North Carolina Historic Barbecue Trail
photograph by Johnny Autry

I’m darn near giddy about this trip. A pilgrimage to binge on barbecue is — pardon the overused phrase — an item on my bucket list. I’m the kind of person who’ll drive 100 miles for awesomeness in a paper food tray in eastern North Carolina.

I’ll rearrange my schedule, get home hours late, and empty my gas tank for a fill-up of deep red Lexington sauce and just-as-red slaw.

Barbecue restaurants -— the classic ones with smoke clouds and woodpiles — aren’t just mealtime stopovers on the way to a destination; for me, they are the destination. They’re the eureka! moments, the Zen experiences, the Shangri-La’s with Formica countertops and Kiwanis club seals.

North Carolina is fortunate to have a driving trail that showcases those eateries still cooking ’cue the old-timey way: over wood and charcoal.

The NCBS Historic Barbecue Trail was designed by the North Carolina Barbecue Society, a nonprofit founded by former attorney Jim Early, the group’s president and CEO.

Traveling to all 100 counties, God love him, he wrote the definitive guidebook on our state’s signature sustenance: The Best Tar Heel Barbecue: Manteo to Murphy.

Here are some of the criteria for securing a spot on the trail: The meat must be cooked on grates over pits with wood or charcoal. The proprietors must make their own sauce. The pits must have operated for at least 15 consecutive years; and the number of pits are limited to two in each town (which is right tough on Lexington).

The trail bypasses all restaurants that prepare barbecue with electricity or gas. Early claims “99.99 percent of places cook it that way now,” which is why those traditionalists on the trail heartily deserve our patronage and praise. About two dozen establishments are featured on the route. If you were to go down the list, hitting one place after another on a single trip, you’d drive about 700 miles. The constraints of time, let alone stomach and story space, don’t allow such a quest here, but I’m stuffing in as many stops as I can.

Food, like accents and architecture, creates a sense of place. North Carolina is a populous place, laced with interstates, where plenty of franchised entrées are served exactly as they are in Buffalo, New York, or Boise, Idaho. To know the soul of North Carolina, hit the trail and head for the pits.

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Eddie Lee Ward has the most important job at Wilber’s: pitmaster. He’s responsible for tending the hog, cooking it perfectly over oak and hickory logs in a brick smokehouse behind the restaurant. photograph by Johnny Autry

Eastern Exposure

I’m starting in the east and making my way to the Tennessee line, 455 miles away. My first route is U.S. Highway 13 north through Spivey’s Corner, Newton Grove, Grantham. Past old farmhouses and flat farm fields and little family cemeteries on grassy rises. Into Goldsboro and onto U.S. Highway 70, up to what looks like a ranch-style house with white shutters: Wilber’s.

The interior walls, wood-paneled and glossy, lend a den-like coziness to the atmosphere, and I sit down as the lunch crowd shuffles out. I already know what I want: the large barbecue plate with slaw, potato salad, and hush puppies.

Then I spot him: a fellow in a red shirt and black cap embroidered with the words “Wilber’s 53rd Anniversary.” This man is a celebrity to me. I’ve seen him on TV, on blogs, in barbecue books. He’s the man who puts the “Wilber” in Wilber’s Barbecue, and I have to resist the urge to genuflect before him.

Now Wilberdean Shirley is coming to sit at my table, having heard about my culinary cross-state mission. For 54 years, he’s been smoking pigs on oak and hickory logs in a brick smokehouse out back.

Shirley is 85; his main pitmaster, Eddie Lee Ward, is 82. One can’t help but wonder what will become of this barbecue institution. “That remains to be seen,” Shirley says. For now, he has a reputation to protect, and a product that demands he keep his attention as sharp as a cleaver’s blade. “This barbecue thing is something you have to look after to cook it like it ought to be, chop it like you want to, and season it like you want,” he says.

I drizzle the meaty shreds with a thin, vinegary, peppery sauce — pure eastern-style — and savor that first bite. The barbecue is lean, with few traces of fat, so it lacks the creamy consistency I have found at some establishments. At Wilber’s, the crew cooks whole hogs with the skin facing up, allowing grease from the meat to drip on the coals and create that smoky flavor. Shirley’s general manager and son-in-law, Dennis Monk, offers a sampling of ribs and a heap of banana pudding. I leave with a Styrofoam cup of water, one of many white cups I’ll collect on this road trip, and drive north.

