Monk: Before “No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown”, Anthony Bourdain’s first food travelogue show was “A Cook’s Tour” on the Food Network. In the second season, he visited Texas, Kansas City, and NC – which he refers to as “the barbecue triangle” – and explored barbecue culture for what may have been his first time (at least on recorded camera). The NC section (starts at 15:29) visits with Ed Mitchell at his old joint in Wilson to explore eastern NC whole hog barbecue, one of his first barbecue loves.
Description: BBQ is the classic American food that’s featured in Kansas City, Houston, and North Carolina. The #1 food writer and television presenter in the world, and star of Travel Channel and CNN, Anthony Bourdain reinvented the food travel genre. In his groundbreaking first television series, Bourdain travels around the world indulging his taste for local cuisine and eccentric characters. You never know what he’ll say, who he will meet, or what they will have for dinner.
Monk: As the old saying goes, more often than not a person’s favorite barbecue is what he or she was raised on. Here at Barbecue Bros, it should be no secret that we are Lexington-style barbecue fans (sometimes known as Piedmont- or Western-style barbecue) through and through. Which shouldn’t be surprising since each of the three of us were raised in High Point, NC, just under 20 miles up I-85 from the (often disputed) Barbecue Capital of NC in Lexington.
However, despite the two warring styles of barbecue in the state, I have never harbored any ill-will to my whole hog compatriots to the east. While I’ve spent many a tank of gas exploring all the Lexington-style joints in the western Piedmont of NC, I’ve bemoaned for years the fact that I just simply haven’t had a ton of reasons to spend much time in the eastern part of the state where whole hog and a vinegar pepper sauce reign supreme.
Thankfully, earlier this year I did finally have a reason to be in Pitt County – home to Greenville, Winterville, and Ayden – in eastern North Carolina for a couple days. While my free time was somewhat limited due to the eldest Monkettes gymnastics exploits, I hoped to make the most of being in the heart of whole hog country!
B’s Barbecue – Greenville
Open Wednesdays through Saturdays from 9 until sold out (or 2:30, whichever comes first) and without any indoor dining, you will almost certainly wait in a line at B’s Barbecue. Particularly if East Carolina University (ECU) has a home football game. But this is no central Texas-style line; it moves fairly quickly and efficiently. Arriving right at 9am, I was 11th or so in line and got my food within 40 minutes. Part of that is because B’s has a pretty limited menu: barbecue, chicken, bread (corn sticks) and sides of slaw, potatoes, or green beans. So really, you should know your order by the time you get up there.
The chopped whole hog pork was really flavorful if not overly smoky due to primarily being cooked over charcoal briquettes. It was also leaner than the other whole hog I’d have later that weekend. Regardless, this barbecue fully lived up to my lofty expectations.
The cornsticks at B’s (called “bread” on the menu board) were the first corn sticks I’ve personally had and were my favorite cornmeal of my trip. They were so good that I bought an extra dozen and took them home to the family. The eastern-style slaw was about what I’d expect but I did enjoy the potatoes, a simple side that’s not really found in the Piedmont.
The three sisters at B’s have made it clear that they won’t be running it forever, so be sure to get there sooner rather than later for some otherworldly whole hog.
Sam Jones BBQ – Winterville
In Pitt County, there seem to only be a couple of barbecue options on Sundays. B’s Barbecue, Skylight Inn, and Bum’s Restaurant are all closed to give those family-run operations a day of rest (though of course the prep for the next week surely begins). Parker’s Barbecue has a few Greenville-area locations and is open 10-8:30 seven days a week, but is a gas-cooked barbecue that may actually be better known for its fried chicken. For true ‘cue, wood-smoked barbecue, your main option on Sundays is Sam Jones BBQ in Winterville, between Ayden and Greenville.
Compared with the barbecue at Skylight Inn, although Sam Jones BBQ’s whole hog was very good it somewhat paled in comparison. The chop was coarser than I prefer, the cracklins mixed into the barbecue weren’t quite as crisp, and the barbecue portion was a little lacking. Still, it was very good barbecue and better than 90% of other barbecue joints in the state..
I also finally tried the pit chicken that seems to be the second barbecue item at each restaurant in Pitt County, and while it didn’t blow me away the leaner poultry was a nice change of pace.
While there are clearly a couple of better options for barbecue nearby (which in this case means truly transcendent barbecue), I would happily eat at a Sam Jones BBQ were it in my hometown. Speaking of which: any plans to open a store in Charlotte, Sam?
Skylight Inn – Ayden
Finally, the real barbecue reason to make the trip to Pitt County. Truth be told, despite my excitement over finally trying B’s Barbecue the main event of the trip was finally making it to Skylight Inn. This Jones family restaurant has been open since 1947 and is truly one of the cathedrals of NC barbecue, regardless of style.
Thousands of people make the pilgrimage to Skylight Inn every day, and something about the whole hog eaten within the walls of Skylight Inn just tasted better than the Sam Jones barbecue I’ve been fortunate to have tasted at events in Charlotte or at his two restaurants. Perhaps it was the thrill of finally being in this hallowed building with the sounds of hog being chopped on a wood block right behind the registers, but the cracklins seemed crispier and the pork seemed fresher. It was truly life-changing whole hog. Not too much more that I can say.
Did I come away from my whole hog experience in Eastern NC forsaking my beloved Lexington-style barbecue in favor of the original style of barbecue in the United States? No, of course not. But while I did already have an awareness and respect for the other style of the Old North State’s barbecue, I came away from this trip with a whole new appreciation and a newfound mission to get back as soon as reasonable to try the other legendary whole hog places I have yet to make it to.
