Every once in a while, The Pit holds a special dinner co-hosted by Bob Garner and executive chef Darrell Brown to honor some of the leading living figures in NC barbecue history. Barbecue fans have the privilege of hearing them reminisce about their experiences in the barbecue craft, their hopes and expectations about its future, and their feelings about being a part of the tradition. Seating for these events is very limited. Keep an eye on this page for information about future Barbecue Heritage Dinners, which will resume after the holidays!
Past Heritage Dinners
The Bridges Family
Bridges Barbecue Lodge, Shelby, NC
Event: October 27, 2011
At our most recent event, we celebrated an outstanding, 65-year-old Lexington style barbecue establishment, Bridges Barbecue Lodge of Shelby. Known locally as Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge, this famous restaurant is the favorite of evangelist Billy Graham, along with many thousands of barbecue lovers who favor the pork shoulder (as opposed to whole hog) barbecue popularized in the North Carolina piedmont by the descendants of German settlers. Piedmont or Lexington style barbecue generally features a milder sauce than its eastern North Carolina counterpart, and Piedmont "dip" also has a little tomato and sugar added to the vinegar and spice mixture used in the east. Piedmont barbecue can customarily be served chopped or sliced, and the chewy "outside brown meat" is also a special treat. We feasted on chopped and 'outside brown' Bridges barbecue, plus chopped, eastern North Carolina-style, whole-hog barbecue from The Pit!
Piedmont barbecue legend Warner Stamey (who later founded Stamey's in Greensboro) taught the art of cooking Lexington-style barbecue to Red Bridges, who opened his first restaurant in Shelby in 1946, together with his wife, Lyttle Bridges. Red Bridges oversaw the restaurant's operation (including its 1953 move to the current location on highway 74) for 20 years. Upon his passing, Lyttle &MDASH; who became widely known as "Mama B" — took over the business and ran it until she was 80 years old, working 12 hours a day. Mama B passed away in 2008, and today, Red and Lyttle's daughter Debbie runs the business, along with her two children, Natalie Ramsey and Chase Webb.
"Pit cooked barbecue is becoming a lost art. We are one of the few places left that slow cooks pork over hickory all night long," says Debbie Bridges. "This is the way we have done it for 65 years and the way we will do it for years to come."
North Carolina's reputation as a center of great American barbecue owes much to both the spicier eastern whole-hog tradition and the Piedmont pork shoulder style of barbecue, and the friendly, family rivalry between the adherents of the two versions is one of the notable idiosyncrasies of our barbecue heritage. It was a pleasure to honor Debbie Bridges and her children and to sample some of the scrumptious offerings from Bridges Barbecue Lodge, a truly iconic Piedmont barbecue restaurant.
Video profiles of other past Barbecue Heritage Dinner honorees:
Wilber's Barbecue, Goldsboro, NC
Bum's Barbecue, Ayden, NC
Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and Wilber Shirley
Wilber's Barbecue, Goldsboro, NC
Event: September 20, 2011
The Pit's third barbecue heritage dinner on September 20 was devoted to honoring Wilber Shirley of Wilber's Barbecue in Goldsboro for its 49 years in business and its outstanding contributions to the legacy of traditional North Carolina barbecue.
Wilber's is among North Carolina's best-known barbecue restaurants, due at least in part to its high-visibility location on Highway 70, one of eastern North Carolina's busiest traffic arteries. For nearly five decades, fans of whole-hog barbecue, pit cooked over oak coals, have put Wilber's near the top of the "must-stop" list.
Guests included North Carolina's First Gentleman, Bob Eaves (husband of Governor Beverly Perdue ),Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and Myra Best of the governor's office. The Pit's executive chef, Darrell Brown, wowed the overflow crowd with his delicious and inventive appetizers, including twice-baked potatoes with smoked hog jowl bacon, scallions and pimento cheese; grilled ciabatta bread topped with bbq brisket and horseradish cream; and dried tomato/goat cheese bruschetta with spinach and red onions.
Wilber's famous eastern North Carolina barbecue and sauce was the featured entree, along with his eastern-style barbecued chicken and well-loved potato salad, while The Pit provided salad, Brunswick stew and dessert.
