It’s Wednesday night and I’ve just pulled into a gravel parking lot in Goldsboro, North Carolina. I’m on my way to Greenville, out towards the eastern reaches of the state, past the sprawl of Raleigh and the banal office parks of research triangle. Out here there is an outlier to be found. A rebel. A renegade. A program with perhaps the most rabid football fan base in the entire Tarheel state – the aptly named ‘Pirates’ of East Carolina.
The Tarheel State is a basketball state first and foremost, the landscape dominated by the hardwood floors of the ACC Conference. Down here, football is a mere footnote, as some of the titans of the sport like Duke and North Carolina believe that true athletic competition doesn’t begin until March.
But in Greenville, things are different. East Carolina calls the American Athletic Conference home, and their fans are a notoriously rowdy, raucous departure from the gentile, bowtied southern mannerisms of Dukies and Tarheels. At 50,000 seats their stadium even boasts larger capacity than both Wallace Wade (Duke) and Groves Stadium (Wake Forest), which they routinely fill. Among the Pirate contingent, there seems to be a perpetual chip on their shoulder about their ACC brethren, and they are quick to remind you that in Greenville, things are different.
While the game would be a Thursday night kickoff instead of a Saturday afternoon affair, it would be far from a tame one. Temple was coming into town for a primetime, ESPN tilt, along with the invariable hoopla that comes from the network talking heads. While historically Temple would usually be a rather tame draw, the 2015 vintage of the Owls were soaring, sporting an unblemished 6-0 record and a lofty #22 ranking. With the stakes raised for the contest, swarthy Pirate Nation was already hoisting their battle flags in anticipation.
But before a marquee Thursday night showdown with the undefeated Temple Owls, I’ve got some needs to attend to. Barbecue. Eastern Carolina whole-hog style barbecue, specifically. Unlike their western “Piedmont” style brethren that smoke pork shoulders exclusively and douse it in red sauce, the Eastern Carolina style espouses the use of the entire pig and a vinegar based sauce. Minimally prepared and cooked whole over a hardwood (usually oak or hickory) fire, the various parts of the finished hog are then chopped with a pair of heavy cleavers into a vinegary mélange of minced porky delight.
In this barbecue crazed state there’s even a division (a feud according to some) among Carolinians over which style of barbecue, West or East, is the “true” form of the art. A quarrel that even went to the state senate, and is reflected in the verbiage of North Carolina house bill #433 (http://www.ncleg.net/Sessions/2007/Bills/House/HTML/H433v4.html). It’s comforting to know that the North Carolina legislature has solved all of the other pressing issues of the state, and now find themselves idle enough to tackle such demanding issues as settling semantic barbecue squabbles.
Personally, I’m not one for politics, and I’ll gladly to cross the aisle when it comes to smoked meat.
A trip to Greenville, then, would put me smack dab in the middle of some of the finest hog slings the Tarheels have to offer. With three of the state’s preeminent destinations on my itinerary, I punched a few extra holes in my belt and prepared for a North Carolina pork-a-palooza.
Back in that gravel parking lot on the night before game day, I’ve just pulled into Wilber’s BBQ, one of the legends of North Carolina barbecue since 1962. The place is busy for a Wednesday night, and a steady stream of customers flow in and out with paper sack takeout orders gripped tenderly under their arms. The interior is an homage to pine. Pine paneling, pine chairs, pine ceiling held up by exposed pine beams, and, with no detail overlooked, there’s even pine picture frames on the walls. Fortunately, they keep the Oak for the cook shack out back.
The menu is up on the wall. An ancient Coca Cola branded slide letter menu board, which proffers a handful of BBQ plates or meats by the pound. They’re out of ribs for the night, so I order a combo of chopped pork with fried chicken instead. The combo comes with a classic array of Carolina style sides; a generous basket of golden fried hush puppies, house made coleslaw, and Styrofoam cup of sweet tea poured over crushed ice. The pork here is minced fine, mixed with a few morsel of outside brown and a waft of oak smoke. Adorned with a few shakes of Wilber’s vinegary sauce, the meal is the archetype of North Carolina style barbecue.
From Wilber’s, I speed forty minutes east to Ayden, home of Skylight Inn, screeching into the parking lot in a cloud of dust only minutes before they close up shop for the night. If Wilber’s is a legend, then Skylight Inn is the patron saint of North Carolina barbecue. The fires here have been burning since 1947. They’ve been featured in countless magazines and television shows, fed a few presidents, and claim a James Beard award for American Classics.
In keeping with the classics, I order the whole hog BBQ tray for $7.50. The hearty combo includes two cardboard trays stuffed with chopped pork and coleslaw, along with a notebook sized slab of the heaviest, most dense corn bread I’ve ever encountered. For refreshment, a Cheerwine is fished out of an ice bucket next to the register – the North Carolina equivalent to Dr Pepper. The food here is served stacked, a tower of porky delight. I’m given a sheet of wax paper to spread it out on, and a basket of Skylight’s sauces are arranged on the table.
