Spring means lots of things in lots of different places. But in Kinston, North Carolina, spring – more specifically, the first weekend in May – means the annual BBQ Fest On the Neuse.
Right, I know. I’m talking about this past weekend. You missed it. I’m sorry. That’s not what this column is about. I didn’t miss it, and that’s what this column is about.
In fact, for three years running now, I’ve joined a group of old friends at the festival, where we’ve competed in the Wil King Hog Happenin’, which is apparently the biggest whole hog barbecue competition in the nation (and by extension, probably the world).
Our team, Southern Wonders Barbecue, finished right in the middle of the pack in 2015. It was our first time in any kind of barbecue competition, so we were happy we didn’t embarrass ourselves and vowed to return in 2016 smarter and stronger. Well, we did. In a shocking turn of events, Southern Wonders took first place in the 2016 festival’s “backyard” division, stunning onlookers and ourselves alike. It was wild.
We were back this past weekend, and how’d we do? You have to read the whole column to find out. No skipping ahead*.
I love barbecue in all its forms, of course, and that along with the chance to spend some time with people I don’t get to see very often (the rest of the team lives in Wilmington, except for one guy who lives in Jacksonville) is why I’ve done this the past few years. I’m sure there must be a better way to catch up with close friends than by staying up all night in a parking lot drinking beer next to a gigantic pig cooker, but I haven’t found it.
But along the way, I’ve also become a little smitten with downtown Kinston because it’s a testament to what can happen when a small town decides to invest in itself as a destination for the arts, for culture, for whatever. It’s an old town with old buildings, and some of them aren’t in the greatest shape.
But some of those buildings have been repurposed to amazing effect: They’ve got a great homegrown brewery complete with a taproom, they’ve got a famous chef who owns restaurants which draw people from all over, and they’ve even just seen minor league baseball return after a five year hiatus.
Put another way, it kind of looks like where Sanford might be headed if we keep doing what we’ve been doing.
In three years competing, we’ve settled into something of a routine: Meet in Kinston sometime Friday afternoon, set up shop, and then grab a beer at one of the downtown establishments to plan our approach. I’m not giving out any state secrets because Russia has eyes and ears everywhere, but we’ve honed our approach to the pig, and we stick to it.
There’s a cook team meeting around 7, and then we head back to our site, where we wait for our pig to be delivered. After that it’s a dizzying routine that involves rubbing and prepping and trimming and hauling the carcass onto the grill. We start the fire late, after a quick trip to the Chef and the Farmer, where fancy concoctions like Lemon Basil Gimlets fortify us for the descending temperatures we were about to endure.
Two of my team partners, Adam Thompson (he’s the lead cook) and Will Bland, have been involved for all three years. Last year, we were joined by Johner (he only has one name, like Madonna), who proclaimed loudly that tempering expectations was for the weak.
“We’re going to win,” he said in 2016. We did.
This year, our friend Mike May joined us, along with Adam’s wife, Rebecca Lennon-Thompson. I think the books are closed for Southern Wonders Barbecue membership now. This is a good team.
*I said no skipping ahead!
Kinston and Sanford have more in common than just being a couple of small cities in North Carolina. They’re close in population – at the last census, Kinston had about 22,000 people, while Sanford had about 29,000 – and each is the primary city of its respective county (Kinston is the seat of Lenoir County, population about 60,000, while Lee County has about 58,000). They’re also both fairly old communities, although Kinston goes further back than Sanford, dating to pre-Revolutionary War days.
There are also plenty of differences, I’m sure. But I’m not saying these two communities are the same – just that there are enough similarities that make them ripe for comparison in a variety of ways.
Back in my days covering crime at the Sanford Herald, law enforcement figures in the area frequently told me the populations and the unique factors surrounding their places in their respective counties made Sanford and Kinston appropriate analogues in terms of crime indices. If we can compare crime, maybe we can compare economic futures.
