Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Pik-n-Pig with a Flightline View

Pik-n-Pig in Carthage, NC, is known locally as the place to find excellent barbecue. It has also gained a growing reputation for being the place to fly into for great smoked pork. Not every barbecue restaurant can brag that it serves pilots and their passengers who simply walk over to it after they have landed.

Summer of Cue

My visit to Pik-n-Pig coincided with the Summer of Cue (#SummerofCue) promotion, launched on social media by the N.C. Pork Council to encourage barbecue fans to support BBQ restaurants during the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Although I visited Pik-n-Pig before I realized that the council had featured it on their blog, reading their comments later made me feel like I was visiting the restaurant again. (At the time of the post, fans had visited more than 50 N.C. barbecue restaurants.)

The order station outside the restaurant while interior dining is closed.


Family-Run Business 

Pik-n-Pig is truly a family-run business from the pitmaster to the servers and others in the kitchen that draws on four decades of smoking experience by three generations of the Sheppard family. They are well known in the Sandhills area for serving great food in an amazing atmosphere. The restaurant is located by the runway of Gilliam-McDonnell Airfield, which is privately owned but open to the public. (If you plan to fly in, be alert to the 75-foot trees that surround the airport.) Whether it’s time for lunch or dinner, you can always count on a few private planes to circle the airport, do touch-and go’s, or land and join the crowd eating barbecue.

My barbecue plate with two sides and a corn muffin.


Barbecue Restaurant 

To make their pulled pork, Boston butts are slowly smoked for up to 10 hours over hickory coals. The meat is always tender and juicy, and two sauces – one spicy, one sweet – were available. My pulled pork plate came with two sides—red slaw and butter beans (brown!) with corn—and a corn muffin. The choices of sides are extensive. The red slaw is unusual for this region of the state; it’s more traditional in western areas. I always order the plate, although I’m usually tempted by the BBQ sundae—pulled pork layered in a jar with baked beans and coleslaw—which has been served at the N.C. State Fair for years.

Normally served in a mug, the banana pudding is in a takeout container (the dishware of the pandemic).

Although Pik-n-Pig is first and foremost a barbecue restaurant, I’m not the only person who also comes for the banana pudding. It’s the perfect complement to a barbecue meal, whether it’s a sandwich, plate, or sundae. If only every barbecue restaurant would serve banana pudding that’s so good! Maybe it’s another reason that people fly here!

My wife's Pie Tin Nachos with pork and cheese.

With the coronavirus pandemic still not under control in this state, the inside dining area was closed. Not a problem for Pik-n-Pig! The covered patio outside is more than adequate and is the best spot to watch planes land and take off, and extra tables are next to it on the lawn. My wife and I usually eat outside anyway on a weekend to enjoy music by a local group, such as The McKenzie Brothers.

A photo taken in 2016 during quieter moments shows the covered patio with windsock and nearby aircraft hangers.

Watching the windsock near the covered patio flap in the breeze is also entertaining and a reminder than the airport has no control tower, so pilots have to be vigilant not only of the wind direction but any local traffic as well. After two planes had parked while we were eating, their pilots and passengers walked over for lunch. What a way to find a place to eat!

Smoking meat for hours over wood coals earns Pik-n-Pig a coveted sport on the N.C. Historic Barbecue Trail.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve eaten at Pik-n-Pig. In recognition of how Pik-n-Pig cooks using the old-fashioned pit method, it has been added to the N.C. Historic Barbecue Trail of the N.C. Barbecue Society. Visiting it is definitely worth a drive (albeit only a short one for me) or a fly-in.

A daily menu board supplements the regular menu.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Grady's BBQ in Dudley, NC

Grady's BBQ in Dudley, N.C.

Because the white concrete block building of Grady’s BBQ in the Dudley community of Wayne County, NC, is such a simple, unpretentious exterior, many people wouldn’t believe how good the food being served on the inside is. It’s a place that could easily be passed by except the many cars parked by the doors at noon indicate that something outstanding is inside.

The wood stack outside tells you that the pitmaster is cooking barbecue the old-fashioned way.

My first visit was during the coronavirus pandemic and only a few days after Grady’s had celebrated its 36th anniversary. It had opened on July 4, 1986. I quickly observed that one of the two doors was exit only; the other one was the only entrance. All food was take-out; nothing was being consumed inside. All the tables and chairs were taped off to prevent anyone from sitting at them except for the one closest to the kitchen where a takeout customer could sit to wait instead of standing. The younger the customer, the less likely he or she was to sit to keep the space available for someone older.

