It’s about 50 degrees underneath the stars on a clear night on the outskirts of Greenville, across NC Highway 43 from a soybean field and some woods.
It’s quiet. A car or truck drives by once every few minutes. It’s hard to get a sense of where you are in the darkness. The only illumination comes from a streetlight and a vending machine. There is nobody else here.
Before things get going — and they will, trust me — it’s helpful to know what’s coming, and where you are, and what you’re doing here. This is B’s Barbecue, which is legendary across eastern North Carolina for its simplicity as much as its pork. Right now, all there is to see is a small, boxy white building, a converted carport behind it that serves as a pit, and a big oak tree that towers over a small gravel parking lot. Right now, in the stillness of the night, before the pork starts sizzling, before the smoke starts rolling, it’s hard to see that this is one of the most storied barbecue stands in the state.
If you want to understand why, be prepared to stay here awhile.
8:55 p.m. Dexter Sherrod pulls into the parking lot, the gravel crunching underneath his tires, and walks into his office: a pit with a ceiling coated in thick black char, haphazardly closed in on the sides with mesh screens and plywood. The rectangular metal pit cooker sits in the center. Two others, for the chickens, sit cold along the wall. Dexter kicks on two floodlights, which cast the space in a drab brown. He sets the charcoal ablaze.
9:00 p.m. Dexter snaps on latex gloves, goes to the cooler, and, one by one, lays seven hogs — minus the heads and feet, sliced down the middle, skin-side up — on the grill. “I don’t get here at no certain time,” he says. As long as the pigs cook for about eight hours and are ready by 9 a.m., Dexter can make it work.
9:30 p.m. The pigs are on, the charcoal is in, the smoke is rising, the top is closed tight, and Dexter has two hours to kill.
10:48 p.m. Dexter moves his truck, which had been wedged in — lights on, engine running — in the car-size space between the pit and the back of the restaurant. “That’s so people don’t walk up on me,” he says. By day, this is a quaint place. By night, it’s not. About 10 years ago, Dexter was putting the pigs on the cooker when a guy came in, pulled a gun, took Dexter’s wallet, and sped off. Dexter jumped in his truck and tore off after him, getting the robber’s tag number. The robber fired a few shots toward Dexter, who backed off. They eventually caught the guy. Dexter picked him out of a lineup.
11:25 p.m. “I think this is easy,” Dexter says. He doesn’t need to check on the pigs. Doesn’t want to, actually, because if you crack open the cooker, heat escapes, and the meat dries out. You don’t flip the pigs. Same reason. He can tell how they’re cooking from the temperature around the cooker.
11:30 p.m. Dexter pulls a knife from his pocket. “Time to fire ’em up,” he says, as he slices three bags of regular Kingsford charcoal open and pours them on the concrete floor. B’s used to use wood. They used to have brick pits. But those pits kept catching fire, and the wood left a big mess, so B’s switched to charcoal. Dexter opens the bottom cover of the cooker, and shovels new briquettes over the old ones. Because the bottoms don’t close all the way, a briquette falls out. “Guess they just about wore out,” says Dexter, who’s 50 years old, “like me.”
11:41 p.m. Smoke spews out of the cooker, filling the carport, and hangs in a gray haze five feet above the floor. “Something about smoke,” Dexter says. “People love it. I don’t understand it.” He feels the same way about barbecue in general. It’s good, he says, but he’d rather have some fried chicken.
12:02 a.m. Dexter fiddles with his smartphone. When there’s really nothing to do, he can lie down in the back of his truck and sleep, which, after a moment, is the option he chooses.
1:50 a.m. Another three bags of charcoal go into the cooker. That’s it, Dexter says. He’s going home. He’ll be back at 4 a.m. to check on everything one more time, and get the other cooker fired up for the chickens. He walks outside, into the lonely night, with Orion twinkling overhead, through fingers of streetlight that stream through the smoke. “Cookin’ pigs is just a waitin’ game,” he says. “That’s all it is.”
The middle of the night, when everything’s quiet, is a good time for the backstory. In 1978, Bill McLawhorn — the “B” in B’s — gave up farming and bought what had been a convenience store just inside Greenville’s city limits. He and his wife, Peggy, came up with the recipe for the sauce. They both started cooking barbecue out back and serving it up front.