Sanford just finished its downtown streetscape, funded in a voter-approved bond referendum, and celebrated with a downtown street festival. Sanford’s event was smaller than Kinston’s, sure, but the Kinston event has also been running for like 25 or 30 or 40 years or something.
Meanwhile, things are happening here.
Since the commencement of the streetscape work, several building owners have renovated parts of their properties. There are murals everywhere. In addition to the Temple Theatre bringing folks in on an almost daily basis, we’ve got the beginning of a little food scene with least seven restaurants and coffee shops in the blocks east of Horner Boulevard (and several more to the west). Rumors of a brewery grow more frequent by the day, it seems. Plans have been announced, by a private developer, to remake one historic building into both retail and residential spaces. If that’s a success, it’s not a stretch to imagine that more could follow.
If you’ve been in Sanford for more than a dozen years or so, you know it wasn’t always this way.
I don’t know if the comparisons between Kinston and Sanford will break down under further examination, but if anything like what I saw there happens here, we’re in for good things.
The judging of the pigs begins at about 8 on Saturday morning. In previous years, we’ve been judged pretty early in the process, giving us time to break down our space and be ready to make the trek home after hearing the verdict.
This year was different. Our team number was in the mid-60s, and it had been announced that the judges would start with a team in the mid 70s and work up numerically, starting over again at 1. That meant we’d be among the last teams judged. That could be good, or it could be bad.
It meant our pig was finished probably two whole hours before the judges would get there, giving us the added challenge of keeping the grill warm without overcooking the meat. It meant a couple of extra hours of work after night of 5-hour, outdoors sleep (on a lawn chair). But it also meant our pig would be one of the most recent in the minds of the judges when it came time to do the final tally. That’s conjecture, of course, but whatever.
When the three judges reached our station, they quizzed Adam about our process after essentially tearing apart our beautifully cooked hog. They checked the skin, they checked the hams for moisture. They dipped pieces in Adam’s homemade “Butt Juice” BBQ sauce (and even sipped it from the cup). One of them handed us a piece of crispy skin to taste ourselves – which gave me a good feeling about our chances. It was a wordless gesture, but it felt a little congratulatory. The skin tasted almost intoxicatingly good.
We broke down and went over to the stage where the winners would be announced. We’d gotten a look at a lot of the other pigs and we knew ours was good. But this is where we’d find out if our victory in 2016 was a fluke, or if we really have the skills we think we do. Some of us were less confident – Adam and Rebecca felt like the judges didn’t see a lot of moisture in the hams. Johner said we were gonna win again (he said that a bunch, making all kinds of obnoxious comparisons to Tom Brady). I didn’t know what to think. I felt good about our pig – in fact, I felt like it was a better pig than we had last year – but you just never know.
They announced the third place winner first. Not us. Then they announced the second place winner. It was us. It was us!
Southern Wonders Barbecue, second place in the 2017 Kinston BBQ Festival on the Neuse. Taking home trophies in the biggest whole hog competition in the country, two years in row? That feels good. It would have been nice to win first place again (congratulations, Brittany Brayboy), but, hey. First one year, second the next. That’s consistency. Our pigs are not a fluke. We’re already looking forward to 2018. Show up next year and cheer us on. It’s only a couple hours away, and it’s a fun festival.
And no, we’re not taking orders.
Congrats! Still miss your reporting when you worked at the Sanford Herald.
Congratulations! I grew up going to Lenoir County to visit my Grandparents. Kinston was a vibrant small city in the 1960s and 70s. About 10 years ago I took my elderly mother and uncle to a funeral in downtown Kinston. I was shocked at the decay I saw there. The city was dying. I am so glad Vivian Howard, Mother Earth Brewery, and others are attempting to bring it back. Sanford is in much better shape and will hopefully never experience what has happened in Kinston. Eastern North Carolina is so poor. Sanford has the advantage of being in close proximity to the Raleigh / Durham and Fayetteville / Ft. Bragg Metro areas.