The order line always seems to have several customers waiting.

When I arrived, about four customers were standing in a line in front of the order window that had been partitioned with plexiglass (to create the social distancing important during the pandemic). As I stopped to read a handwritten menu on a wall, another customer came in and joined the line, so I moved behind him as I continued to read. About 10 minutes went by before I could step up to the window and order. It was definitely not fast food, but everyone was patient.

The high sanitation rating over the menu board is a tribute to Mrs. Grady's medical experience.

Behind the window in the kitchen were about five staff members, including the matriarch, Mrs. Gerri (short for Geraldine) Grady, who owns and operates the business with her husband Steve, the pitmaster. She wrote down the orders, took payment, and checked to make sure that they were complete before handing them to customers. Just about every order was for hand-chopped pork barbecue, but turkey, chicken, hamburger steak, and more were also available.

My barbecue dinner with collards, butter beans, and hushpuppies.

Because Grady’s is so famous, I ordered what a typical newcomer orders: barbecue. It was perfect — appropriately sauced in the vinegary eastern North Carolina style. I ordered a barbecue dinner so that I could have two sides and hushpuppies. Nine sides — black-eyed peas, boiled potatoes, coleslaw, potato salad, cabbage, collards (also sold by the pound), butter beans, rice and gravy (yes, that’s a vegetable in eastern N.C.), and green beans — were available. (My choices? Collards and butter beans. So homemade, just like a family reunion!)

Mrs. Grady keeps everything at the order counter moving.

The sides are numerous for such a limited menu. Can you imagine anyone ordering a vegetable plate at a legendary barbecue place? One day I might have to order one (and take the barbecue home). Mrs. Grady has adapted family recipes to serve on a larger scale. As she told Our State magazine, “I try to cook like her [my mother], my grandmother, and my mother-in-law. They were three good cooks.”

My wife's order of fried chicken, cabbage, potato salad, and hushpuppies.

My wife ordered fried chicken with cabbage and potato salad, also with hushpuppies. All were excellent. Because I was saving room for banana pudding, I was disappointed to find out that all had been sold. I settled for a layer chocolate cake, but never has a second choice been so good. I also took home a whole sweet potato pie. Oh, my. It’s one of the best pies I’ve had. Although I’ll return again for the barbecue, banana pudding will be my first selection when I do.

Open only four days a week, Grady's loads oak and hickory coals early on those mornings in its pit built with bricks that form an eight-inch wall. In the afternoons, the pit is quiet.

Grady’s BBQ is a destination for a lot of people — just about everyone is a local but occasionally someone like myself drives for two hours to taste the best of the best. So many have acknowledged the importance of Grady’s in North Carolina’s barbecue history that finally being there makes it seems like I’ve hit a home run. Not even a pandemic can dampen the enthusiasm for being at a barbecue legacy.

Save room for dessert, or take a whole pie home with you.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Golden Tangy and Sweet — South Carolina Style


Traveling in search of excellent barbecue give you a chance to experience different traditions and savor new flavors. When you stop for BBQ in South Carolina, be prepared to appreciate how a mustard sauce can add a tangy and tart flavor that matches well with the sweet taste of pork barbecue. At Melvin’s Barbecue on James Island in the Charleston area, I enjoyed a mustard sauce that has been celebrated since the 1930s.

Mustard Sauce

A mustard sauce is very prominent in the state’s Midlands region — specifically a belt from Columbia to Charleston — where German immigrants settled in the 18th century and brought their common use of mustard. At Melvin’s, the barbecue’s deep golden color and sharp mustard flavor tell you that the condiment is indispensable in preparing chopped pork that is slowly cooked 24 hours on live-oak coals.

The wood pile outside the entrance tells you that the meat has a smoky flavor.

Melvin Bessinger (a surname that has roots in Bessingen, a town near Hanover, Germany), whose name the restaurant carries, learned to make his family’s golden sauce — now marketed as Melvin’s Original Golden Secret Sauce — when he was 10 years old and he watched his father Joseph (1892-1949) prepare it. Success as a pitmaster led him to open a restaurant in 1939 that served only mustard-sauced barbecue.