Between then and now, something happened, in the way that things do, that made B’s an emblem of eastern-style barbecue. It might have been its regular appearances on food shows, and in guidebooks, newspapers, and magazines. It might have been the steady word-of-mouth buildup that comes from years of consistency, of pluckish sameness, of doing one thing and one thing only. It might have been this state’s, and this country’s, fetishization of barbecue, where it’s gone from cheap, tasty food for a mass audience, to cuisine that can be dissected and examined, piece by piece — slaw, hush puppy, pork, everything — in the same clinical style used by New York City food critics.
And it might have been because B’s Barbecue still is, almost exactly, what it once was. What have they done to modernize? Absolutely nothing. Who works there now? The same people, basically, who worked there then. People show up, with guidebooks in the car, brought here with memories and directions from Yelp, expecting to open a time capsule. They do. And it’s delicious inside.
7:04 a.m. Two hours before B’s opens, Tammy Godley peels potatoes under fluorescent lights, and gets ready to cook green beans. Her hair is pulled back underneath an East Carolina University visor. Out back, Arthur House has the chicken on. Behind a separating wall in the carport, he shoves cabbage after cabbage into a hand-cranked grinder to make slaw. Tammy’s sister, Donna McLawhorn, comes in the back door, dressed about the same — visor, T-shirt, sweatpants and scuffed-up Skechers — with Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and Mountain Dew in a plastic bag. Donna’s the oldest of William and Peggy’s three daughters. Judy Drach, the third sister, will be here soon.
7:15 a.m. An elderly man pulls up in the parking lot to ask for a set of ribs. They won’t be ready until 9. But he knows, like all regulars do, that to put in an order, you have to do it early, and in person. B’s has no phone.
“Never had one,” adds Donna.
“Dad didn’t believe in a phone,” says Tammy. “‘If you need me,’ he’d say, ‘come get me.’”
“I don’t know what you’d do with a phone.”
“Nobody would have time to answer it.”
7:49 a.m. Robert Phillips drives up on a Harley and pulls off his helmet, puts on a Phillies hat, and walks inside the restaurant. He worked here 25 years ago, then left to take a job with the City of Greenville, then retired from that job, and now he’s back at B’s. Dexter has carpal tunnel syndrome, so Robert chops the meat now. “It’s not the kind of job you can make a living off of,” Robert says. “Hours are too short. You work weird hours.”
7:56 a.m. Robert opens the top of the cooker to reveal seven black-and-pink pigs inside. Robert hugs each hog and flips it over on the grill, which is now merely warm. This lets the hogs cool a bit, and makes it easier to pull out the meat by hand. After a few minutes, Robert scoops up the pork and picks through it, throwing out bits of gristle and fat.
“That’s clean barbecue,” says Arthur, who’s checking on the chicken.
8:30a.m. In comes Mr. Joe. Robert calls him that, because he doesn’t know his last name (it’s Hines). He’s 58, wearing a button-down shirt, designer glasses, and a black ballcap with “Fuhgettaboutit” stitched on the front. He starts breaking down boxes. Sometimes he runs errands or takes out the trash. He likes to be here. Hanging out.
Out of earshot, Arthur and Robert are talking about him. Apparently, for three weeks now, Mr. Joe has been claiming that, in high school anyway, he was a better basketball player than Michael Jordan.
“His coach said he was too good to play varsity,” Arthur says, sarcastically.
“If Obama started coming here,” Robert says, “he’d try to top him.”
Robert shakes his head. “This place is like the barbershop,” he says.
8:40 a.m. In the parking lot, Betty Bonner and her 21-year-old daughter, Tichina, sit in a green Jeep Grand Cherokee, waiting. “If you don’t get it now, the food will run out,” Betty warns.
8:47a.m. The fryer bubbles. The air smells of vinegar. Robert chops the pork, rhythmically scooping up the meat with gloved hands, slicing it with a cleaver. Scrape. Chop chop chop. He tosses anything that looks like it’s not a perfect piece of pork. Anything that’s not that clean barbecue. “Keep these out of the way,” Robert says, wiggling his fingers.
8:59 a.m. The ribs are ready, and Judy puts a bag of them into the old man’s trunk. “It’s $18 even,” she says.
9:00 a.m. The lock on the front door clicks open.
