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On the eastern edge of Goldsboro, right on U.S. Highway 70, woodsmoke curls over the pavement. It huffs over windshields of outbound cars. It disappears into inbound traffic. It carries

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

On the eastern edge of Goldsboro, right on U.S. Highway 70, woodsmoke curls over the pavement. It huffs over windshields of outbound cars. It disappears into inbound traffic. It carries

Where There’s A Wilber’s, There’s A Way

On the eastern edge of Goldsboro, right on U.S. Highway 70, woodsmoke curls over the pavement. It huffs over windshields of outbound cars. It disappears into inbound traffic. It carries the smells that North Carolinians understand better than anyone else: The charred oak. The roasting meat. We can smell that smoke over the highway. We feel it as much as smell it. There are family gatherings in that smoke, homecomings and Sunday suppers. That’s barbecue, but not just any barbecue: It’s Wilber’s.

Pitmaster Jackie Martin is right at home manning Wilber’s smokehouse. He burns piles of oak down to hot coals, over which he’ll cook pork that’s destined for the chopping block. photograph by Anna Routh Barzin

At 2 o’clock in the afternoon, Jackie Martin’s pickup tires crunch in the rocks and gravel where the Wilber’s parking lot gives out. There rests the pit, a long, low brick building. Beyond the pit, bumping against a chain-link fence, a field of row crops stretches for acres, ringed in trees brown and green. This is Martin’s domain. He has pulled into this lot for nearly 40 years. He works from 2 or 3 in the afternoon until 5 or 6 in the morning, tending to the hogs that will be tomorrow’s lunches and suppers. He works in the dark so he can see if the wood coals flare up. Jackie Martin is the Wilber’s pitmaster.

You want to know how to cook pig? He’ll tell you.

“You just put a little heat under the pig along the way,” he says. “You can hear the grease start dripping on the coals. You don’t want it to drip too fast. That’s too much heat. Then, you go by smell. When you get that smell, every once in a while, stick your hand under the tin.”

Martin doesn’t need a thermometer to tell when the pig is done. He can feel it.

In the smokehouse, Martin readies the pits for a long night of smoking pork. It’s how Wilber did it before he died in 2021, and it’s a tradition that’s being carried on today. photograph by Anna Routh Barzin

As a younger man, Martin learned how to cook pigs over wood coals at Wilber’s from Isaiah Green and Odell Barnes, who cooked pigs their whole lives. Martin learned to cook using smells, sounds, sights, and touch, the way most of us learn how to feel if a storm is coming. It seems natural, simple, but, like many beautiful things, it’s complicated.

Wilberdean Shirley, the man who opened his eponymous restaurant in 1962, passed away in 2021. Wilber’s had closed in 2019, and just before the pandemic hit, a group of several men with ties to Goldsboro, who grew up loving the restaurant, came together to reopen it. Willis B. Underwood III, an insurance salesman from Goldsboro, led the charge.

“Everybody believes in Wilber’s,” Underwood says. “Before I got involved, Wilber’s was No. 1 in my book. I’ve always had a passion for it. I just didn’t want to see the smoke die.”

Many of us know Wilber’s as a waypoint for beach-bound travelers. It has served presidents and governors. It has hosted book clubs, Bible studies, family gatherings, class reunions, and weekday suppers. When the U.S. Highway 70 bypass swooped past the restaurant in 2016, so did a large portion of Wilber’s customers.

Willis B. Underwood III (right) and his son and general manager, Willis B. Underwood IV. photograph by Anna Routh Barzin

On most days, you can find Underwood greeting folks as they come into the restaurant. “Everything all right? How y’all doin’ today?” he says to people as they look over their menus. “I’m Willis Underwood, and I’m one of the owners here.”

The menu has changed a little since Underwood and his team bought Wilber’s. “We cut the menu down some. Now, we make everything we can from scratch, using local ingredients,” Underwood says.

Their vegetables, like pointed head cabbage and collards, are prepared in-season and grow in the fields of nearby Seven Springs. They have fried okra and baskets of hush puppies. Fried chicken and barbecued chicken — which is actually baked chicken with chicken gravy. Macaroni and cheese and coleslaw. That smell from the woodsmoke over Highway 70 carries the promise of goodness, too, for the initiated. Imagine your best dreams of a Sunday potluck. Add some wood paneling and pelleted ice in your sweet tea, and you have Wilber’s.

And the desserts! All desserts are scratch-made. The recipes come from Underwood’s family and friends.

