Barbecue has been a staple of Eastern North Carolina diets for centuries. North Carolinians have always been on top of making excellent barbecue, from Native Americans and early settlers to people living in the technological age. Cultural influences, from African slaves living on plantations to poor, rural farmers, helped promote fatback (the ancestor of modern day barbecue), which is quite literally the fatty back of a pig, and cornbread as a main meal (Reed). Pork yields a high caloric intake, which in turn creates long-lasting, slow-burning energy, which was necessary for hard days working the fields of plantations. Goldsboro barbecue is rooted in some of the richest history in North Carolina, priming it for near legendary fame.
Barbecue traditions continued through the Civil War and well into the modern age. During the Civil War, soldiers ate fatback, beans, and cornbread as a type of fast food that supplied troops with enough energy for long campaigns through rough terrain. The pork served to soldiers however, was not the gentrified barbecue that modern Carolinians know so well. Sauces and soaks involving the lye of other animals were common for flavoring fatback, but not necessary for the cooking of the pork itself (Reed). Vinegar-based sauce for pork did not become popular until much later, but smoking techniques unique to North Carolina spawned what has become a gastronomic microcosm (Shirley).
Eastern North Carolina has always laid claim to the most “Carolina” of all NC barbecue. However, nowhere on the NC coast holds candle to the barbecue produced by joints–the colloquial term for barbecue restaurants–in Goldsboro, NC. Goldsboro, situated a mere ninety minutes from Chapel Hill, has been the home of two leaders of barbecue over the past forty years: Griffin’s and Wilber’s. The now gone Griffin’s BBQ exported barbecue across the state to large gatherings. The Tar Heels are one of the many sports teams that Griffin’s supported through their supply of game-day barbecue (Simpson). Though Griffin’s had a fan base that stretched across NC, financial and familial troubles led to its closing in the early 1980’s. Wilber’s owned by Wilber Shirley, also supports the UNC Tar Heels but in a less direct way, giving weary travelers a place to rest their feet and chow on some house-smoked “Q” (Shirley).
Not only did the now-gone Griffin’s and currently thriving Wilber’s have some of the most distinctive barbecue on Hwy. 70 E, but they are also prime proponents of two very different sauce and smoking techniques. The traditional way to cure meat is to salting and placing it in oak barrels for extended periods of time. However, barbecue involves a long, slow smoke over a variety of wood types. For saltier barbecue, joints will use pine or hickory wood, for sweeter, maple or oak, even peach or apple (Reed). Griffin’s and Wilber’s both smoke their pork for a minimum of eight to ten hours prior to shredding and serving—a time allowance that is also traditional period for the prime flavor (Shirley). Of course, Griffin’s and Wilber’s also differ on the size of the pig being smoked. Griffin’s would smoke parts of the hog while Wilber’s cooks the whole pig at one time, making for a richer flavor.
Not only does smoking the entire hog create a deep flavor, but also the sauce used. While it is unclear what kind Griffin’s used, Wilber’s uses a variety of sauce mixtures for taste. Preferring vinegar-based to ketchup-based sauce, Wilber’s also soaks their pork with a vinegar-based sauce during the smoking process. During cooking, the sauce drips off the hog and into the fire, creating a more elaborate smoke for the barbecue. In the western part of the state, ketchup is used instead of vinegar, giving eastern barbecue an even more unique base.
However, Wilber’s is unique not only for their sauce. Owner Wilber Shirley bought the building in 1963 from the ailing manager and has since expanded the low brick restaurant into a place for 325 customers to indulge in their Southern fantasies (Shirley). Shirley uses all traditional techniques, including using meat cleavers on a wooden chopping block instead of machinery to shred and prepare the pork. Wilber’s also caters to as far away as Morrisville, but mainly to eastern NC in locations such as Beaufort and Morehead City. While Griffin’s lies in myth, Wilber’s has been contacted by large names such as Southern Living for photo shoots and William-Sonoma, from San Francisco, for advice on barbecue rubs and tools (Shirley).
Personally, Goldsboro holds memories for me that will never be forgotten. My family has spent numerous hours devouring Wilber’s barbecue at picnic tables next to the giant restaurant smokers. To take the edge off the three-and-a-half hour drive to Beaufort, we’d pull over and order food from Shirley’s establishment. Coleslaw, hushpuppies, and lemon brewed sweet tea add delightful accents to the pork, which stands on its own as the best I’ve ever tasted. Even my down-east families, who are all quite the critics of barbecue, agree that Wilber’s serves the best “Q” in the east. My father can attest to Griffin’s as well, as he worked for their catering services at Tar Heel games in the sixties. According to Simpson, fans “flocked at half-time to get a bun stuffed with barbecue before they disappeared” (Simpson).
Goldsboro, as a barbecue capitol of North Carolina, holds onto traditional cooking techniques as a way of preserving history through food. Wilber’s allows for this as thousands flock to their doors each year to chow down on some of the most delicious vinegar-based pork in the south. Griffin’s, though the name equates extinction now, was once on the top of barbecue exportation across the state of North Carolina, catering events in Chapel Hill and Durham. As many North Carolinians who plan trips to the coast around Hwy 70 East only to grab a bite to eat at a Goldsboro barbecue joint know, Goldsboro will always stand at the top of NC barbecue.
Craig, H. Kent’s Carolina Barbecue Book. 2010. Print.
Mills, Jake. “Jake Mills on Goldsboro BBQ.” Telephone interview. 18 Feb. 2011.
Reed, John, and Dale Reed. Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue. Chapel Hill, NC: UNC, 2008. Print.
Reed, Dale, and John Reed, eds. Cornbread Nation 4: The Best of Southern Food Writing. Vol. 4. Athens, GA: University of Georgia, 2008. Print.
Shirley, Wilber. “Wilber Shirley on Wilber’s Barbecue.” Telephone interview. 18 Mar. 2011.
Simpson, Bland. “Bland Simpson on Goldsboro BBQ.” Telephone interview. 18 Feb. 2011.
About the Author
Cary Simpson is a first-year English/American Studies of the South major and Creative Writing minor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.