The route now goes through Snow Hill, then NC Highways 903 and 102 toward Ayden and my holy grail of eastern-style ’cue: Skylight Inn. I order a large tray with cornbread and slaw. The Jones family prefers to keep some fat in the ’cue, which holds the meat together and makes it moist.
“Pork fat is actually proof that God loves us,” says Sam Jones, the grandson of Skylight’s late founder. The Jones family also mixes in pieces of pork skin, creating a crackle with nearly every bite. “It’s like a flavor explosion when you get a piece of skin on that fork,” Jones says.

The next day, at B’s Barbecue in Greenville, I order a pound of pork and corn sticks. In this little joint with a fan in the window, the line of polo shirts, high heels, employee ID lanyards, work boots, shorts, and sneakers stretches to the screen door.

After lunch, west, into Orange County. At Exit 266, NC Highway 86 rises and falls through pines and hardwoods north of Chapel Hill. I pull into a gravel parking lot and recognize the figure with a smudged shirt and beige workingman’s pants. Again, I feel a little starstruck.

Keith Allen is one of my barbecue heroes. He opened Allen & Son in 1971, when he was just 19. He still splits the hickory himself. Still cooks the pigs himself. Still works at least 12 hours a day. Still scoffs at any notion of putting out the fires for the ease of turning a knob.

When he started, he says, nobody thought to cook with gas. But the talk of efficiency carries a seductive aroma for many a restaurant boss. “They figured out they could lessen the work, lessen the load, lessen the hours, increase the profit, increase the volume,” Allen says. But barbecue without that smoky tang? “I had no interest in that flavor.”

I order an extra-large barbecue plate with two servings of slaw, seven big, fat hush puppies, and a mug of sweet tea.

I leave with a renewed respect for every soot-stained soul willing to sacrifice sleep, smell like smoke, sweep the ashes, and spurn expediency in the service of barbecue greatness.

Piedmont Red

Somewhere between Durham and Greensboro, the barbecue turns red with the clay soil. Somewhere in our history — by most accounts, around World War I — people in the Piedmont began infusing the state’s classic vinegar sauce with tomato paste or ketchup. And thus the great east-west rivalry commenced.

At the risk of sounding heretical, or just diplomatic, I relish both styles with equal fervor. As I see it, the tomato-vinegar rift only enhances the North Carolina barbecue experience.

The first real dose of Piedmont-style ’cue on my odyssey is at Stamey’s Barbecue on Gate City Boulevard in Greensboro, across from the coliseum. I order my usual: large barbecue plate with slaw and hush puppies. Unlike establishments Down East, Piedmont barbecue restaurateurs generally cook only pork shoulders and Boston butts, rather than whole hogs. Another regional variation: Many offer sliced barbecue along with chopped, and they bring out cups of red sauce, or “dip,” with the meals.

From Greensboro, the trail loops north through Rockingham County. The sun has set when I roll up to Short Sugar’s on Scales Street in Reidsville, and the diner is closing in 20 minutes. What a relief  it is to open the door, sit on a barstool, and hear the chopping in full flail.

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At Stamey’s in Greensboro, the style is Lexington, and the love for it, nearly universal. photograph by Johnny Autry

The place has hardly changed since it opened in 1949. Waitress Kayla Moore smiles and takes my order for a barbecue tray. The sauce is brown and vinegary, but the meat’s smoky taste is undeniable.

Twenty miles to the west, in Madison, Fuzzy’s also embodies the personality of an Eisenhower-era diner, looking much as it did in 1954, when T.H. “Fuzzy” Nelson opened it. At 8:40 p.m., I’m the last customer, and I plant myself at the counter, beneath the bright fluorescent ceiling lights.

One wall is plastered with old newspaper articles and framed letters from congressmen. Classic ’cue joints like this tend to have a heap of write-ups and laudatory letters on official stationery.

“Moist and zesty” is how Jim Early assesses Fuzzy’s barbecue, and I vigorously agree. It’s served with long, curvy hush puppies and wonderful vinegar slaw with flecks of green. Despite having eaten two barbecue meals in the past hour, I need more research material, so I order a sandwich for the road. Never have a stuffed stomach and an expanding waistline felt this good.

