by David Cecelski
When I was driving through eastern North Carolina today, I had a come-to-the-altar experience at a little barbecue shack inGreeneCounty. It’s called Jason Grill & BBQ and it’s in the tiny community of Jason on a very rural stretch of NC 903 between Snow Hill and La Grange.
The Jason Grill doesn’t look like much. For one thing, it’s not much bigger than an outhouse. You order your food on a little covered porch, but there’s no room to eat there. It’s kind of forlorn-looking, too. Jason used to have a general store, cotton gin, and post office, but they’re all gone now. And the little eatery sits in a big lot that’s otherwise empty, except for a cinderblock cooking pit and pile of hardwood.
Looks, schmooks—the ‘cue is world class. The proprietor, Ms. Clara Davis, is a charming, down-to-earth woman who can cook to beat the band. She started the little cafe 8 or 9 months ago. And her master pit man is Billy “Jay Bird” Herring, a dashing gentleman who knows his way around the world and around a barbecue pit.
Mr. Herring is a devotee of the old ways: he makes whole hog, pit-cooked ‘cue. He cooks one pig at a time. He cooks his pigs for long hours over hardwood coals, not charcoal or gas. And as his pigs cook, he bastes them with his version of eastern North Carolina’s classic red pepper and vinegar sauce. When the pork is done, he chops up the meat and serves it not too lean, not too fat.
The result is a tender, delectable, and truly unforgettable barbecue. It stands firmly in the region’s proud tradition of barbecue making, but also has its own, distinctive, homegrown character, smokier and earthier than most. Jason Grill & BBQ is wonderful—and I haven’t even tried the pork chop sandwiches or barbecue chicken plates yet. That part of eastern North Carolina has a lot of legendary barbecue restaurants—and don’t get me wrong, I love them all—but there’s no place I’d rather get a barbecue plate than this little ‘cue shack in Greene County.
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The NC 903/NC 102 route between Ayden and La Grange offers some other wonderful detours if you’re looking for good local foods and traditional cooking. Besides Jason Grill & BBQ, you can get good ‘cue on Saturdays at Rose’s Kitchen on NC 903, between Ormondsville and Maury. The old Stock’s Grocery, on NC 903 in Scuffleton, also cooks a hog on Saturdays, but I usually stop for their homemade vegetable-beef soup, not their ‘cue. Made with a tomato broth, the soup is brimming with potatoes, butter beans, field peas, garden peas and corn. Also, on NC 102, Lil’ H’s Produce, run by Harriet and Randy Nelson, is definitely worth a stop. The farm is beautiful and they sell pecans, grapes, butterbeans, string beans, and field peas in season. Finally, be sure to check out Sumrell’s Country Sausage on Pleasant Plain Road, just off NC 102 west of Ayden. At Sumrell’s, Bridget Morris and her team of lady butchers continue her parents’ tradition of making country sausage and other traditional local meats, but also turn out everything from Mexican chorizo to South African boerewors.