Thursday, March 5, 2015

Barbecue Served with Recipes That Grandma Hill Created

Pork shoulders cook slowly over hardwood coals in the kitchen of Hill's Lexington Barbecue.

A trip to Hill’s Lexington Barbecue in Winston-Salem, NC, is a trip back to the 1950s. The food, hospitality, and atmosphere harken back to an earlier time and a slower pace. Drive-ins were family-owned. Another decade would be needed before McDonalds, Hardees, and similar places would open.

A traditional wood burner, this stack at Hill's was brought in from Asheboro, NC.

Imagine Winston-Salem, NC, in 1951, when Hill’s opened as a drive-in on Patterson Avenue, then U.S. 52 heading north to Mt. Airy and south to the Twin City. At that time the restaurant was outside city limits – a time and place I remember as a child because my dad was its mail carrier on his motor route and let me join him delivering the mail on summer days in the mid-1950s (without U.S. Postal Service approval or knowledge, of course). Today, although within city limits, Hill’s is now bypassed by the limited-access U.S. 52 that rises high above on an elevated road soon to be Interstate 74. 

Hardwood is burned until coals are ready for the smoker.

In 1951, the city population was around 90,000, and the dedicated customer enjoyed a scenic drive to Hill’s on a curvy, two-lane U.S. 52 at slow speeds. Today, U.S. 52 is the fast road north in a city of almost 250,000. Many wonderful places with cultural and historic connections are now missed by some travelers who are totally unaware they exist simply because highways have been redesigned and “improved” to move us at faster speeds. Although a new customer has to look for the overhead billboard to know which exit to take, long-term customers know exactly where on Patterson Avenue Hill’s is located.

Long-term customers arrive early for favorite seating in the dining areas,

The dining areas are typically filled with repeat customers who also know that the menu still reflects good value and a cooking method known as Lexington style.  The pork is prepared from only hog shoulders and cooked slowly over hardwood coals. Although it’s served in one of four ways -- chopped, pulled, sliced, and blocked -- it comes with only one kind of slaw – red – the only kind served with Lexington-style barbecue.

Lexington-style barbecue is always served with "red" slaw.

When I ordered a pulled pork tray for lunch, the server was careful to explain that it came with red slaw just in case I was not familiar with it. Unlike traditional coleslaw, no mayonnaise is in the vinegary red slaw, which gets its characteristic color from ketchup. The pulled pork with a thin but peppery sauce I enjoyed was tender and full of smoky flavor. With the red slaw, it’s a perfect lunch – with hushpuppies, of course.

The server brings more than enough hushpuppies to a table while the orders are being prepared.

The original small drive-in has been gone a long time. Although a larger building replaced it more than 40 years ago, the best recipes – banana pudding, slaw, hushpuppies, and sauce – are still the original family ones. The Hill family, with the third generation now operating the restaurant, has been wise in not modernizing or updating them.

A portrait of Edna Hill, wife of the founder, guards the entrance -- a good reason not to change a recipe, particularly the one for banana pudding.

The sign in front proclaims Hill’s to be “The Original Lexington Barbecue” for two good reasons. Founder Joe Allen Hill came to Winston-Salem from Lexington with the dream of cooking pork “Lexington-style” here and opened the first restaurant in the city to have “Lexington barbecue” in its name. More importantly, although other establishments in Lexington, NC, were in business when Hill opened this restaurant, he’s the first to name his “Lexington barbecue.”

Hill's is the original Lexington Barbecue for two good reasons.

Take a journey back to the 1950s – only the prices have changed (and modestly at that). The hospitality, atmosphere, recipes, and food at Hill’s remain the same. Even the mail boxes on the side of the road look like they are just as original.

The best finish for a meal at Hill's is its famous banana pudding, always served warm.

Note: An earlier post, prepared for the N.C. Folklife Institute that focuses on memory and changing cultural experiences and also discusses the traditions of Hill’s, is online at the Institute’s NCFood blog.