12/22/06 — The lowdown on real barbecue

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The lowdown on real barbecue

By Bonnie Edwards
Published in News on December 22, 2006 1:51 PM

For most students, history can be a little dry.

Not in Charlotte Brow's class at Wayne Community College.

Ms. Brow's students have spent the past few weeks studying one of the juiciest parts of eastern North Carolina history and have turned it into an exhibit that has opened in the Wayne County Museum.

Barbecue was the choice of topics when Ms. Brow's class picked a semester project. And along with learning its history, the students also learned something about the people who helped make this region a mecca for barbecue lovers.

"It's been a good experience, but a challenge, because we only meet once a week," Ms. Brow said as the students put the finishing touches on the exhibit, which will be on display through Jan. 19. "A lot of people have asked questions about it. There seems to be interest in the community."

Ms. Brow said her students quickly found that libraries and the Internet weren't going to be much help in coming up with information. It had to be gleaned first-hand from the folks who have spent years perfecting the pig-pickin' art.

That was a history lesson in itself, she said. Getting to talk to the descendants of barbecue forefathers like the Rev. Adam Scott was a revelation to the students, she said. Old photos, even old videos of barbecue-making helped bring the art to life.

The exhibit doesn't claim to be definitive, Ms. Brow said. She said she expects visitors to show up who can add their own stories and perhaps even some memorabilia.

But display already fills three cases in the museum's front room, loaded with artifacts loaned from such pit-cooked luminaries as the Scott family and other restaurateurs who have made themselves a name in the saucy world of the 'cue.

A Scott's Barbecue display is the centerpiece of the exhibit, with a story about how Scott started his business in the 1920s. Other established names, like Alton's, Wilber's, Rodney's, Parker's, McCall's, are prominently featured as well.

Scott's story goes back to the 1920s, when he started cooking out of his home to make a little extra money. Soon, his fare became so popular that he and his wife, Bessie, closed in the family's back porch at their house on Brazil Street and turned it into a dining room. Customers soon started coming from all across state, looking for that special flavor that Scott's secret sauce gave the meat. Eventually, the business grew into a restaurant and sauce-making business that carries on to this day. The sauce won second place in the 1992 Food and Wine Magazine competition and can still be found on grocery shelves throughout the state.

WCC student Cheryl Blue said she was a little hesitant when she first stopped at Grady's Barbecue on Arrington Bridge Road. Asking total strangers about their work was intimidating. But the language of barbecue reaches across all social lines and she said the interview ended up being fun.

She said said the eatery's owner and operator, Stephen Gray and his wife, Gerri, told her about how they came across the firewood they use to cook their pork.

"He got all this wood when he was working at a sawmill. They gave it to him free," Ms. Blue said. "They have their own sauce, and it's good. They gave me a plate of barbecue while I was there."

Joann Hartley interviewed the owners at Rodney's Barbecue in Mount Olive, Alton's on Cones Road north of Goldsboro and even went so far as to visit the Nahunta Pork Center in northwest Wayne. If you want the real story, you have to go to the source, she said, and the pork center has supplied various barbecue restaurants with high-quality meat for decades.

"Alton and Wilber said they got their pigs from there, and I said, 'Let's go to the source.'"

She talked to Larry Pierce, whose father, Mack, started the pork center in 1975.

"They sell everything on the pig, and they set out 125 to 225 hogs a day," she said.

She said she taste-tested the barbecue everywhere she went, and found it delicious at every stop.

Rodney Southerland told her he started his restaurant in 1987 after he had completed a career in construction. He said he opened his restaurant so he could find some good barbecue in Mount Olive. He got tired of driving all the way to Goldsboro.

"He cooks the whole hog, and it's hand-chopped. He has that nice crunchy skin in it. Even though we're not supposed to have the fat, it's good to have some from time to time."

Alton Daw told Ms. Hartley he opened his restaurant in 1988 to help his son get started in business. The family farm wasn't big enough to support two families, so he turned the operation over to his son and went to try his hand at cooking barbecue for a living.

For years, he had cooked pigs for fundraisers to benefit the Goldsboro Fire Department and the Goldsboro Rescue Squad.

At first, he opened the restaurant just one day a week. But that wasn't practical. So he expanded to three days, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and eventually to seven days a week. He also caters and has set spreads for parties as far away as Asheville, Virginia and South Carolina.

The secret's in the sauce, he said

"(Daw) said you can take a perfectly good pig and ruin it with the wrong sauce," Ms. Hartley said.

Kenneth Birches and Heather Waters talked to Guy Parker's widow, Yvonne. Parker's, at the corner of George and Pine streets, has been closed for about a year, and the family is still undecided about what they want to do with the building. The students said they were struck by how early Parker would have to get up to get started -- 3 a.m. Good barbecue takes time, Mrs. Parker noted.

Elle Dubberly spoke with the folks at McCall's, which cooks about 100 pigs a week.

Crystal Prince talked to Wilber Shirley, who impressed her by saying he hired the first woman to ever work for Griffin's Barbecue back when he worked there.

"I really like that," said Ms. Prince, who added that she likes the friendly atmosphere at Wilber's -- probably the best-known barbecue palace in Wayne simply because of its prominent location on U.S. 70 bypass.

Wilber's is more than just a restaurant, she said, its a gathering place where long-time customers can sit and pore over the news of the day.

"And the barbecue's good, too," she said.