By Ray Linville
Have you ever passed a restaurant, wondered how good its food is, but didn’t stop because you were saving money by not eating out? That’s my story about North Carolina barbecue when I was growing up.
I grew up in the Piedmont in a stable but modest neighborhood of Winston-Salem. In the heart of “Lexington-style” barbecue, the closest restaurant was less than a mile from my house. Although it was a place that I walked nearby when I carried daily newspapers, I never ate there because I didn’t have the extra coins to buy a sandwich.
The desire to taste barbecue in my hometown went unsatisfied for years because after college I lived out of state. Many years later when I visited Winston-Salem, I was disappointed that Simos Barbecue, the neighborhood diner which had opened in 1939, was no longer in business. It closed after the owner’s health had declined. Its closing disappointed not only me and others in the city but legions of former students at nearby Wake Forest University who went online to lament their sorrow.
Because I had missed the chance to eat at one of the early barbecue diners, my brother recently took me to restaurant where his high school class meets monthly: Hill’s Lexington Barbecue, a classic in its own right. It’s a place I also remember because my dad was its mail carrier when I was a child. During the summer months, he would let me ride with him on his motor route (obviously without the knowledge or approval of the U.S. Postal Service), and I remember the hustle and bustle at Hill’s around lunch hour. I also remember never having a bite there (my family never ate out) – another classic place I had not experienced.
When Hill’s opened in 1951, it was a drive-in on curvy, two-lane Patterson Avenue outside the city limits. Although the road was U.S. 52 heading north to Mt. Airy and south to the Twin City, the dedicated customer enjoyed a slow, scenic drive to Hill’s. Today, within city limits, Hill’s is bypassed by the limited-access U.S. 52 that rises high above on an elevated roadway soon to be Interstate 74. When I arrived at Hill’s, I thought how many time-honored places are missed by travelers simply because an “improved” road carries them faster. Although a new customer has to look for the billboard high overhead to know which exit to take, long-term customers know exactly where Hill’s is located.
As the fast road passes by overhead, Hill’s still prepares barbecue slowly according to the original family traditions. True to the 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 as Hill’s has served since the day it opened. (Unlike traditional coleslaw, no mayonnaise is in the vinegary red slaw, which gets its characteristic color from ketchup.)
The original small drive-in was replaced by a larger building more than 40 years ago. However, 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. The barbecue that I enjoyed tasted just like it would have when my father was the mail carrier.
Although barbecue in North Carolina may never rise to the literary prominence of la madeleine in Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time, it holds a special place in our culture. For some, it connects us to traditions and family experiences. For others, it reminds us of a different era and the life journeys that we have been on.
Ray Linville writes and lectures on regional culture, including foodways and folklife. He has taught in the N.C. Community College System as a professor of English and humanities and served on the board of the N.C. Folklore Society. Read more about Ray’s ramblings at his blog: Sights, Sounds and Tastes of the American South.