When you think of things that define eastern North Carolina, you may say our Civil War history or uncrowded beaches. But nothing is more distinctive than our own flavor of barbecue. Really, it’s all about the sauce. The western part of the state often touts their tomato based concoction. But here in eastern North Carolina, it’s the tangy, spicy vinegar based sauce is instantly recognized as our spin on barbecue.
Some say the tradition dates back to natives of the West Indies slowly roasting meat over coals. Others believe Native Americans used a similar technique. Either way, the recipe has changed very little over the centuries as it’s been passed down from generation to generation.
Last week, I hit the road to visit some places here in eastern North Carolina serving old fashioned vinegar based barbecue. My first stop, B’s barbecue on the outskirts of Greenville. It’s on NC-43, across from a corn field. The nondescript, brick building with a weathered white façade and faded blue awning has a blue Pepsi-Cola sign emblazoned with “B’s Barbecue, Born in Eastern NC.” It would be easy to drive right by, except for the stream of traffic turning off the highway. Cars line both sides of the street, and parking is hard to find. It’s the lunchtime rush, and B’s barbecue is bustling.
“It seems like it’s the flavor that I grew up on, home cooked.”
Fellcia Boddie has been coming to B’s for years. Today, she’s brought along her sister Beverly Johnson.
“It’s my first time, I just moved here from Maryland. What have you heard about B’s barbecue? It’s the best, it must be the best, they have a road named after it.”
Fellcia and Beverly join the mob of people standing at the sliding glass window carved into the side of the building where orders are placed if you’re going to be eating outside. There’s also seating indoors.
It’s a no frills eating establishment that sticks with tradition: whole hog, wood smoked and vinegar sauce. That keeps customers like Eugene Richardson coming back for more.
“Best, hands down, in North Carolina. Yessir, we made the trip over here just to eat here today. Is it always like this? Always. They only open, they’re going to sell what they already cooked and then they closing for the day. The guy told me said it won’t be much longer, they’re going to sell out real soon.”
And that’s the way it works at B’s barbecue, first come, first served. About a dozen people are camped out at picnic tables in the shade of a large oak devouring barbecue. I find a place at a picnic table across from John Radford, from Pactolus. He’s been coming to B’s barbecue since they opened in the late 1970’s.
“I came here when it was just a country store. I used to walk over here, I lived down the road here, I walked down here in the summertime barefooted and watched the snakes crawl across the creek down here before I got here.”
B’s barbecue has been serving Pitt County and the surrounding area for more than 40 years. And now, the joint is experiencing even more recognition as a nominee for the best barbecue sandwich in North Carolina. It’s also a stop on the North Carolina Historic Barbecue Trail, which features 23 barbecue pits across the state.
My next stop is about a half hour away in the town of Ayden. It’s hard to miss the Skylight Inn, between the large billboard in front and a replica of the Capital Building’s rotunda on top of the restaurant. Manager and co-owner of Skylight Inn Sam Jones says the restaurant was opened by his grandfather Pete Jones in 1947.
“At that time, him and my dad had this idea that hey, these folks said that this is the best barbecue in America and we’re going to, pun intended, ‘capitalize’ on that.”
The Skylight Inn started as Pete Jones’ BBQ, a small, building with no air conditioning serving hamburgers, hot dogs and beer. But Jones says eastern North Carolina barbecue was always a part of his family legacy.
“Probably the 60s is when it transitioned to only doing whole hog barbecue, and that’s it, exclusively pork. And had always served barbecue. Several generations back in our family had barbecue joints.”
Now, Sam carries on the tradition of slow cooked, whole hog, wood smoked barbecue.
“It starts with fresh meat, building a fire, this chimney that we’re standing in front of right now that’s causing us to sweat, that is the heat source that fuels our fires, literally. So our meat is put on mid-afternoon and it’s cooked all night. It’s an 18 hour process for you to be able to hold a pork sandwich in your hand.”
It’s about 1:30 now, but people are still coming and going. Beverly Johnson is originally from Kinston, but now lives in Norfolk, Virginia. She comes by Skylight Inn every couple of months to get a “taste of home.”
“I think I’ve converted quite a few Virginians to what real barbecue is now. So whenever I come home, they say ‘hey, are you going to stop and bring some of that good barbecue back?’ So you’re a barbecue evangelist? Yes, definitely, and a snob.”
Barbecue enthusiast Jack Macy is in the parking lot snapping a photo of the Skylight Inn’s rotunda. It’s his first stop on the North Carolina Historic Barbecue Trail.
“I just ate a little bit ago, it was real good. It’s got a real good smoke flavor, got a real good pork flavor. It has some of the skin in there, a little crunchy skin.”
Texture is one of the things manager Sam Jones says makes their barbecue stand out.
“We blister the skin on the animal, and we chop that real finely into the meat. And I call them little flavor explosions. And it’s a love it or hate it. There’s no middle ground. Either you really, really like it or you think it’s terrible.”
Inside the Skylight Inn, a line meanders around tables from the order counter to the back of the restaurant. A worker, wielding two meat cleavers chops the barbecue as other workers busily pack barbecue into a red and white checkered serving tray, add a slice of cornbread and top it off with a heap of coleslaw.
“I think some people in eastern North Carolina take it for granted. I think we’re spoiled to a certain extent. Because at one time, there was tons of barbecue places that cook whole hog barbecue over wood and as time continues to go on, that population is shrinking.”
While some restaurants focus preserving the historical traditions of cooking barbecue, others want to emphasize flavor, particularly with the addition of the classic, eastern North Carolina vinegar pepper sauce. Ask someone where they go for barbecue in Kinston, and most likely they’ll tell you:
“Kings, always Kings. I’ve been eating here all my life.”
That’s Bobby Edwards, from New Bern. He was in town today and made a detour for Kings.
“Most of the time, the barbecue is moist and good. I mean I eat barbecue other places, but just something about the barbecue brings me back, the way they make it.”
Kings continues many of the traditional methods of cooking eastern North Carolina style barbecue, slow cooked whole hog and hand chopped. But CEO and President Joseph Hargett says what makes their pork barbecue stand out is the sauce.
“It’s got a lot of spices in it. Our barbecue sauce has a lot more spices in it than most people’s does. We have about 10 different ingredients that go inside of it. It is still transparent. It’s probably a secret recipe, but can you give us an idea some of the ingredients that they put into it? We put A1 steak sauce in it. That’s the only ingredient you’re getting out of me. And vinegar.”
Even though there are certain guidelines to cooking authentic eastern North Carolina barbecue, it seems each place I visited has their own unique flavor. For some, it’s the sauce, for others it’s all about texture. And, there seems to be as many different ways to prepare barbecue as there are loyal fans who are willing to indulge in the eastern North Carolina delicacy and help keep the tradition alive.
If you want to explore eastern North Carolina and visit some of the locations on the Historical Barbecue Trail, which also includes stops at Wilbur’s BBQ in Goldsboro and Grady’s Barbecue in Dudley, go to ncbbqsociety.com.