One on One: Remembering Wilber’s real barbecue and real hospitality

By D.G. Martin

Chapel Hill, NC – What really makes for a good barbecue restaurant?

Barbecue expert John Shelton Reed and I have different ideas.

I spoke with him about the recent death of Wilber Shirley, the legendary founder of Wilber’s, one of North Carolinian’s favorite places to enjoy pit-cooked Eastern North Carolina barbecue.

Willis Underwood, Leader of new owners of Wilber’s and the late Wilber Shirley

Wilberdean Shirley opened Wilber’s Barbecue in Goldsboro in 1962 and made it into an icon that became a local institution and attracted visitors from all over the state. Before the opening of the Highway 70 bypass, Wilber’s was a regular stop for Piedmont North Carolinians traveling to and from the beach. The loss of that business along with other factors led to Wilber’s closure two years ago.

Thanks to the efforts of Willis Underwood and other fans of Wilber, the restaurant re-opened last year, just in time for Wilber to see his life’s work back in operation before he died.

Reed and I are happy that Wilber’s restaurant is back in business, but we are happy for different reasons.

Reed is cofounder of the Campaign for Real Barbecue (, which calls on its members to promise to “patronize purveyors of Real Barbecue, slow-cooked with smoke from wood or wood coals, and I will encourage others to do the same.”

For Reed, what makes a good barbecue restaurant is summed up in the words of tribute from the restaurant’s current owners who wrote, “Wilber helped make famous what we still serve today–Eastern North Carolina, whole hog BBQ cooked over wood.”

Why is wood so important and what is really so special about wood-cooked? When I asked Reed, he referred me to an article by Rick Bragg in The New York Times 25 years ago. Bragg cited Wilber’s as “where the hog cooks all night, and the meat is not considered done until it falls off the bone.”

Writing about another North Carolina barbecue icon, Pete Jones, founder of The Skylight Inn in Ayden, Bragg described the real barbecue that fires Reed’s passions: “They offer slow-cooked pork, chopped and blended with a vinegar-based sauce perked up with red pepper or Texas Pete hot sauce. This barbecue is as different from the tomato, mustard or molasses-basted meat of the lower South as white whiskey is from hot chocolate. It has a zing, a whang and a fo-dee-doe-doe.”

Those results don’t come easy, noted Bragg. He followed Shirley as he “stalks through his long, low cookhouse, through a thick haze of smoke. The dull glow from the dying coals is still hot on his skin. It would seem a little bit like hell, if it didn’t smell so good.”

It takes a bit of hell to make the heavenly ‘cue.

Those results are what fires Reed’s passion.

For me, however, it is the ambience of the good barbecue restaurant, a community gathering place where the owner and staff know your name and make you feel at home.

You could sum it up in one word: hospitality.

It is a hard word to define, but you sure feel it when you are lucky enough to experience it. The New York Times writer, Tejal Rao, gave it a try last week:

 “Unlike service, which is technical and easy to describe, hospitality is abstract, harder to define. It can’t be summed up in a checklist. It can’t be bought. Hospitality is both invisible and formidable–it surrounds you. You can find it at a rest stop on the highway, and miss it at the host stand of a fine-dining restaurant. You feel its presence, or you don’t.”

It is at Wilber’s and other community-based restaurants that I feel hospitality’s presence. That is why I join John Shelton Reed in giving thanks for Wilber Shirley and others like him who provide the joyful experience of real hospitality and real barbecue.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” Sunday 3:30 pm and Tuesday at 5 pm on PBS North Carolina (formerly UNC-TV). The program also airs on the North Carolina Channel Tuesday at 8:00 pm and other times.

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