Originally posted on You Only Live Once.
“NORTH CAROLINA! C’MON AND RAISE UP! TAKE YOUR SHIRT OFF, TWIST IT ROUND YOUR HEAD, SPIN IT LIKE A HELICOPTER!”
The sweet tender lyrics of Petey Pablo echoed in my head as we flew into Raleigh Airport, North Carolina (sadly we flew in on a plane, not with our shirts spinning round our head like a helicopter). This was to be the last stop on our BBQ pilgrimage, which had so far taken my wife and I to Texas, Mississippi, Tennessee and Georgia – with a brief BBQ-free stay in Louisiana somewhere in the middle. Our belts had buckled and our pores were in a permanent state of meat sweats, but here we were in North Carolina, ready to Raise Up once again.
Staying with some family friends in Raleigh (avid readers will be happy to know that we were staying with the same family that I stayed with during my 1997 trip to Memphis! How bout that!), we had some satisfying BBQ at the enormous, family-friendly restaurant The Pit, but had hired a car so we could drive out into the sticks the next day, in order to sample some truly legendary North Carolina style BBQ.
North Carolina is vastly different to BBQ served elsewhere in America. Pork is the focus here – and not just shoulders and ribs. In North Carolina they slowly smoke whole hogs, remove all the bones and then chop all the tender meat up, before drowning the meat in a thin and spicy vinegar sauce. Spoiler alert: this was my favourite style of BBQ that we had all trip.
“Can we have some bread” I asked the waitress at Wilber’s BBQ in Goldsboro, two hours out of Raleigh. “No bread, sorry” she said as she plonked a basket full of deep fried golden curls on our table, “we do hush puppies instead” – and so began our lunch at the best BBQ spot we visited in America. A chequered tablecloth, an endless cup of Dr Pepper and a papered basket, stacked high with perfectly fried hush puppies.
In the middle of the table were packets of butter, intended to be spread on the hush puppies. Buttering deep fried cornmeal? Wilber’s was not fucking around.
We ordered a combination plate, which came with a vinegary mashed potato salad, a finely chopped, vinegary slaw and a huge serve of finely chopped, vinegary pork, fresh from out of the smokehouse. If the hush puppies weren’t so crunchy, you wouldn’t need to chew any of this meal. The pork was tenderer than a Drake album, with the Wilber’s signature sauce supplying the perfect amount of vinegar tang and cayenne pepper spice. It was great on it’s own, even better when eaten in between mouthfuls of potato and slaw. We polished the plate off in no time and knew that we had to order a pork sandwich as well, so as not to anger the BBQ Gods.
A minute passes and a humble little sandwich arrives on our table. A hot, sugary roll filled with pork and slaw. Even on this 100 degree day, the warmth from the roll is cozy. The pork and slaw, exactly the same as the pork and slaw served on the combination plate, tastes even better in the roll. This is a perfect little sandwich, and each loud, spicy vinegar burp on the 2 hour drive back home reminds us of our incredible meal, and of what a terrible person I am.
Before we left Wilber’s I took a walk around the back of the restaurant, through the many piles of kindling, and introduced myself to the staff manning the smokehouse. I pulled out the unicorn card – “Hi I’m an Australian who loves BBQ can I please go in that big smokey room?” and was greeted with high fives and a short guided tour of the huge smokehouse. There were some 50 pigs being smoked at the one time! I took a few pictures and actually considered getting this one printed up as a set of postcards:
What a beautiful view.
The next day we were laughed at by our host for wanting to drive even further for our next meal. “You wanna take a four hour round trip just for lunch?” he exclaimed as we snuck out the back door and embarked on a four hour round trip just for lunch. It amused me that in 2 days of being in North Carolina we had visited two towns that he hadn’t even considered visiting in the two years he’d lived there. Such was our passion for BBQ!