Wilber’s dessert menu offers classic Southern desserts like pecan pie, and the new owners have added family favorite, blue ribbon-winning pies and cakes, as well. But for a special treat, get yourself a saucer-size Wilber’s cookie to go. photograph by Anna Routh Barzin

“Pecan pie, buttermilk pie, coconut cake, carrot cake, banana pudding, and our Wilber’s cookie,” Underwood says. Beside the names of the desserts hang prize ribbons from the Wayne County Fair. “The pecan pie and coconut cake won first,” he says. “The carrot cake took second, which I opened a full investigation into. It should have been first!”

The pigs are local, as is the wood used to slowly cook that perfect pork.

“We use primarily oak wood, with a little bit of cherry and hickory in there because that’s what grows on this side of the state,” Underwood says. “West of [Interstate] 95, you get more hickory because that’s what grows there.”

Each night, Martin loads those oak logs, cut as 20-pound hunks, into a brick firebox outside to burn them down to the coals that he needs to cook the pigs. Martin is also local. He grew up on the land around Wilber’s.

“I had a bicycle, a BB rifle, and a dog, and we went all around,” he says. “All that farmland and the cows and the creeks around here — I was always somewhere looking at everything.”

Martin’s parents died when he was a teenager. The community gathered to help him and his five sisters. “But everybody around, the whole community, even Wilber, gave me little tasks to give me work and keep me out of trouble. I hadn’t thought about learning how to cook a pig. That was the furthest thing from my mind.”

For centuries, North Carolinians have spent long hours tending hogs over wood coals.

Martin and his cousin Linwood Smith, who takes over for him at 7 a.m., have known barbecue their whole lives. Around here, that’s not unusual. For centuries, North Carolinians have spent long hours tending hogs over wood coals. Early settlers found hogs easier and less expensive to raise than cows and adopted the Native American practice of slow roasting meat over flames.

Over time, cooking methods for North Carolina barbecue were honed, influenced by cooks who brought their own techniques and flavors with them. The taste became regionalized. In eastern North Carolina, cooking the whole hog remains standard for traditional barbecue, and vinegar-based is the flavor that tastes like home.

“It’s an old, traditional way,” Martin says. “Back when me and Linwood were coming up, all the daddies and granddaddies used to dig a hole in the ground and put the coals on; they put a pig across the rod and put tin on top of it, and it’s basically the same thing as this.”

• • •

Barbecue may seem like a natural way of life for many, but whole-hog, hand-chopped barbecue cooked over wood coals in an open pit is a fading art. Today, only a few restaurants in the state prepare their barbecue this way.

“We have always been ‘whole hog’ here at Wilber’s,” says Willis B. Underwood IV, Underwood’s son and the restaurant’s general manager. By using the whole pig, “you get a very good blend of every part of the pig. You’re getting the bacon, the tenderloin, all the goodness in the middle.”

After 12 hours, Martin turns the pit over to Smith, who, like Martin, feels the hogs to know they’re ready. Smith turns the hogs over to let them cook a bit more, then he or Needham Herring chops pork for three hours a day on oak blocks. With a little vinegar and some spices, they transform the hunks of meat into tender eastern North Carolina barbecue that’s ready for plates and sandwiches.

The people who work here, many of whom worked at Wilber’s before it reopened, treat customers like they’re family. Regulars peek through the kitchen door to see if Lashona “Shortcake” Scott and Pearl Deloatch are around. Dottie Casey sits by the entrance and greets everyone who walks by: “Come on in and sit anywhere you want!”

• • •

Wilber’s feels like home to a lot of people, even if it’s the kind of home that we visit on our way to someplace else — a place to return to, more than a place to live. It can be a smell blowing across the road. It can be a place to preserve, like Underwood and his friends are doing. It can be a place to make something beautiful, like Shortcake and Pearl do. It can be a flavor, like Smith and Herring prepare.

For Martin, who has spent half his life smoking pigs behind Wilber’s, and his whole life with the people and the land around it, Wilber’s is home in its own kind of way. He watches the sun rise and set over the field behind the pit. He knows the animals — the fox and the deer, the raccoon and the possum — that creep through the field beneath the stars. He knows which birds sing at daybreak.

“I cooked out here through five hurricanes,” he says. “Last week when it rained, I saw the lightning — just as beautiful as anything.”

Wilber is gone, and so are the men who taught Martin how to cook pigs. Now, Martin keeps the ritual for those of us who are willing to partake, the vigil for those who want the creed. He hears the voices of those gone on the wind blowing through the field and over the embers.

“Sometimes, I can hear my name being called out there,” he says. “That’s the way I put it, anyway. It feels like home.”

Wilber’s Barbecue
4172 U.S. Highway 70
Goldsboro, NC 27534
(919) 778-5218

This story was published on Jun 23, 2023

Eleanor Spicer Rice

Eleanor Spicer Rice earned her Ph.D. in entomology at North Carolina State University. She is the author of Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants of New York City.