by Ray Linville
A nondescript building on a rural road is not the typical place where I stop for food. In Rennert, a town of fewer than 400 residents in Robeson County, I found “E.&H. Bar.B.Q. Hut” painted on a faded, decades-old Coca-Cola sign on a whitewashed structure that marked my destination. Although another sign in a window where walk-up customers once were served says, “No Trespassing,” a window closer to the door says, “Open.”
Because I knew little about E&H Bar-B-Que Hut, I called in advance of the hour-long drive to confirm that it was open. Then, to make sure that it uses wood, not gas, in the traditional N.C. way, I had to ask, “You cook with wood, right?” The female voice on the other end said, “Oh yes.” Later I identified that voice as belonging to Linda McRae, the fourth generation to work in the family-owned business.
The McRaes have been serving slow-smoked, hand-chopped, vinegar-based barbecue for more than three decades. The pitmaster is Emmett McRae, Linda’s father, now 73. With his late first wife Helen, he began selling barbecue in 1983 – taking their first initials to name E&H. Not located on a busy highway, it mainly serves the local community, although regular customers also come from Laurinburg and Raeford, seats of neighboring Scotland and Hoke counties respectively.
Like most barbecue places in eastern N.C., Linda’s father “cooked whole hog in the beginning, but there’s a lot of grease, fat and waste. Now he cooks only Boston butt” (the upper part of the shoulder from the front leg), she says. However, he still cooks over wood coals like he has since day one.
E&H is open on Wednesdays through Saturdays. According to Linda, her father cooks about 70 pounds of pork barbecue on Tuesday to serve customers during the next four busy days. “That’s what we need each week,” she says.
As I enjoyed my lunch of chopped barbecue with two sides and hushpuppies, I watched a steady stream of customers enter and give Linda their orders. She greets each person, and the cozy ambiance that includes community notices, pictures, and news articles on the wall make everyone feel at home. Just about everyone orders barbecue, and many orders are takeout. The servings are generous. Chicken, pork chops, fish, and chitlins are also on the menu. So traditional is E&H that the only iced tea available is sweet.
The McRae business legacy precedes Linda’s father by two earlier generations. James Henry McRae, his grandfather, opened a general store when passenger trains on the old Seaboard Air Line Railroad stopped in Rennert. The business was later taken over by his son, Donnie “D.C.” McRae, who converted it into a country grocery store and renamed it McRae’s Grocery. The black letters underneath the red name on the E&H sign attest to the building’s earlier role. As Linda’s sons – the fifth generation — were growing up, they also worked at E&H, connecting them to the entrepreneurial spirit of their great-great-grandfather.
Emmett McRae has contributed in more ways to his community than serving barbecue. A plaque prominently displayed highlights his service as mayor of Rennert for 20 years. At Saint Matthew Missionary Baptist Church, he has been a deacon, financial secretary, choir member, and usher. He has also been an active member of St. Pauls Masonic Lodge 354.
As I head out the back door to see the barbecue pit, Linda stops me and says, “It’s not that way.” When she sees the disappointed look on my face, she reassures, “You can see it, but it’s down the street. You can see it from here.” With her directions, I find the pit and the woodpile behind the McRae home. Enough wood is stacked to last a couple of weeks, and the small pit looks like it’s the right size for E&H.
A trip to E&H is a journey back in time because little has changed over several decades. Seeing the entrepreneurial spirit created generations ago still at work in a family business is as good as enjoying barbecue prepared in the finest traditions of our state.