For at least ten years I was in search of the world’s best barbecue and have driven countless miles and made countless out-of-the-way trips following up a lead. One of the first times I had Southern BBQ was at Maurice Bessinger’s Piggie Park in Columbia, SC and for a short time it was my standard. Then my brother and sister-in-law turned me on to Wilber’s BBQ (Wilber Shirley) BBQ in Goldsboro, NC.
A major difference between the two is that Bessinger cooks whole hams and Wilber whole hogs. A second is that Bessinger relies on a mustard sauce and Wilbur a traditional East Carolina vinegar sauce warmed up with crushed red pepper. The third, and definitely deciding difference is that Maurice Bessinger was (recently deceased) a devout racist who openly flew the Confederate flag and distributed pro-slavery and segregationist literature at his restaurants.
Since then I have made several decisions about BBQ joints and who is the best. What prompted this blog was watching a TV program about BBQ joints and discovering that three of them were on my list of those worth visiting again.
First was Moonlight BBQ in Owensboro, KY. Moonlight serves a huge buffet of genuine Southern side dishes and desserts. They also offer a variety of meats that includes fried catfish and chicken. Their claim to fame, however, is the smoked mutton that is the mainstay of barbecue in that region of Kentucky. Just like BBQ is pork in the South and beef in Texas, around Owensville it’s mutton. It has something to do with the lifestyles of the people who originally settled that area. On my way to Memphis I deliberately went out-of-the-way to eat at Moonlight. Overall it was a wonderful experience but I’m just glad they also smoked pork since I discovered I’m not much of a mutton fan. I’m a proud owner of one of their t-shirts and have often been asked about the place when wearing it.
The second joint was Skylight Inn Barbecue in Aydel, NC. Owned by the Jones family they can trace their family’s BBQ tradition back to the early 1800s. Today’s Skylight, though, opened in 1947 and has been proclaimed the best in the nation several times. While that is arguable their simple menu is delicious and unique. It consist of chopped whole-hog pork, their own slaw, and a slab of fried corn bread all stacked high on a paper boat and wrapped in wax paper. That’s it and if you get there around noon expect to wait in a long line. Oh, you recognize the place when you drive by. It’s the only place in town with a replica of the Capitol Dome on top.
I’ve only been to Skylight and Moonlight once and as said earlier, I would go back. My third choice, however, is a place I’ve been several times and consider it to be one of the best in the nation, Sweatman’s BBQ in Holly Hill, SC. Sweatman’s is unique in several ways. First it sits in the middle of nowhere housed in an old wooden farmhouse sitting in a pecan grove. Second, it’s only open on Friday and Saturday. The rest of the week they’re preparing for the next weekend.
Sweatman’s is whole-hog and every part of the animal is used. They remove the ribs to be cooked separately, the cooked skin is removed to be placed back on the coals to crisped up and be served as cracklins (pork rinds to Yankees), and the some of the meat is finely chopped and made into what’s known as BBQ hash which is served over rice.
They have a nice selection of traditional sides and their food is served up in one of several ways. You can go for the all you can eat buffet, which includes ribs or just one-time through the line while stacking all you can on a single Styrofoam plate. They also feature a child’s plate and takeout orders. Sweet tea is .93 cents as is a serving of banana puddin’.
People in that part of the world refer to Sweatman’s as “hundred-mile” barbecue, meaning they would drive a hundred miles to get a plate. Well, it must be true since I have driven that far, and more, out of my way to get to Holly Hill and Sweatman’s.
Today I’m not as interested in going out of my way for barbecue. I’ve concluded that, for ethical reasons, I’ll never again eat at Piggie Park and that nobody has ever made barbecued pork any better than Wilber Shirley. Wilber’s BBQ remains my all-time favorite and I never go through or near to Goldboro without stopping in. For all the other thousands of BBQ joints in America, I’m sure they’re all good. I’ve also decided that most Texas pit masters should give up on smoking pork and stick to brisket and beef sausage. They just embarrass themselves trying to do what Carolinians do naturally.
FOOTNOTE: Wilber’s sits at the end of Seymour-Johnson AFB’s runway and when the base is busy they will cook over 25 hogs a day on weekends.
FOOTNOTE #2: In 2004 Danny Masters and I drove to Huntsville, Texas just to eat BBQ at Annie May Ward’s famous Church of the Holy Smoke. (Here’s another link to info about the CotHS.) Annie Mae is still alive at age 95.