The Pit is strongly committed to honoring and preserving the tradition of authentic North Carolina barbecue, pit cooked for hours over live coals. We could not do what we do today without barbecue pioneers such as Wilber Shirley having paved the way over the years, and it was a pleasure to recognize his many achievements through this special evening at our restaurant!
Bum, Shirley, and Larry Dennis
Bum's Restaurant, Ayden, NC
Event: August 16, 2011
The Pit's series of special Barbecue Heritage Dinners continued on Tuesday, August 16, when we welcomed as guests of honor members of the Dennis family of Ayden, which may have the oldest barbecue lineage in North Carolina. At Bum's Restaurant, a community gathering place in downtown Ayden, Larry Dennis is continuing the tradition begun (at least in this specific location) by his father and mother, Latham "Bum" Dennis and Shirley Dennis: cooking genuine, whole-hog, eastern North Carolina barbecue, slow-roasted for hours over real wood coals.
The family barbecue legacy goes back considerably further than that, however. A Dennis ancestor, Skilton Dennis, reportedly began cooking whole pigs and serving barbecue to church gatherings out of the back of a covered wagon in Pitt County as early as 1830. "Bum" (who picked up that moniker because his mother couldn't think of a suitable name for the as-yet unborn child) and Larry share the Skilton Dennis ancestry with another well-known Ayden restaurateur, the late Pete Jones, former proprietor of the Skylight Inn.
Jones was one of North Carolina's most outspoken proponents of wood-cooked, whole-hog barbecue. But while Pete Jones place has always served only barbecue, slaw and cornbread, Bum's is known for serving up all manner of terrific country style meats and vegetables in addition to some of the region's very best pork barbecue. Most memorable among these offerings: North Carolina's most perfectly prepared collard greens. This is especially impressive since Ayden promotes itself as the Collard Capital of the World.
The town has an annual collard Festival, which features both collard cooking and collard speed eating contests. The yellowish "cabbage collards" that seem so well-suited to the soil around Ayden are milder and sweeter than the darker green "Georgia" collards most commonly found elsewhere. Bum Dennis is so picky about the greens served in his restaurant that he grows them in his own garden. Bum's is also well-known for its special, eastern-style, "red" or barbecue potatoes, banana pudding and sweet potato muffins. All these specialties were served up at our August 16 dinner, along with reminiscences from Bum and Shirley's more than 50 years at the restaurant.
In addition, we heard some observations from Larry, who is not only a dynamo as a cook and pitmaster, but who also shares his love for his profession and family tradition on Facebook (search "Bum's Restaurant" on Facebook).
Author, food writer, TV producer and host, restaurant reviewer, culinary tour guide
Bob Garner is best known as an author and as the freelance producer and host of various food-related specials and program segments on UNC-TV, North Carolina's statewide public television network.
Garner is the author of North Carolina Barbecue: Flavored by Time, an exploration of North Carolina's long-standing love affair with barbecue. The book was published in 1996 by John F. Blair publishers and is now in its sixth hardcover printing. Garner is also the author of Bob Garner's Guide to North Carolina Barbecue, a restaurant guide published by John F. Blair in 2002.
He has also written extensively for Our State magazine, including a 10-part series on traditional southern foods entitled Bob Garner Eats. Garner now produces regular restaurant features for the program North Carolina Weekend, broadcast throughout North Carolina on Thursday and Friday evenings.
In addition to hosting a popular one-hour television special of the same title as his first book, he has also been the producer and host of the following hour-long UNC-TV specials: North Carolina Country Cookin'; More North Carolina Country Cookin'; Homecoming: Food, Fellowship and Faith (about old-fashioned church homecomings); and A North Carolina Pig Pickin.'
Garner was also executive producer and host of a well-received UNC-TV series celebrating North Carolina rural life called Carolina Countryside. He has appeared on The Food Network's Paula's Home Cookin', featuring Paula Deen, and FoodNation with Bobby Flay; ABC's Good Morning, America; and Travel Channel's Road Trip. Garner has also been a featured speaker at the annual Big Apple Barbecue Block Party in New York and the Southern Foodway Alliance annual symposium in Oxford, Mississippi.