What other places should I visit next time I’m in eastern North Carolina? Leave a comment below.
Monk: Dr. Howard Conyers, a NASA scientist originally from Paxville, South Carolina who attended both NC A&T and Duke University for engineering degrees, is fighting the good fight when it comes to creating awareness of the black contribution to the roots of barbecue. This is a conversation between Howard and his father Harrison, a pivotal figure in his barbecue journey.
Monk: In honor of Father’s Day, we are reposting our blog from three years ago recapping the first (and thus far only) whole hog I smoked for Father’s Day 2019. Hopefully, I will get to do one again later this year but in the meantime enjoy this trip down memory lane.
Monk: Back on Father’s Day weekend, Speedy and I set out to do something I’ve been wanting to do for years. And you know what? We rocked it. But even using both the Sam Jones: Whole Hog BBQ book and the Buxton Hall Book of Smoke as references, there were still a few speed bumps that we can learn from the next time we smoke another hog (and yes, there will definitely be another time).
Lesson #1 – If your barrel doesn’t have a bottom, don’t set it up on cinder blocks
Monk: The barrel I got, while free, already had both the bottom and top cut off. The top wasn’t needed, but I would have preferred the bottom attached so as to keep the coals in. I did get a tip that an aluminum water heater pan would fit perfectly, and it did. However, after just a couple of hours that pan started to disintegrate so Speedy and I had to figure out a way to get the burn barrel off the cinder blocks mid-burn. We managed to get it done, losing just a few coals in the process. Once we got it on the ground, it was smooth sailing…for at least a little bit.
Speedy: Monk may be underselling this a bit. Taking a hot burn barrel with an active fire off of cinder blocks could’ve ended badly, but the pig was the most important thing. To add to this, I’d say that if placing the barrel on the ground, put a solid sheet of metal that won’t burn through underneath, as it can be difficult shoveling the coals off the ground.
Lesson #2 – Be sure to allow enough time to let a solid bed of coals build up before you start to shovel into the pit
Speedy: What we found was that the cinder block pit we made was losing about 1 degree of temperature a minute, so we ended up dropping coals in every half hour. This shot the temperature back up 30 degrees quickly, but we had trouble keeping enough coals to shovel in (refer to lesson #5).
Monk: We were probably a little bit anxious in adding coals to the pit and should have let the fire go for at least an hour before we started shoveling them in.
Lesson #3 – Get fire proof gloves
Speedy: We were very, very fortunate that Monk’s neighbor had some fireproof grilling gloves that he brought over. These came in VERY handy (refer to Lesson 1), and I wouldn’t try this again without some.
Monk: Yes, these were definitely lifesavers.
Lesson #4 – Get at least a half cord of wood
Monk: In Sam Jones’ book, he says you might be able to get away with a quarter cord of wood, but he recommended at least a half cord because having leftover is far more preferable than running out. In our experience with a half cord, we burned through every last bit of firewood. Next time, I won’t consider ordering anything other than a half cord.
Lesson #5 – And definitely have a few bags of charcoal handy in case its needed (it will be needed)
Speedy: This was something Monk and I didn’t have handy, and we were struggling keeping temperature and weren’t making coals fast enough. Luckily, there was a 24 hour Walmart 10 minutes away, so I went to pick up a couple bags of charcoal while Monk manned the fire. This definitely did the trick, but it would have been nice to have them on-hand.
Lesson #6 – Be sure to have the right thermometer measuring your pit temperature
Monk: I initially used the wrong type of thermometer to measure pit temp (one used for measuring oil used for frying turkeys), and it wasn’t until a couple hours in that we realized we were probably 50 degrees below what we thought we were. Once I plugged in my Maverick Redi-chek thermometer, we were able to adjust our coals accordingly and get the pit temp up to where we needed it to be.
Lesson #7 – Working in shifts is definitely a good idea so that you can get some rest
Monk: We started at midnight to ensure enough time to get the hog done ahead of a 6pm party, and Speedy and I each ended up getting about 4 hours of sleep each. While some late night drinking and BS-ing by the burn barrel is fun and all, make sure you get enough sleep so that you aren’t a zombie the next day at your whole hog party.
Lesson #8 – You will be surprised how quickly the hog gets done
Speedy: Monk had told me the hog would be done in about 12 hours, and I thought no way that could be true. At the end of the day, I think we were cooking around 14 hours, but it definitely could have been done in 12 if we didn’t have temperature issues at the beginning. Lesson learned – never doubt Monk.
Monk: I have nothing else to add here other than to emphasize Speedy’s last point about never doubting me.
Lesson #9 – More is more when it comes to rebar, or consider using a grate
Speedy: To chop the hog, we first split it down the middle and then in quarters at the ribs. Unfortunately, when doing so, one quarter of the hog dropped through the rebar onto the ground. Some of the meat was salvageable, but we probably lost a good 8-10 pounds of meat. The good news is there was still plenty of our 126 pound hog to go around.
Lesson #10 – If you can swing it, smoke your first hog with your best friend
Monk: If Speedy wouldn’t have been able to make it, I would have been doing this solo. Besides the pure labor aspect of smoking a hog, there’s a definite sense of satisfaction of smoking your first hog with a good buddy. And remember – its Barbecue Bros, not Barbecue Bro.
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