by David Cecelski
The other day I stopped at Lenny and VC’s on old US 70 in Dover—the place, as their sign says, that is the “King of BBQ Turkey.” It’s just a little hole in the wall with 4 or 5 tables, but the folks are friendly, the turkey ‘cue is mouth watering, and it’s the only place to eat anywhere near that part of Craven County.
Hanging out at Lenny and VC’s got me thinking about turkey barbecue. I never saw the stuff when I was growing up in eastern North Carolina. Until recently, barbecue in eastern NC meant only one thing: pork. Whole hog, slow-cooked over hardwood coals, basted with a vinegar and red pepper, and chopped with a cleaver— pork.
Nowadays though I’m seeing turkey barbecue everywhere, especially at African-American ‘cue joints like Lenny and VC’s. When I talk with the cooks, they inevitably tell me that they started making turkey ‘cue because so many of their customers have grown concerned about high blood pressure, diabetes, and other health problems associated with the pork-centered, high fat diet that’s so traditional in eastern NC.
Many of those guys learned the costs of eating too much fatty foods the hard way. For instance, Joe Rountree, a Vietnam vet who grew up in the country between Elm City and Wilson, makes some mean turkey ‘cue at Hickory Tree BBQ on Randleman Road in Greensboro. It looks, tastes, and smells like the whole-hog barbecue that he and I both grew up with in eastern NC. But Mr. Rountree began to specialize in turkey barbecue after he suffered a severe heart attack and had a heart transplant in 2001. I hear a lot of stories like that when the subject of turkey ‘cue comes up.
A couple pit masters have also told me that they started serving turkey ‘cue partly to serve devout Muslims and other customers that don’t eat pork for religious reasons.
One of the most interesting turkey ‘cue chefs I’ve met is Ben Jones in Everetts, in Martin County. A retired postmaster and local civil rights pioneer, Mr. Jones sells take-out turkey ‘cue from a shed next to his home. He makes his turkey barbecue using the region’s most traditional red pepper and vinegar sauce—the same one used for hogs— and he chops the meat up fine, just like the old pit masters that cooked pigs all night over an open fire.
My son and I had some of Jones’ turkey ‘cue two or three years ago when we were in Everetts. We couldn’t believe how tasty it was. It looked and tasted like the pork barbecue we’re used to. We even had a theory that Jones did more with the sauce—his turkey ‘cue has some really nice heat to it—to make up for the turkey not being as naturally flavorful as pork. Whatever he did, it worked.
If you’re in Martin County and looking for Ben Jones’ place, just take old US 64 to the main intersection in Everetts. Turn onto North Broad Street, cross the railroad tracks, and take an immediate left onto West Barnhhill Street. Follow the railroad tracks to the last house on the right and look for the sign for turkey barbecue in his front yard.
And while he doesn’t advertise it, word has it that Mr. Jones also makes some come-to-the-altar banana pudding. He makes it from scratch, and he sells it by the tray, ready for your family reunion or church homecoming. When I was there, he told me that I should call ahead at least a day or two if I wanted banana pudding, but he said he nearly always has turkey ‘cue ready.
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To hear Joe Rountree from Hickory Tree BBQ in Greensboro talk about growing up raising tobacco and making pit-cooked barbecue, check out the videos on his restaurant’s web site atwww.hickorytreebbq.com/about. If you’re looking for turkey ‘cue or banana pudding at Ben Jones’s, I recommend that you call or email him ahead of time. His phone number is (252) 792-2013 and his email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. To get to Lenny and VC’s, take the Dover exit off US 70 east of Kinston–the restaurant is just up the road on the right.