Three generations of family traditions are packed in each bottle of Melvin's Original Golden Secret Sauce.

First Family of Mustard-Based Barbecue

After service in World War II, Melvin (1923-2012) joined his five other brothers working for their father in the restaurant business in Holly Hill, S.C., before each left to start his own BBQ business in South Carolina’s lowcounty. Melvin moved to the Charleston area where he worked with brothers J.D. and Thomas in a series of BBQ restaurants. Then in 1978 he ventured on his own and opened Melvin’s (not affiliated with any restaurant owned by other Bessinger family members), which now has two locations. When Melvin was 86 in 2009, his son David took over the business.

The signature chopped pork is moist, tender, lightly smoked, and flavored with Melvin's proprietary mustard sauce. This plate includes two sides (slaw and mac 'n' cheese) and cornbread.

The Bessingers are South Carolina’s first family of mustard-based barbecue. The South Carolina Barbeque Association considers the Bessingers to be the most prominent among the families with German heritage who sell mustard-based sauces and mustard-based barbecue. (The family is not without problems. According to The New York Times, Melvin’s late brother Maurice was widely known for his racist views, which became nationally prominent in a case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. Melvin publicly disavowed his brother’s political and social views and quit speaking to him.)

Extra sauces are available on a counter in case more is desired.

100-Mile Barbecue

Concerning Melvin’s barbecue, the association endorses it as “100-mile BBQ,” or barbecue so good it’s worth driving 100 miles for, and the hash is “100-mile hash,” too. The recipe for hash — served over rice — is somewhat daunting. (It includes pig hearts, livers and kidneys, jowls, brisket, hams, beef shoulders, a hog’s head, and vegetables such as celery, carrots, corn and potatoes, all layered with black pepper and salt in a huge stainless steel pot.)

Melvin's ribs (on a plate with fries and mac 'n' cheese) have a crunchy crust but are tender inside.

Not limited to pork, Melvin’s also offers brisket, burnt ends, pulled chicken and smoked turkey. All regular plates come with two sides and cornbread. In addition to meat plates, Melvin’s also serves a hash and rice plate.

Ribs (this serving with sweet potato souffle and bread) are as popular as chopped pork.

Having more than a dozen Southern sides often causes a delay at the ordering line while customers contemplate the choices. I had to try the country hash with rice as well as the fresh collard greens. (Smoked ham hocks are Melvin's secret for flavoring the collards.) Other members of my family chose sweet potato souffle, homemade mac & cheese, baked beans and baby butter beans — all were good.

After the food has been served, getting everyone to smile for a picture can be challenging.

Four Sauces

A barbecue fan can actually find that mustard, indispensable for the Bessingers, is just one of four sauces that South Carolina BBQ houses may offer. The others are vinegar and pepper (the most popular style along the coast), light tomato (basically vinegar and pepper with ketchup added for sweetness that is popular in the upper middle and northeast regions), and heavy tomato (sometimes called tomato and sugar sauce that is popular in western and northwestern areas).

Melvin’s is a destination for travelers as much as locals. Its recognition by Travel + Leisure, Southern Living, Food Network, National Geographic, Eater and other foodie publications and groups has extended its renown across the country. When you visit, plan to encounter golden barbecue with a tangy and tart flavor.

Melvin's is popular throughout the day until closing time.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Another Polar Pig BBQ Cookoff In Concord, NC

Trophies for Polar Pig are creatively designed.

The final contest for many barbecue cooking teams and judges is the Polar Pig BBQ Cookoff, held initially in Mount Pleasant, NC, in 2016 and continuing in Concord, NC, for the past three years. I’ve been fortunate to participate in each year as a judge.

Two Contests

This year the event offered teams the opportunity to compete in two contests as it did last year. The 2018 contest used a double-entry format, which permits teams to turn in entries simultaneously for both contests that are held concurrently. However, this year the two contests (renamed as duels) were held on successive days.

Judges relax in a large room of the Cabarrus Arena and Events Center before their meeting begins.

Each duel awards prizes and points, which appeals to teams trying to increase their point total as a year of competition is ending. Each contest is sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society and qualifies teams for invitational championships such as the Jack Daniel’s World Championship and American Royal World Series of Barbecue.

Competition teams set up in the midway of the Cabarrus Arena and Events Center.