Piedmont-style ’cue is also known as Lexington-style because its founding fathers hailed from the Davidson County town: great men like Sid Weaver and George Ridenhour and Warner Stamey (who opened Stamey’s in Greensboro in 1930).

In Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue — my barbecue bible — writers John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed describe the Lexington lineage:

“In 2006 at least eighteen of  twenty-two places in Lexington and vicinity were, or had been, run by someone who had worked for someone who had worked for someone … who had worked for the founding fathers.”

Lexington is to me what 5th Avenue is to the fashionista, what Cooperstown is to the baseball buff. My two boys are with me on this leg of the trek, and we stop at the Bar-B-Q Center on North Main Street, which is on the Historic Trail.

We sit in a booth big enough to accommodate the Walton family. Behind us is a life-size pig statue decorated with a jukebox and 45s. The decor is splashed with ads for Lexington’s Barbecue Festival: the 26th annual, the 27th annual, the 28th annual, the 29th …

The chopped red pork is presented in a small cardboard tray, melded with slaw so red that both ’cue and cabbage appear as one. What especially endears me is the small silver cup of heated sauce that comes with the meal, in case I need some extra zip. My 8-year-old orders his first barbecue tray, making his old man beam with joy. Secretly, I hope he doesn’t finish it all; he doesn’t, and I gladly fulfill my role as a human garbage disposal.

I could stay here for a week, eating barbecue three times a day. But the mountains are beckoning with the promise of more barbecue.

If we could drop a dime in the jukebox on this pig at the Bar-B-Q Center, we would select Louis Armstrong’s “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue.” photograph by Johnny Autry

Into the Mountains

The trail swings down along U.S. Highway 74 into Shelby for another burst of Lexington-style ’cue at Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge. Westward, the offerings become quite sparse. The mountains, unlike the Piedmont and Coastal Plain, aren’t known for legendary barbecue joints; in fact, only two mountain establishments are on the trail, and one of them — the Switzerland Café in Little Switzerland — was recently added. I have to investigate.

Little Switzerland is a picturesque hamlet of second homes and tourist-centric shops just off of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Switzerland Café stands apart from other stops on the trail in that it offers paninis, pesto, and quiche. Also one of its owners is from … New Jersey.

Ann Kernahan (the one from Jersey) and Chef Lora Lanier (she’s from Moncks Corner, South Carolina) bought the business in 2004. It’s had a smokehouse for more than 20 years — thus, it’s eligible for the trail — and the new owners decided to carry on the tradition of cooking barbecue and making their own sauce.

The meat isn’t as finely chopped as in flatter lands, but it’s cooked for 12 hours over hickory coals and doused in the restaurant’s special sauce, which Kernahan calls “a hybrid of Lexington and eastern.”

Paired with a hefty slice of cornbread and a bowl of beans, this barbecue has earned my love. Plus, the Switzerland Café is that rare barbecue restaurant with a view of mountains.

In Murphy, I push west. Four miles from the Tennessee line, I reach Herb’s, the last stop on the barbecue trail, though owner Helen Gibson rightly prefers to call Herb’s the first on the trail.

Gibson and her late husband, Herb, opened the restaurant in 1982. She joins my sons and me at a booth made of shiny, knotty wood. I notice a distinct sweetness in this barbecue. Herb’s has ketchup and vinegar in the sauce — à la Lexington-style — but it’s sweeter than anything I found in the east. The meat is chopped chunky, and served with beans and potato salad.

“I can’t give you an evaluation of barbecue or anything else toward the coast because it’s so far away,” Gibson says. “If you go past Asheville, you lose me. We always say all we get from North Carolina is a bill for taxes.”

The custodians of ’cue in the mountains could be crafting their own style, one with sauce that’s sweeter and thicker. But the great unifier between Wilber’s and Fuzzy’s and Herb’s is the unwavering allegiance to tradition.

That’s why it’s worth driving nearly 500 miles to support, savor, and celebrate just a few of them. Oh, you bet your sandwich buns I’d do it all again next week. The thought of hitting another batch on the trail — Richard’s and Little Richard’s and Speedy’s and Wink’s and Grady’s — gets me darn near giddy.

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Mims is a reporter for WRAL News. He was the 2012 Television News Reporter of the Year.