In Search of Righteous 'Cue

Rob Temple
Rob dressed to match the traffic barrels.
Rob dressed to match the traffic barrels.

When Capt. Rob goes to the mainland, he has one thing on his mind: North Carolina barbecue.

Editor's note: Ocracoke residents often get asked what we do all winter. Some of us work year round, some volunteer at the school or local non-profits, some travel, some enjoy their well-desrved time off, a lot of us go to meetings. And then there's at least one man who embarks on pulled-pork pilgrimages. No matter what his stated reason is for traveling, Rob's real reason is pig. 

I was born in East Carolina – Rocky Mount (by the grace of God). So, of course, barbecue is a thing I take quite seriously although I must guiltily admit to a preference of a Wilson-based barbecue over that of my native town.  If you haven’t already quit reading this piece in bewilderment, you’ll understand that last sentence.  You’ll be aware that, while the only food worthy of the name “barbecue” comes from the Tarheel state, the term has different meanings in different regions of North Carolina.

Those folks out west of I-95 have the mistaken impression that barbecue should be made exclusively with pork shoulder and should involve tomatoes in the sauce.  Those of us in the East know that “whole hog” is the only way to go –  “everything but the squeal” – and it’s seasoned with vinegar and pepper.  So that’s the major divide in North Carolina barbecology.

The Original Parker's on Hwy. 301 in Wilson, NC, not to be confused with the other two Parker's locations in Greenville,  which themselves are great.
The Original Parker's on Hwy. 301 in Wilson, NC, not to be confused with the other two Parker's locations in Greenville, which themselves are great.

But even here in the eastern part of our state we have certain regional loyalties.  The more important barbecue centers – Rocky Mount, Wilson, Kinston, Goldsboro and Smithfield – all have their devotees.  So when I meet another connoisseur and am asked about my favorite ‘cue and I say it’s from Wilson, the next question is, ”Parker’s or Bill’s?”.  (These are the two largest establishments, which is not to exclude some excellent smaller venues known mostly to local “insiders.”)

Parker’s in Wilson has always been my gold standard.  They opened their doors in 1946 and I well might have been one of the first hungry patrons through the door.  I would only have been two years old, but I can’t remember a year of my youth when my parents didn’t take us all there and I’ve been a loyal patron since leaving the nest.

Even though they switched from wood to gas many years ago, I’m still in love with the whole experience: the tall, skinny lads in paper hats who speedily get your order on the table, the tea so sweet you could practically stand a spoon in it, the corn sticks (OMG the cornsticks!).  It hurts me deep inside when I read online reviews from ungrateful diners who fail to show a proper reverence for these heaven-sent delights. (I always spread butter on mine and when I check out I ask for an extra dozen to go – along with my order of fried chicken livers and gizzards). I love the photos on the walls, mostly from the 1950s and I half expect to see my childhood self in one of them, driving up in our 1953 Chevy.  And, of course, the ‘cue.  I used to dream about it when I was living overseas and I would wake up teary-eyed.

B's: What delicacies await within!
B's: What delicacies await within!

The only place you might ever hope to get tastier fried chicken than Parker’s would be a church picnic.  In fact, I always wondered how Col. Sanders could consistently screw up fried chicken for so long.  Why not just go to any church picnic and ask ‘em how they did it.  They’d be happy to enlighten you.

I digress… Even though I make routine trips to Parker’s, I’ve tried, with some difficulty, to retain an open mind and try other places.  I’ve even tried what’s called “barbecue” in other states and, while I’ve had some pretty decent meals under that label, none came close.  Don’t be misled by the term “Carolina Barbecue” outside of our state’s borders.  In South Carolina they cook it with mustard of all things!  In Kentucky they flavor it with coffee and Texans think you can make barbecue out of cow meat!

Whenever I do any traveling in parts of our state that are not within range of Wilson, I usually seek out new (to me) barbecue joints.  Years ago I read what Bob Garner had to say in his definitive tome, North Carolina Barbecue: Flavored by Time, about B’s in Greenville. He noted the irony that this classic barbecue shack sits virtually adjacent to the Pitt Medical Center and that most of its lunchtime customers are doctors and med students taking a break from advising their patients on cholesterol intake. I was therefore excited recently to have the opportunity to have lunch there when my friend Bill and I were in Greenville.  We were accompanied by our friend and part-time Ocracoke resident Joe Babb, a prominent cardiologist. Bill and I pigged out with a high degree of confidence that this meal would not be our last!

People will queue for 'cue!
People will queue for 'cue!

This ramshackle restaurant is remarkably popular. It has inadequate parking and long lines for the take-out window as well as the inside dining room.  Fortunately, their cheerful staff knows how to handle the lunch-hour scramble and we actually didn’t have to wait more that ten or fifteen minutes for a table.  They seem to be most famous for their barbecue chicken but I went for the pulled pig and wasn’t disappointed. The 'cue was as fresh as you'll find anywhere – they cook up a batch every morning and close when they run out. But they served hush puppies instead of corn sticks, and I have to admit, the corn sticks are a big part of the experience for me.

As we were speculating who “B” was, I briefly considered the sanitation certificate in the window (“B  88”) and reminded myself that some of the best meals I’ve ever eaten were in joints whose health department ratings were less than stellar.  When I was a student at Carolina, I remember stopping at a shack in Benson with flies coming through the torn screen door as a pimply-faced young man with fingernails that looked like an auto mechanic’s made me the most delicious hamburger I ever ate while I sat at the counter gazing at the sanitation grade: “C."

Sanitation grade B
Sanitation grade B

I am blessed with the best of all possible wives.  She grew up in Ohio of all places where, instead of a noun, “barbecue” is used a verb as in “let’s barbecue some burgers on the grill.”  Although she herself would never dream of eating pulled pork, she always seems happy to accompany me to Parker’s where she settles for a piece of fried chicken. She fully understands my enthusiasm for what my older brother, a retired Episcopal priest, calls “righteous 'cue.”  Recently she was reading Michael Pollen’s latest book, Cooked, and discovered the Skylight Inn in Ayden, N.C. 

“I think you should take a trip over there and try it before our season gets busy around here,” she told me, “Sort of a pilgrimage.” 

And you know what?  I just might do that!

Stay tuned! 

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