We passionately drove for 106 miles until we got to Ayden, home of The Skylight Inn. A sign welcomes our arrival that announces “If it’s not cooked with WOOD – It’s not BBQ”, one of the few facts that BBQ spots all over America would probably agree on.
For many reviewers who aren’t from Texas, The Skylight Inn is thought to be BBQ capital of America – the owners even built a replica of Capitol Hill on top of their roof to announce this.
Inside The Skylight Inn is a stark contrast to the colourful, family friendly vibe of Wilber’s. White walls, a small amount of paraphernalia from the restaurant’s long history and complete silence, save for the constant chopping of the chef in the kitchen, making his way through whole smoked pigs with two huge cleavers. The old man behind the counter stares at us with cold eyes that say “don’t even try and say a thing to me or my staff besides your order!” Not even my Australian accent can get me a smile. These guys have probably never heard of a unicorn.
We order a barbecue tray, the most unique way of serving BBQ we’ve ever seen. A small tower of trays stacked on top of each other. Down the bottom is pork, which is not quite as tender and tasty at Wilber’s was but it has pieces of crunchy skin mixed through the meat which is an amazing vibe. On top of the pork is a big piece of corn cake, an incredible take on corn bread made with lard, based on a family recipe from 1830! At the top of the tower is a tray full of pale, vinegary slaw, with a plastic fork wedged inside. A few bottles of BBQ sauce adorn the table.
Break off a piece of the corn cake, top it with pork and slaw, add some sauce, eat. Speak too loudly about how good the food is, get glared at by the long line of people who have come to order an unbelievable amount of pork takeaway. We had heard legends of this place, we heard almost nothing while we were inside. We tasted some damn good BBQ though, further testament to my decision that North Carolina style BBQ is the BBQ for me.
Before we hop back in to our car and complete our four hour round trip just for lunch, we pop into a thrift store across the road. “Oh did you eat at Skylight for lunch?” asks the large, mysterious shop owner – “I don’t think it’s very good”. We counter his argument for about 10 seconds before he admits that he just doesn’t like BBQ, and we suddenly realise what your average Yelp reviewer looks like.
The next day we flew to New York and a week after that we were home in Sydney. During our time away I somehow only managed to put on just one extra kilo. We had to buy another suitcase just to house all of the various sauces and trinkets we picked up at every BBQ spot and diner we ate at.
I apologise to Kansas for not including you in our trip. I hear your BBQ is amazing too, and I realise that throughout these 7 posts I’ve only managed to visit an extremely small percentage of America’s great BBQ spots. I hope I’ve provided anyone with an interest in BBQ who’s visiting any of the cities I went to with a good starting point. This is a trip that I would recommend to anyone and would happily do again and again. The barbecue scene of the South is insanely engrossing, full of so many amazing different takes and hilarious opinions. It’s a cuisine that will never be able to be mass marketed due to the many different styles from each region and thankfully you won’t see a McSmokie’s or a BBQ Hut anytime soon.
The difference in produce and cooking techniques means that it’s hard to replicate great BBQ in Australia. There’s a small and building scene of people doing it properly (or as close to properly as possible given our limitations) across the country and hopefully that will keep growing. My advice to anyone who wants to try great BBQ – especially chefs keen to put it on their menu – is too get yourself to Texas, North Carolina, Tennessee or Kansas and experience it first hand. You’ll fall in love with the food and the culture. Then you can come home, write about it and claim the whole thing as a tax expense.
Thanks for the write off, I really enjoyed writing all these and hopefully will do more in the future!
Part 1, read it here: When Levins did Austin, Texas
Part 2, read it here: When Levins did Lockhart, Texas
Part 3, read it here: When Levins did Spooney’s Bar-B-Que, Mississipi
Part 4, read it here: When Levins did Memphis Tennessee
Part 5, read it here: When Levins went to Big Bob Gibson’s Bar-B-Que, Alabama
Part 6, read it here: When Levins did Daddy D’z Bar B Que Joynt