Popular Format

The duel format is a popular way to finish the competition year for cooking teams, which came from 15 states (one more than last year), and compete in prize money that amounted to $5,350 for Duel A and another $5,350 for Duel B. I judged on only Saturday (Duel A) when 47 teams competed. On the next day, 33 teams competed in Duel B. With the large number of teams competing in Duel A, eight tables of judges were needed, and they came from as far away as Texas.

Uncle Pig's Barbecue Pit won first place in the chicken category (with a perfect score) and third place overall in the cookoff.

Held in the Cabarrus (County) Arena and Events Center, Polar Pig continues to improve each year. Although the warm temperatures in November don’t always match the image of a polar pig, the contest is always enjoyable because so many top teams participate.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Back in Summerville, SC

Cooking teams set up at campsites on the shore of Shrine Lake in Summerville, SC.  Smokin' Gringos (foreground) won third place in ribs and brisket.
The difference between the last contest sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society that I attended to the current one couldn’t be greater. My last KCBS contest was the American Royal, the world’s largest barbecue cookoff. Now I’m in Summerville, SC, for the Brew & Que on Shrine Lake, which is one of the smallest contests that I participate in.

The turn-in area is quiet before the judging activities begin.

This year 15 cooking teams again participated (compared to 468 at the open contest of the Royal). Although Brew & Que limits the number of teams that can compete, quite a few judges always apply each year. The close proximity of Summerville to Charleston (with its sight-seeing attractions) probably influences a lot of them to register. At the table where I judged, they were from Florida, Iowa, and Georgia.

Trophies are ready for the awards ceremony.

At Brew & Que, which is organized by the Dorchester Shrine Club as a fundraiser to support Shriner Hospitals for Children, the teams competed for $4,000 in prize money. Again cooking teams were very competitive and included two teams — Smoke Central BBQ and Muttley Crew BBQ — that had competed at the Royal.

Muttley Crew BBQ, which competed in the American Royal, came in second in pork at Brew & Que.

Although small in scope, Brew & Que is an excellent contest for teams to end the competition year. Because it's also a popular choice for judges, the cookoff will continue to be a favorite for everyone.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Whole Hog Cookoff Makes a Festival Popular in Rolesville, NC

Whole hog barbecue
The winning pig was cooked by pitmaster Kevin Peterson, a past state champion.

Rolesville, NC, is a small town of only 6,074 residents in northeastern Wake County and is known for being a quiet but rapidly growing suburb of Raleigh, the state capital. In mid-September, it is also the scene a very competitive whole hog cookoff sanctioned by the North Carolina Pork Council.

Whole Hog Cookoff

Rolesville BBQ and Bands Festival

Sponsored by the Rolesville Chamber of Commerce, the Rolesville BBQ and Bands Festival is part of the Whole Hog Barbecue Series conducted by the Pork Council. The festival occurs only a few days before the state championship is held in Raleigh to determine the Whole Hog Barbecue Champion, who has been crowned annually since the first championship was held in 1985.

Whole hog barbecue
Second place went to Kevin Wooten, who has already been a finalist in three contests this year.

Being in the top three of a contest is important because it qualifies a pitmaster to compete in the state championship. The top three finishers in Rolesville are:
  1. Kevin Peterson, the 2017 state champion and a top-three finalist already this year (in Kenansville, Fair Bluff, Knightdale, Selma, and Raleigh)
  2. Kevin Wooten, also a top-three finalist this year in Burlington, Burgaw, and Raleigh 
  3. D.J. Stox, another top-three finalist this year in Goldsboro, Fair Bluff, and Smithfield 
Whole hog barbecue
A.J. Stox won third place in the whole hog cookoff.

Because I had also been a judge earlier this year in Burlington, Goldsboro, and Knightdale, I wasn’t surprised that these three pitmasters were successful in the Rolesville contest. Neither were the other judges—Charlie Martin, Tim Croom, and Paul Derrick.

Whole hog cooking teams
Cooking teams set up along the perimeter of the festival grounds.

Festival Activities

After the judging was completed, the barbecue was chopped for sale to the public. Advance tickets for plates—at only $5 each—typically guarantee that the BBQ is sold out before the festival ends. On the day of the festival, plates with two sides and a drink are sold for $10 each or $15 for two. Although the festival continued until 5 p.m., the barbecue sold out around 2:30 p.m., so advance purchases were indeed important.

Festival grounds
Festival grounds begin to show activity as vendors arrive early on Saturday morning.

