The Last Days of Great BBQ? Let Us Hope Not!

In the early 1980s, my sister in law’s parents began letting my family and me stay at their Atlantic Beach, NC cottage for a week each year. On our first trip, we discovered Wilber’s BBQ in Goldsboro, NC and to this day it has remained the standard by which we have come to measure pulled pork. Over the years none of us have ever driven along Highway 70 and not stopped at Wilber’s going and coming. Often we would stop just to bring home bottles of his famous vinegar-based sauce and several frozen pounds of his whole-hog hickory-smoked delight.

Wilber’s had an international clientele. Being located just over the fence from the runway of Seymour-Johnson AFB pilots from afar would stop at Wilber’s and return to their homes with coolers of fresh or frozen smoked porcine delight. Matter of fact, a favorite of mine was to stop for a sandwich and eat it in Wilber’s parking lot while watching F-15 fighter jets scream overhead as they roared into the wild blue yonder.

I was once standing outside a tourist store at Colonial Williamsburg, VA and got into a conversation with a man from Oregon. I mentioned having arrived at Williamsburg via NC and he asked if I’d ever heard of Wilber’s. He had been one of those Air Force pilots.

Wilber Shirley began his joint in the early 1960s and several generations grew up devoutly believing barbecue and Wilber’s were synonyms. Unfortunately, earlier this year Wilber’s part of the equation came to an end. This past March the tax many cometh and put a padlock on Mr. Shirley’s front door. Whether he’ll ever be able to pay the $70k in back taxes is the question bothering his long-time and loyal patrons, myself included.

When I left for a fishing trip in Eastern North Carolina, recently, I wasn’t aware of the closure. I had intended to stop at Wilber’s for a plate lunch and to bring home a half-dozen bottles of sauce. My traveling buddy remarked, “Well, we won’t be eating at Wilber’s this trip,” and that was the first I knew. On the way to the coast we took the bypass around Goldsboro but coming back we took the business route just to see Wilber’s one more time. It was genuinely a sad experience. Like losing an old friend.

To make things worse, in reading about Wilber’s I came across a second article bearing news of the closure of another of my favorite BBQ joints, Allen and Son’s BBQ near Chapel Hill, NC. A former student who was living in Chapel Hill introduced me to Allen’s over a decade ago and I met him there for lunch once while passing through the area. In subsequent years I enjoyed the smoked delights of Allen’s on several occasions.

Wilber’s and Allen’s were one of a kind, locally owned, establishments where the barbecue was done the way it had been since the first sharecropper was given a hog by the lord of his land. The whole hog smoked low and slow over hickory coals.

I’m hoping the loss of these two icons of Southern food culture are victims of the owners and pitmasters growing old and tired, and not by being pushed out by some large modern chain store operation. I don’t want to live in a world where my barbecue comes from glitzy clean corporate places with names like Smokey Bones or The Big Pig Knuckle! Barbecue joints should never be theme parks!


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