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E.R. Mitchell: Backyard Barbecue

by David Cecelski. "Listening to History," News & Observer. Published 10/8/2000. Copyrighted.
Reprinted with permission.

E.R. "Mitch" Mitchell is the proprietor of Mitchell's Barbecue Restaurant in Wilson. Barbecue is one of the most cherished of all Southern foods, and Mitchell's is one of the few places that still fixes the unique, Eastern North Carolina-style of barbecue the old-fashioned way: pit-cooked all night over hickory or oak coals, basted with a homemade vinegar and pepper sauce, pulled from the bone, chopped and served hot.

The passion for barbecue goes deep into our history. When Spanish explorers first came to the Americas, they found Indians roasting meat over open fires on wooden frames and gave a name to it, barbacoa. Barbecued pig was already a delicacy in Eastern North Carolina in Colonial days, and later -- for reasons Mitchell explains -- reached its highest art form wherever farmers raised tobacco.

While I finished up a plate of barbecue and garden-fresh collard greens, Mitchell recalled when his restaurant's first master pit man, an elderly gentleman named James Kirby, began to teach him the old ways of cooking barbecue.

In E.R. Mitchell's words: 

E.R. Mitchell. Photo by Chris Seward, 2000. To request permission for further use or to purchase a print, please contact the News & Observer.

That first night we cooked a pig together, when the coals got real good and hot, Mr. Kirby aligned them around the base of the cooker, then he spread the hickory wood on top. We put the grate down, and we rubbed the pig with salt, and then we rubbed him down in vinegar. Then we put him on. Mr. Kirby cut off all the drafts to the cooker once the coals got good and hot, and it set there all night and simmered.

We came back that morning about 4:30 and opened the lid up, and it was the prettiest pig you'd ever want to lay your eyes on! It was so done, it was falling off the bone! We flipped it over and it had just enough temperature to crisp the back of the skin. That's when he began doctoring it with what I call the "joy juice, " the seasoning that we blend together.

He had to get his way of cooking from a further back tradition than I did. He was cooking pigs before I was even born. That was just a way of life back then. Mr. Kirby fine-tuned the techniques I knew, and showed me a few other ones. It's a dying art to do it the way it should be done. I don't want to give away too many trade secrets, but there are things that you forget if your priority is cooking fast and feeding lots of people. We put those steps back in.

In the hard days of putting in the tobacco or picking the cotton, everybody came together. Everybody became one. It didn't make any difference who owned the crop, but the one purpose in mind was to finish it and to do an excellent job. And when you finished, the farmer rewarded you by throwing a barbecue.

Wilson is the barbecue capital of the world, and that is how our tradition of barbecue came about. You got to celebrate. You got to show the workers how much you appreciate them. Everybody is all happy because the crop is in, and now we can relax! We've done a lot of work, and now it's time to enjoy.

Every so often, we'd have a barbecue at hog killings too. People would come together and they would help one another: You help me slaughter mine, and I help you slaughter yours, and then we exchange meats. While we're doing that, we may take a pig and put him in the pit and cook him.

When I was growing up, in the '40s, we did barbecue at Christmastime, too. The crops were in, money was flourishing and it was a time to celebrate. Everybody would gather in groups and they would go house to house visiting. They would come by and have a little toddy and eat a little food -- and the main course of the menu was barbecue. My dad and granddad would get together and cook a couple of pigs.

Cooking a pig was like -- how can I say it?-- it was almost like riding a bicycle. Everybody knew how to cook a pig back then. The only thing was, some people could cook it better than other ones. There were some guys that really prided themselves on cooking a pig. I remember one gentleman by the name of Mr. Sam Morgan. He was one of those that everybody would get to cook their pigs. He really knew how to do it.

There was a fellow by name of Mr. Woodard, used to cook them quite a bit. Mr. Tom Woodard. He used to own a nightclub where everybody would go and celebrate. That was a living legend -- "Tom's Place." That was the local and only nightspot to go, man, I'm telling you! See, a lot of the people around here left and migrated north, then they would come home on the holiday. That's why the barbecue was such a celebrating time. At holiday time, everybody was going to be coming back home.

I can remember my father's sisters and brothers always coming home during Christmastime. I was a little boy, and they would be in there getting dressed, getting ready to go to Tom's. Tom would have already been cooking for days. When you get out there, he'd probably have oh, maybe four or five pigs on. People would come from miles and miles and miles. He had some of the famous people performing out there -- James Brown, Otis Redding.

It's a funny thing, but in the South you worked side by side with your white counterparts in tobacco barns. You felt the pain that the other man felt. It didn't make any difference what color he was during those moments. You had a common bond. I never could understand, though, how we, as a people, once those times were over, how we could go back to our separate ways of life. But for whatever reason, that, too, was just a way of life.

Everything but the barbecue. That's where the color line sort of blended. If you were having a barbecue and you wanted to invite me as your black friend, or a person who worked for you, it didn't matter. That was not going to raise any outcry. Or vice versa. Barbecue was the thread, to me, that kept everybody together. It was just associated with good times. There's absolutely no way you can sit here and reminisce about that backyard-style barbecue and not think about good times. It'll bring a smile to your face every time! It's more than food. It's hard to explain, but it was a way of life. And it didn't make any difference who you were if you wanted some barbecue.

I've heard the story of how Mr. Scott, the famous black barbecue chef over in Goldsboro, got started. Believe it or not, he started selling it out of his back door. I remember a white gentleman making a joke out of it, saying that white people used to have to go in the back door to be served. Which was an irony, but they didn't mind, because the man was serving good barbecue. Whether they went in the front door, back door, whatever door, they got in line like everybody else!

David Cecelski is the Whichard Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Humanities, East Carolina University.

Image Credits:

Seward, Chris. "E.R. Mitchell."  Photograph. 2000. To request permission for further use or to purchase a print, please contact the News & Observer. 

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