by Eric Ginsburg
Zach Ward’s brother isn’t a fighting man — he’s a pastor — but there was one time that he seemed ready to plant his fist in someone’s face: While eating at Mr. Barbecue in Winston-Salem, he heard someone order a cheeseburger.
Who would do such a thing?
Some people don’t understand that in North Carolina barbecue is a noun rather than a verb, third-generation barbecue man Chip Stamey of Greensboro explained. The food is a part of the culture, an integral component of the state’s heritage. And the people like Stamey’s grandfather who sold barbecue in tents outside the courthouse in Lexington — arguably the barbecue capital of the state — could even be considered the originators of fast food, he said.
Zach Ward, like his brother, is just one of the North Carolinians who takes that history and its preservation very seriously. The respected Campaign for Real Barbecue began in the Old North State and has several tenets that restaurants must meet to be certified, primarily the use of pit-cooked barbecue that is slow-roasted over hardwood coals as opposed to an electric or gas grill. Ward’s guidelines for the places he patronizes are even more strict: He wants places without frills or too many other items on the menu, served quickly, with an everyman sort of clientele and a reasonable price point.
A native of St. Pauls, a speck of a town south of Fayetteville, Ward spends part of his summers teaching social sciences at Governor’s School at Salem College. Each time he returns to Winston-Salem from Chapel Hill, where he lives the rest of the year, Ward helps lead a relatively informal but longstanding barbecue club.
The premise of the group is simple: For more than a decade, a smattering of people working at the Governor’s School have made excursions once or twice a week to authentic barbecue joints in the region. The size of the crowd balloons as schedules and interest allow, involving everything from impromptu midday trips to the nearby Mr. Barbecue on Peters Creek Parkway to longer weekend rides out to places like Keaton’s Barbecue, a restaurant in Cleveland, a small town in Rowan County that is one of the few authentic, black-owned options in the state.
With plates of barbecue, hush puppies and slaw in front of them at Mr. Barbecue, Ward and a couple of the group’s regulars discussed an upcoming multi-day trip during a school break. Ward had sent out an agenda with five barbecue restaurants listed for the tour of the best eastern North Carolina barbecue, but friend Matt “Chuckles” Evans pointed out that Ward hadn’t bothered to say anything about where they’d be staying.
“In my car,” Ward joked, before admitting that he hadn’t finalized details for one of the nights but had two choices in mind.
The trip, as well as the shorter, single-restaurant outings between teaching sessions at school, provide a chance for Ward and other natives of the state to showcase North Carolina and Winston-Salem alike. In the same spirit, some staff members introduce others to racing at Bowman Gray Stadium or explore taquerias in the nearby Waughtown neighborhood.
Many of his colleagues travel from places like New York and Philadelphia to the program each summer, living together at Salem College and forming a close community, Ward said, and the off-campus activities — particularly barbecue-oriented ones — are a chance to better understand their surroundings.
Ward takes the decision about where to bring his coworkers seriously, but the group’s experience at restaurants is intentionally like that of any other customer. No speech from the owner or history lesson on its founders, just a nice sit-down meal with a full plate.
And sometimes, like last week at Mr. Barbecue, one plate isn’t enough; after downing his lunch, Ward’s friend Ben Stallworth ordered a large to-go cup of barbecue. A tall, stringbean sort of kid, Stallworth started digging into the cup while he waited for his coworkers to finish up.
“I’m still hungry, and it’s really good,” he said between bites.
Evans — a Georgia native who came to the Governor’s School in 2010 after finishing a masters in math at Wake Forest University and is now pursuing a PhD in New York — agrees. Mr. Barbecue was his favorite in the state until he joined more of the barbecue club’s trips, including the eastern North Carolina tour last weekend, and he still really enjoys it. He’s been exposed to much of what the state has to offer on this front over the years, especially after teaching at a community college in the northeastern corner of the state, but Evans doesn’t consider himself picky.
“I’m the kind of guy who’s pretty easygoing about it,” he said. “If it’s barbecue, I’ll eat it.”
The Campaign for Real Barbecue lists only about 50 restaurants in the entire state that meet the requirements for “True ’Cue NC” certification, though there are hundreds of barbecue joints populating North Carolina. To be certified, restaurants must meet seven requirements — some easy, like being located in North Carolina or serving barbecue on the regular menu at least monthly, and others more specific pertaining to the type of sauce or meat and how it is prepared.
The site’s founders — who include retired UNC Chapel Hill professor John Shelton Reed, the co-author of Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue — are considered respectable, independent certifiers. But they only act in an unofficial capacity, conducting “inspections and re-inspections as time, money and cholesterol levels allow.”
Of their list, only four are located in the three Triad cities: Mr. Barbecue, Little Richard’s and Hill’s Lexington Barbecue in Winston-Salem, and Stamey’s in Greensboro. A few more are nearby, like Clark’s in Kernersville or Hursey’s in Burlington. It is unclear why Keaton’s, one of Ward’s favorites, didn’t make the cut, but his top choice, B’s Barbecue in Greenville, appears.
Though quite popular, Kepley’s Bar-B-Q on North Main Street in High Point comes up short. The barbecue restaurant founded in 1948 uses a combination of pit-cooking and electric, owner Bob Burleson said — which would disqualify it from True ’Cue NC certification.
Hill’s on North Patterson Avenue in Winston-Salem displays its True ’Cue certificate behind a counter running along the front room, but it too starts the barbecue out in hardwood-fired pits before moving the pork shoulder to electric grills after several hours. On a recent Friday, all the shoulders and butts had been transferred to the electric grill by around 10 a.m. That’s more than four hours before Stamey’s in Greensboro, where the pit team also started three hours earlier than the folks at Hill’s that morning.
The restaurant doesn’t sell nearly as much barbecue as its counterparts, which may be due to an expansive menu that includes things like omelets and waffles. The use of electric is what runs afoul of True ‘Cue NC, but Ward would look at both unfavorably.
Little Richard’s, Stamey’s and Mr. Barbecue are different, following traditional methods as closely as possible and only cooking its barbecue over hardwood coals — usually hickory — the owners all said.
Each of the three venues cooks their butts and picnics — the cuts that make up a pork shoulder — slightly differently, and despite some similarity in taste, each restaurant offers a different ambiance and way of doing things. As far as Zach Ward is concerned, Mr. Barbecue is the best of the three, followed by Stamey’s. He doesn’t like the style or taste at Little Richard’s, though he admits he hasn’t been in years. Evans — who like Ward sports a modest beard and glasses, while exuding a churchy sort of wholesomeness — disagrees with his friend’s assessment.
“That was not my experience,” he replied quickly. “Have you ever considered that maybe you’re just wrong?”
Stallworth, who grew up in Lewisville and frequented Little Richard’s as a kid, defends the barbecue restaurant as well. But then again, his parents are from Knoxville and he was born in Houston, where he must have developed a taste for brisket, he said. Stallworth admits that it’s his favorite kind of barbecue, a comment that sends Ward over the edge.
Because barbecue aficionados like him — even though he lived in Austin for three years — take that sort of thing as a personal affront.