Before anyone comes inside, let’s look around. B’s brick siding, painted white with a blue stripe, is rotting. The restaurant, all 1,400 square feet of it, looks like it could fall over. The floors slant. The gray carpet is threadbare; the chairs are worn. The linoleum rolls up at the edges. A refrigerator lists to one side. The lights are fluorescent. The walls are white. On one hangs a poster of two pigs snuggling. It reads: “Hogs are beautiful.”
On each table, the largest of which seats six, sits a glass bourbon bottle full of clear vinegary sauce. The awning above the ordering window is crumbling. A sign lists the prices. BBQ DINNER: $7.75. SANDWICH: $3.75. POUND: $8.50. CHICKEN, HALF: $7. WHOLE: $11.50. A 1-pound 8-ounce bream, caught by Bill McLawhorn in 1982, is mounted above the take-out window.
Someone just walked up. Here we go.
9:01a.m. The first customer comes to the side window. Arthur walks in and cracks a bad joke. “Go back out there,” Robert says, still chopping.
9:15 a.m. Robert Woods of Goldsboro stands in line with five other people. He’s turning 58 today. “No better way to celebrate a birthday than this,” he says. It took him an hour to get here. Worth it. Sure, it’s not pretty in here, he says. But he doesn’t see B’s for its imperfections. “My wife calls it being nose-blind.”
9:32 a.m. Wes Cunningham picks through pork and potatoes on his Styrofoam plate with a plastic fork, and brags about losing 110 pounds, before quickly admitting he gained 60 of them back. He ordered two plastic jugs full of sauce, as well as three pounds of barbecue. “If I come here,” he says, “I’ll skip breakfast.”
9:35 a.m. Eight more cars pull up in the parking lot. There are no marked spaces, so it’s a free-for-all as more people show up. Three people park on the shoulder of B’s Barbecue Road, which has a road sign that, for a time, was popular to steal. Inside, James Dixon and his uncle Willie Carr are locked in a debate about another barbecue joint. “It ain’t all that,” James says. It ain’t B’s.
9:55 a.m. “I heard if you come early, you can get ribs” say two people at the counter. There’s just a half and a whole set left. The skins, added to the meat to make it crackle and crunch, might be even more popular. People show up at 4:30 a.m. and poke their heads in the back of the pit to see if Dexter will put their name on the waiting list. By now, they’re long gone.
10:07 a.m. Judy, Donna, and Tammy work the area behind the counter like a soccer team works the pitch: bobbing, weaving, but staying in their lanes. Donna’s stationed at the front of the restaurant, hunched over the vegetables that steam behind glass. Tammy works the side, making sandwiches and checking on what’s on the stove. Judy’s the striker, taking money at the cash register (which is actually turned off, since it’s only used to make change). She works the window. And the crowd. A guy says he loves the smoky, meaty smell in here. “They say that’s our best advertising,” Judy says.
10:45a.m. The first real out-of-towners come in. Brian Marsicovetere and Michael Gargiulo both graduated from ECU in 1996. While they were in college, they ate here once a week, whenever they could find a car. They have no local accent. They need prompting. You want slaw? You want potatoes?
Their Uber driver waits quietly at the end of the picnic table outside. “We’re just paying him to stand here while we eat,” Michael says.
11:10a.m. Shelia Leggette is at the counter. She went to school with the sisters. They haven’t changed a thing, she says, proudly. She loves the chicken. And the sauce. Shelia figures someday, she’ll get the recipe. “Somebody’s gonna have to say something,” she says.
“That’s a secret,” Judy says. “You gotta marry into the family to get that.”
11:20 a.m. The lot is full. Cars line the shoulder of the road. A glistening black Lexus sits in front of a dusty red Toyota. The line outside is 12 deep. The line inside is shorter, but reaches the door. Robert looks around. “The rush ain’t even here yet,” he says.
11:52 a.m. Men in white shirts and ties are sitting inside, and a doctor in blue scrubs waits outside. There are lanyards around necks. Badges on belts. An elderly black woman waits in line behind hipsters wearing New Wayfarers, in front of a balding white guy who’s buried in his phone. ECU gear abounds. Dana Gray is here with a big group of recent grads who were on the Pirates tennis team. The only vegetarian, Dana sticks to potatoes, slaw, beans, and sweet tea. The rest of the grads eat while dodging falling acorns. One, in a white tank top, takes a selfie with her plate.
Mr. Joe grabs a bag of barbecue to-go.
