Today is the day that separates the hogs from the sucklings I thought to myself as Tyson, Matt, Mike and I hopped into the pickup for day two of our whirlwind North Carolina barbeque tour. “Some of the places we are going today will make yesterday’s places look like four-star dining,” Tyson said as we began our journey into the sticks.
Our first stop was Wilson, N.C., “the beginning of the sticks,” for breakfast with Ed Mitchell, Tyson’s barbeque mentor. I was kind of disappointed that we were meeting him at a Cracker Barrel, as I’m more of a Waffle House man. Actually I was hoping that breakfast would be at Ed’s new joint, slated to open later this summer. Meeting the maestro of whole hog was kind of surreal, I’d never seen him without overalls or a baseball cap.
At first I wasn’t going to eat anything as I wanted to reserve all my stomach capacity for barbeque. As I heard everyone placing their orders that plan soon fell by the wayside. I had a light breakfast, biscuits and gravy with a sausage patty. A couple of weeks ago when Tyson—a self-professed Chinese Yankee hog cooker—told me barbeque had its roots in North Carolina whole hog cookery I took it with a grain of salt. Now as I broke biscuits with his mentor, I began to realize that this stuff about barbeque being born not from trying to make the best out of tough cuts but from the celebratory roasting of a whole hog was true.
“That’s where barbeque comes from, the pig,” Mitchell said in between phone calls about his new restaurant, each of which seemed to involve fried chicken. “People didn’t slaughter the pig just to cook a shoulder they did it to roast the whole animal. The full technique comes from being able to roast the whole animal. Cooking a rib or a shoulder is nowhere near the challenge of cooking a whole animal.” Pointing to his hands he said, “The only thermometer I have is these right here, but that comes from years of experience.”
As we were en route to B’s Barbecue (751 B’s Barbecue Rd.) in Greenville, I was still feeling full from breakfast. Upon seeing that the place is so famous that the road is named for it my appetite rallied. Tyson pointed out that B’s is notorious for running out because they are so popular. “And it’s impossible to call them to find out. They don’t have a phone.”
When we pulled into the lot folks were lined up at the window waiting for B’s charcoal-cooked barbeque. It was good but not quite as good as Allen & Son. I think this is because B’s violates N.C. Barbeque Rule 2, it’s spelled Bar-B-Que on signage and Rule 3, the cuter the pig the better the cue. Allen’s bashful piggy was far cuter than B’s Pepsi-fueled mascot. That said I enjoyed the crunchy corn sticks, think of them as a much more austere hush puppy. And the chicken was pretty darn tasty, mainly because it sits beneath the hogs when they cook and inadvertently basting in their lard.
Bum’s Restaurant in Ayden (115 East Third St.) is where Tyson was first turned on to whole hog. It may not be located in a shack in the woods but it is still hella country. It’s situated across the street from a mural touting the Ayden Collard Festival and lies between a gun shop and a railroad crossing. Bum’s turned 50 in April and boasts the state’s oldest cookhouse.
The barbeque at Bum’s was nice and smoky, chopped to just the right consistency, and shot through with bits of crunchy skin. It also had an underlying sweetness. That said I liked the barbeque from Allen’s, after all their pig mascot was cuter than Bum’s. The fried chicken though was simply amazing, which brings us to N.C. Barbeque Rule No. 5, “there will be fried chicken.” Sides consisted of the decidedly rustic corn sticks, cracklins, and some excellent collards that for once hadn’t been cooked into submission. I made myself a couple of barbeque nachos, placing some pork, a bit of collards, and some Texas Pete atop a piece of crackling. For dessert there was banana pudding with warm meringue. “There are folks who would put whipped cream on banana pudding they must be shot,” Tyson said thus codifying N.C. Barbeque Rule No. 6.
After lunch we spent some time chatting with Bum’s pitmaster, Larry Dennis. As I entered the cookhouse and saw the quarters of hog licked by flame, the air redolent of oak and pecan smoke,and shafts of light streaming in from pinholes in the ceiling I had what I can only call a barbeque religious experience. Emerging from the smoke-filled chamber I approached Tyson who was poking around the wood pile and exclaimed, “I get it!” “You get what,” he said. “I get, I have seen the light,” I exclaimed.
“I ain’t never used no thermometer,” Larry said holding out his hands as Ed Mitchell had done earlier that morning. “A hole in the ground, a pig, and some wood that’s all you need.” And he seemed mystified by the praise heaped upon Bum’s chicken. “We get more compliments on out fried chicken than anything we serve. I don’t understand, it’s just fried chicken.”
On our way to Farmville, the last stop of our Carolina barbeque pilgrimage I availed myself of the Tums that Matt had wisely brought along. Soon we arrived at our destination Jack Cobb & Son (3883 South Main Street), which featured an extremely weathered sign. There was no pig mascot, cute or otherwise, anywhere to be found.
The ladies behind the counter at this takeout only spot didn’t believe that four dudes were going to share one little boat of barbecue, some slaw, and hush puppies. When we told them that we’d been eating our way around their fine state for the better part of two days, they nodded and smiled as one does to placate a crazy person. As we were leaving we told one of the locals where we were from. “Oh, you’re from New York City? Y’all don’t know nothing about any barbeque. I know because I lived up there.”
By this point in the trip we’d eaten a lot of barbeque, so I’m willing to believe that my opinions of Cobb’s barbeque may have been skewed by palate fatigue. It was OK, but the top barbeque on this trip goes to Allen & Son’s followed closely by Bum’s.
Soon we were off to Elm City to pick up Tyson’s new hog cooker at BQ Grills. Mike and I as new converts to the gospel of whole hog cue were pretty fired up. “I feel like I’ve just been baptized,” he said with a straight face. “Not that I would know what that’s like because I’m Jewish.” After checking out the cooker’s features and securely attaching it to the pickup we were on the road again. As we left Elm City we started to discuss possible names for the new cooker. “You should call it Fat Sally,” I said. Apparently the name has stuck.
When we stopped for gas I picked up some Carolina style Bar-B-Q chips and some Texas Pete chips. I guess I was missing whole hog already. Somehow I have a feeling that I’m going to be helping Tyson cook a pig or to. Heck, I might even volunteer to help Team Ed at the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party in a couple of weeks.