a ghostly figure passes through an enclave at the rear of the cookhouse, floating past the entryway. I assumed he didn’t want to speak to us. 

On our way back to the car, a voice called out.  It was the apparition, returning with a wheelbarrow full of pig carcasses. He asks if we'd like to see him start a cook. We circle back and watch him unload the bare-skinned, lifeless halves, split side down, onto the grates. After that, he will hold vigil for the next 10-12 hours shoveling coals from the bonfire outside, listening to the cadence of the fat drippings to guide him until morning. 

“They don’t make ‘em like this anymore,” I thought. 

In that small, greasy shack, I felt like we were being let in on a secret.  We left exhilarated, having just reached the core of Carolina barbecue. That energy carried us all the way into Raleigh, our home base for the night. We landed at The Pit just before closing time and grabbed a seat  at the bar.

In the smoky catacombs of Wilber's

In the smoky catacombs of Wilber's

Stop #4 The Pit, Raleigh, NC 

Ed Mitchell put this place on the map serving Eastern Carolina whole hog barbecue. Although a near life-size picture of him remained on the wall, it was evident that his soul had left the building. We sat at the sweeping bar and ordered from long menu, full of punchy Southern-inspired appetizers and a litany of barbecued items and entrees. 

Our bartender, though accommodating and pleasant (especially since it was so close to closing time) proved to be a tad green. 

“It’s barbecue, anyone can do it,” he said.  Clue number one. 

What followed was a series of “foot-in-mouth” remarks, peppered with gross unawareness and a splash of oversharing. Let’s just say he was not a 20+ year veteran the likes of Keith Edwards or Rick Byrd. 

Lee remained calm, polite even. 

“That place gives me,” Lee pauses, “perspective.” 

We left stuffed from a day of porky excursions and exhausted. Tomorrow was another pork marathon, beginning with B’s Barbecue.