12:23p.m. Arthur brings in the last of the chicken, and for the first time, the end of the day is in sight. Clean-up begins. Robert dusts some of the ash from the cooker off of his motorcycle before going home. Arthur is scraping some of the ash out of the pit.
12:30 p.m. The line is gone. The food is not. Yet.
After watching this delicate dance of people and pork, hush puppies and hustle, several things start making sense: This barely works. Somehow, there’s just enough food to keep the place open through lunch. Somehow, the sisters keep up with the throng of people, even though there are just the three of them, with an occasional son or daughter pitching in. Somehow, the building does not collapse. The pork — hand-chopped, never ground — is legendary. The sauce — sour, peppery, with a lip-smacking bite — is perfect. The slaw is sublime. The hunger for that will never change, and as the word spreads, the Greenville regulars and the out-of-town dreamers make the line longer and longer. And somehow, this place survives for another day.
Everyone who’s here is family, both behind and in front of the counter. Dexter, Arthur, Robert, and the sisters all grew up working here. They all know the regulars well enough to start making their order the moment they walk in the door. Judy’s better with faces and orders than she is with names. Once, she and her daughter were in line to vote, and a regular chatted them up.
“Mom, what was that man’s name?” the daughter asked after he left.
“Dark-meat chicken with a side of slaw,” Judy said.
1:10p.m. A gaggle of ECU fraternity brothers are at the window. Construction workers walk in wearing orange-and-yellow vests. A college-age girl enters and announces, “Barbecue sandwich, no slaw!” She’s been here before.
1:20 p.m. “Judy, the next gentleman’s got to go to the ATM machine,” Donna says. B’s only takes cash and checks. The sisters say people who only have a credit card handy always come back and pay. Eventually. “Our motto is, you’d better get it now, bring the money to me later,” Tammy says, “because [the food] won’t be here when you get back.”
1:35 p.m. A guy comes to the counter with a friend from Texas. They don’t have barbecue like this down there, he says.
“Well, they do have George Strait,” Judy says.
1:45 p.m. Only five customers remain. Tammy looks out the window. “Someone’s taking a picture of the sign,” she says. The sisters are suspicious of picture-takers. One time, a woman painted a picture of B’s, which ended up on greeting cards. The family wasn’t happy. Judy tells a story about another time, when some guys showed up, asking questions about the process. How do you make the slaw? How do you cook the pigs? Before you knew it, those guys had opened up a competing barbecue restaurant across town. That line Judy said earlier about not getting the secrets unless you’re family? She means it.
2 p.m. A guy walks in and asks if there’s enough chicken left to make a plate. Yes. Just barely. The next woman asks how much food is left. The answer? Not much. She wonders how much to get, then thinks better of it, and just up and buys the last three pounds. Alyssa Sheffield is her name, and this is her first time here. She wasn’t sure about it at first — after all, this place has no phone or website, so how legitimate could it be? — but her friends convinced her to go.
2:07 p.m. Alyssa walks out with a sack stuffed with pork and chicken. “Time to put the sign on the door,” Judy says. B’s is out of food.
It’s not over, at least not yet. There are still some deliveries, along with prep work for the next day. The wrinkled cash, which has piled up in the register drawer and next to the window, has to be counted. Nobody will say they’re exhausted, but they look it.
There’s a question: How long can this go on? All of the sisters are in their 50s.
“Another 10 years?” says Judy.
Donna thinks six. “My car will make it at least six more years,” she says.
But they all agree: If something happens to this place, they wouldn’t build a new B’s Barbecue. They’d be done.
That’s reality. Maybe one of the sisters’ sons or daughters will take this place over. Maybe not. Just because it’s the family business doesn’t mean that the family will always be in the same business. Places like this are rare. Unique. They take a nearly impossible amount of work. They can’t exist forever. Someday, they’ll run out of barbecue for good. A permanent “Out of food” sign will hang out front. Real lovers of B’s don’t want to admit that. But they know it’s true. And they know how to handle this, just like they always handle B’s: Get there early, because you never know when it’ll be too late.
2:15 p.m. A man parks his car in the now-empty parking lot, notices the sign on the window, squints for a second, and mournfully walks away. As he starts back to his car, Tammy sees him. She opens the window. “Hey!” she yells. “I think we have enough left for a sandwich.”