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Oklahoma Joe's in Kansas City, Illinois.
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Wilber’s: Barbecue Nirvana?

The following morning, we set out east before the crack of dawn. We’d read—and confirmed over the phone—that Wilber’s Barbecue, in Goldsboro, North Carolina, opens at 6 a.m., and when we rumbled off the highway and into the parking lot of the sprawling roadhouse at exactly 7 o’clock, three dozen cars had already crowded the lot. Smoke puffed from a fire somewhere and lost itself in the morning’s mist. We took a seat in one of the knotty pine–paneled rooms, with wooden schoolhouse chairs and red-checked tablecloths, next to a gathering of steely-haired farmers having their morning smokes and trading portentous outcomes.

“I’ll tell you what,” one of the men piped up. “The rain comes, there’ll be a lotta IOU’s going down that river.” In the silence that followed, heads nodded, cigarettes got stubbed out.

Our own bleak future seemed foretold when the waitress arrived and said we could order anything we liked off the breakfast menu, but that the hogs simply weren’t done cooking. Barbecue wouldn’t be available until about 10.

We ordered a breakfast—brains and eggs; country ham; grits—that might have been cause to rejoice in other circumstances, but we ate them in silence. There was a long drive home ahead, and the week’s worth of work to catch up on. We really didn’t have a few hours to kill, but then—what’s a few hours, for the perfect barbecue?

We strode back to the Buick to take stock—still not sure whether we’d be killing time here, or heading home—when we heard a voice behind us: “Hey, aren’t y’all the Lee brothers?” The man juggled a Bible and a set of car keys, then set his Bible on the trunk of the car. “I don’t believe it,” he said. “Celebrities right here in Wilber’s parking lot. I’m Willis Underwood.”

We were speechless, not only because he’d mistaken two freelance writers for celebrities, but because we’d just been thinking Wilber’s barbecue was the celebrity and we were the supplicants, waiting outside the trailer for a glimpse.

“Have you met Dennis? Have you been ’round back?” Underwood asked, then beckoned, “Come on!” He lit out past a fence shielding the operation from the parking lot and introduced us to Dennis Monk, who poked at the remains of a log fire that had burned down to glowing coals. A mountain of wood piled at the edge of the adjoining cornfield would last through the weekend, he said, and then they’d get another full trailerload Monday, and a week of barbecue would begin again.

Monk shoveled up some embers from the fire and ushered us through a screen door into a brick shed about three times longer than it is wide, lit by a string of bulbs, with the smoky-sweet smell of roasting pork fat everywhere. Each of the pits—troughs, really, about waist-high, running parallel to one another down the length of each wall—held a few hogs. Walking the aisle between the troughs, he shoveled fresh coals into the bottom of the pits through openings in the wall beneath each pig.

Monk lifted a battered sheet of tin loosely covering one pig, pulled at a couple ribs, which gave readily, with a plug of meat still attached, and proffered them. “This one’s about done,” he said, but there was one that had already come off the pit, and was in fact being pulled inside the kitchen, did we want to see?

Leamon Park, a 36-year veteran cook at Wilber’s, was upending a bus pan full of freshly pulled pork morsels onto his board, and with two huge cleavers, hacked at it in a rhythmic roundhouse, chopping it down to size. He paused to season the meat with salt and pepper, and then poured what seemed like a gallon of crushed red pepper–spiced vinegar from a stainless-steel pitcher over it. Park tossed the meat with his cleavers, and the pork readily absorbed the liquid.

We ordered and left Monk to finish cooking—there were many more hogs to come off the pit, and much chopping to do before the lunchtime rush. The sandwiches were undoubtedly the best of the pilgrimage, freshly warmed, well seasoned. And by that time, Underwood’s friend had showed up in his ’71 fire-engine red Gran Sport convertible, and Underwood’s wife and sister had arrived, too. So we all piled into the caravan of vintage Buicks, and we were on to the next place, for another bite of ethereal whole hog.

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