When I turned into the parking lot at Wilber’s Barbecue, I felt immediately at home. Most of the vehicles in the lot were American-branded trucks, some new and some old, all sidled up to the side of an unassuming one-story brick building that has been there as long as I have been traveling this road. “Local flavor,” I said to myself, getting out of my car, sandwiched between two oversize trucks that must now cost a fortune to fill up.
“Sit where I like?” I asked the hostess, even though the small brown sign said "seat yourself." It felt polite to ask.
Wilbur’s is one of those places where women I don’t know can call me “honey” and “baby” and my wife won’t mind one bit. In fact, she’d be appreciative that these ladies are looking after me, making sure I get fed. Mind you, these women are not necessarily attractive, but even were they, it wouldn’t matter much. They’re more like surrogate grandmothers or aunts looking after me, and I feel like a 50-year old kid being doted on, my grandmother standing over me asking repeatedly "what can I get you? you had enough? what else do you need?"
I’ve got one thing on my mind. Pork. Pork barbecue. Eastern Carolina–style barbecue—whole hog smoked over an oakwood fire, chopped and dressed with a peppery vinegar sauce. Wilber cooks as many as 30 pigs every day in what must be a hot-as-hell smokehouse out back. Pray he lives to be a hundred, because when Wilbur dies the restaurant has to come into compliance with the a city ordinance and shift to gas cooking. But I digress. I want a large, not-good-for-you portion of savory barbecue, with a cole slaw side and a basket of hush puppies. And don’t forget the very, very sweet tea over crushed ice with a big slice of lemon. Right there. Top of the menu: "Pit Cooked (Oak Wood) Barbecue Pork Plate, Includes: Cole Slaw, Potato Salad and Hush Puppies." I look on down the menu and realize there are only three things on it I won't eat: fried liver, fried gizzards, and stewed oysters. I don't remember having tried gizzards, but I also don't want to try and remember.
I’m by myself today, and I don’t regret it at all. I don’t want any distractions. I’m soaking it all up. I don’t want to make any decisions either, so I'm thankful for the limited menu. The biggest decision I had to make was determined by something primal, as in how hungry I would be and when. It was either going to be Wilber’s Barbecue in Goldsboro or Kings in Kinston. I couldn’t make it to Kinston.
I firmly believe that if you’re going to be somewhere you need to be there. What I mean is that if you’re traveling in Eastern North Carolina or anywhere for that matter, you need to stop, get out of the air-conditioned car or hotel room, and soak up a little of what it is to be in a particular place. There are precious few places like Wilbur’s left, as homogenized as city business corridors have become.
I look around the room. Kitty-cornered to me is a local businessman sitting alone. I know this because he’s dressed in what we big-city folk might call “casual business attire,” only his has a lived in look, his face broadcasting a “I'll sell you something but I'm not in a big hurry to do it" look. I like that. But for my barbecue, I might even strike up a conversation. But I don't want to talk. I want to listen.
Behind him there is a table full of antediluvian women, seven to be exact, and one probably seven-year old girl with a round face and stringy brown hair, someone's granddaughter. (Hold on now, no one around here uses big words like antediluvian!) I can't hear what they're saying, but it has to be about recipes and children and men, just as the elderly men behind me at the table are talking about the price of gas and big oil companies and the state of the economy. These are local people. I feel like if I needed anything I could ask any of them and they'd find a way to help me. Mind you, I know that small towns and rural areas have drug dealers, violent crime, and divorce, and maybe I have an idealized vision of small-town life, but still I think it more likely I'd be helped here were I to need it.
"You want some 'nana pudding, baby?"
"Is it homemade?"
"This morning. It's good."
"Bring it on."
I could kiss her. . . almost. I feel like I've been sojourning in a foreign land and stumbled on kinfolk and been invited in for a meal. In the city, I'm not even sure where I could get homemade banana pudding, served room temperature or even slightly warm, with whole vanilla wafers and homemade meringue. I want to stop writing about it and eat some right now. I just ate it slowly, savoring the moment, thinking Jesus would enjoy this meal just as much as I would. He had such a way of enjoying food and drink and yet never clutching it like a glutton but recognizing it for the good gift that it was. Scripture so often places him at a meal, reclining at tables, eating fish on the seaside, eating with his disciples. Sure, He'd be right at home here. It's no sin to appreciate good food.
"It was great," I said, paying the bill, and I said I'd be back.
Outside, I pause for a moment and look around, adjusting to my new girth. It's 95 degrees and the heat is radiating from a dusty asphalt parking lot a little less truck-heavy now. Wilber's is just a hole in the wall. But it's a little piece of pork heaven right here by the side of US 70 and a comforting reminder that some things don't change.
For today, you can have your malls and fast food chain restaurants. I'll take a very hot eastern North Carolina and Wilber's Barbecue --- just dirt and sky and barbecue.
As I drive away, I let the windows down, let the heat pour in and the wind drive away the last lingering smell of barbecue. That's when I said grace.