Food, vendors, children activities, music and other activities also make the trip to the festival worthwhile after all the whole hog judging has been completed. Although the main contest of the festival is the whole hog competition, the event also included a separate competition for cooking chicken and ribs. What is impressive about the festival is that it is entirely conducted by volunteers. Several local community organizations also help to sponsor the event.

Festival stage
The festival stage is quiet until the first group—the Jimi King Trio—begins at 11:15 a.m.

The Rolesville cookoff was the 24th competition (on 14 weekends) so far this year sanctioned by the N.C. Pork Council. That’s a lot of cookoffs to determine the best of the best, and the cooking teams and judges keep a busy schedule when the series is underway.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

The Biggest Cookoff of All

American Royal World Series of Barbecue
The tunnel entrance to the infield proclaims, "World's Largest Barbecue."
Would you drive halfway across the country to judge at a barbecue contest? Perhaps you would for the American Royal World Series of Barbecue, which has been held annually since 1980 and bills itself as “the world’s largest barbecue and Kansas City’s biggest party.”

American Royal World Series of Barbecue at Kansas Speedway
Cooking teams set up in the infield of the speedway.

Many cooking teams drive that far, so it’s only reasonable that judges would make the trip too. What began modestly with 10 cooking teams has far surpassed the greatest expectations of the initial organizers. Now held in the infield of Kansas Speedway, the contest attracts more than 450 cooking teams and needs more judges than any other contest to conduct the competition.

Finding one of the 458 cooking teams is difficult without using the festival map.

The four-day event marks the end of summer with live music, food vendors, a car show, a vendor fair, and kid activities in addition to two very competitive cookoffs on consecutive days. Teams from ten countries compete for the largest prize fund on the BBQ circuit. The 135 teams in the invitational cookoff competed for $37,965 in prizes. On the next day, the open contest offered an additional $68,425 for the 468 teams competing in it. In addition to the four categories—chicken, ribs, pork, and brisket—judged in a competition sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society, the open contest had two more meat categories: smoked turkey and sausage.

American Royal World Series of Barbecue at Kansas Speedway
Judges check in for their table assignments.

Mudville BBQ
Mudville BBQ won the
invitational contest.
To be eligible for the invitational contest, a team has to win a grand championship in a qualifying event. (An alternate cannot represent a grand champion.) Teams that compete in the invitational also compete in the open contest. The winner of the invitational was Mudville BBQ of Stockton, California, that begin competing in 2015. Rio Valley Meat BBQ of Weslaco, Texas, was grand champion of the open contest.

The judges assembled in Garage D in the infield of the speedway. I’d never seen so many slender judges at a BBQ contest. Of course, with so many judges, a few had to be slender. Of the 450+ judges (77 tables of 7 each were needed), I recognized only three familiar faces—two from Virginia and one from North Carolina.

American Royal World Series of Barbecue at Kansas Speedway
Such a large contest required a lot of advance planning.

Most judges seemed to be from the Midwest (although the cooking teams came from across the country). I was surprised by how many “local” judges were at the table where I was seated—more than half were from the Kansas City area as was my table captain, age 82, who was certified in the second training class of judges decades ago when KCBS was first organized. Being from North Carolina made me a “novelty,” and a few judges from other tables even came over to ask me where I lived.

Judges settle into their assigned seats in Garage D before their meeting begins.

The American Royal Association, the organizer, is a nonprofit organization that supports agricultural education programs and provides competition opportunities and scholarships. It began in 1899 as the National Hereford Show, the first nationwide show for purebred cattle. Not surprising, about 55,000 attended that event, which was held in the agricultural hub of the Midwest, the Kansas City Stockyards. That effort expanded to include horse shows and rodeos, and then the first barbecue contest, which now is American Royal’s largest annual fundraiser, was held in 1980, five years before KCBS itself was formed.

Kansas City Barbeque Society
The turn-in area is quiet before the teams bring their first entries. 
Seeing so many teams in head-to-head competition was incredible. The winners and top finishers clearly go home with great satisfaction and confirmation of their cooking skills. Judging at this event also gives me bragging rights with other judges who haven’t attended. The American Royal is the place to be in September.

American Royal World Series of Barbecue at Kansas Speedway
The crew of a Southwest Airlines flight takes a picture of the competition at the speedway as they approach the Kansas City airport. Via KCBS Twitter account.