While I generally eschew all forms of BBQ sauce, the vinegar sauce indigenous to eastern North Carolina pairs exceptionally well with their style of whole hog chopped pork, which can often run on the dry side. The spicy pepper vinegar sauce at Skylight in particular, is the perfect balance of heat and acidity to cut through the rich, unctuous pork. Although, to be fair, the protein here could easily stand on its own sans adornment, as one would expect after sixty eight years. It’s got a kiss of smoke and just enough fat to stay moist. But when my teeth chomp down on a few odd chunks of unexpected bone and gristle, sending electric shockwaves up my jaw, it sours the experience. Perhaps the butcher ought to be a bit more careful with his cleavers.
Bellied on barbecue up for the night, I bed down in a cheap motel in Greenville and crank the rattling air conditioning unit to its maximum in an attempt to ward off the inevitable meat sweats.
As Thursday morning awakens, I brush off cobwebs from the pork induced coma the night before, wipe the grease stains from the corners of my mouth and go hunting for a late breakfast. It’s game day in Greenville, there’s a bright blue sky overhead, a spring in my step, and a hankering to punish a few more pigs. And when it comes to barbecue in Greenville proper, there is only one true option: B’s. (yes, thats the whole name)
If you have an image in your mind, of the idyllic, ramshackle southern barbecue joint, go ahead and erase it immediately. Replace that image with B’s BBQ instead, which embodies a veritable checklist of every criteria a proper BBQ joint should satisfy. It reads like a barbecue fairy tale incarnate.
For starters, there’s no website.
There isn’t even a phone.
Every floorboard and wallboard in the joint is uneven, crooked, or patched up. There’s a broken handle on the rickety old screen door, and the awning over the take-away window is covered in years of soot and ready to collapse. Service is exclusively cafeteria style, and sauce is served in old whiskey bottles on the mismatched tables. They are only open for lunch, Tuesdays through Saturdays, and when they run out of food each day, the place simply closes. Of course, given the lack of a phone, there’s no way to know this unless you actually drive by.
As if those weren’t credentials enough, B’s has their own road – B’s Barbecue Road. Which isn’t a little driveway spur, mind you, but a well-traveled, two mile stretch of county road.
I arrive early, but there’s a line formed already. It’s barely 10:30, and patrons are stacked up at the sliding take-away window while the woman inside barks the orders back to the kitchen. A massive oak tree shades the picnic tables out front, while smoke billows from every corner of the screened hut cook shack. There’s a few dozen bags of Kingsford Charcoal stacked up in the corner, a forgivable offense for a place that remains unchanged for nearly forty years.
As if scripted from a movie, a farmer in a mammoth 8 wheeled Steiger tractor pulls up for lunch, the clunky diesel motor barely croaking to a stop before he clambers down the ladder and trots over to the take-away window. Clutching a steaming Styrofoam box a few minutes later, he scurries back to the iron behemoth, hoists himself into the cab, and lurches off in a black plume of diesel smoke, a full box grader in tow behind.
Beyond the famer, the true beauty of a place like B’s lies in the parking lot, a dusty gravel log jam of vehicles from every socio economic class. A Mercedes S-Class pulls in next to a concrete contractor’s dump truck, while a Volvo station wagon sidles in next to an old Chevy C-10 pickup. Polished loafers and rolled up French cuffs huddle over the picnic tables next to dusty work boots and ripped t-shirts, all of them nose deep in a box of pork or chicken.
I order the combo plate; a generous heap of chopped pork and a chicken leg for $11.75. The hefty Styrofoam box comes fully dressed with coleslaw, boiled potatoes and four corn fritter logs, and it’s paired with a cool, Carolina sweet tea to wash it down. The pork is classic North Carolina style, finely chopped and generously doused in a peppery vinegar sauce. Chicken is the real star of the show, however, moist and smoky inside with a delectably crispy skin, it makes me a poultry believer for an afternoon.
With a football game on the horizon I head into downtown Greenville and find easy free parking on the corner of 10th and Forbes, and decide to walk off the hefty lunch with a stroll through the East Carolina campus. There’s a nice treed quad in the heart of the campus, anchored by a Cupola, a feature oddly reminiscent of the “Old Well” at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill a few miles up the road. On a pristine Thursday afternoon, the campus is buzzing, and the students show plenty of spirit decked out in their bright purple Pirates gear. Pee Dee the Pirate Statue stands proudly on the opposite side of the quad, attracting a few visitors that pose in awkward positions with the poor sailor.
As I make my way further South towards Dowdy Ficklen stadium, the sidewalks are thick with ECU fans, the surly, bandanna wearing Pirate logo on full display in the melee of tents, chairs and flags. The stadium is surrounded by tailgating on all sides, and fans have turned out early for the festivities on a Thursday afternoon. I spot a few custom tailgating rigs of interest, a former delivery ban outfitted with a bright Pirate paint job and satellite TV, as well as a full length retired coach bus that someone converted into a massive tailgating land yacht. East Carolina fans are widely reputed as some of the most raucous tailgaters in the game, and a few laps through the lots confirms that reputation.
I secure a ticket in the lots for twenty five bucks in section 16, a seat on the 30 yard line and a prime spot for viewing the fabled Pirate entrance. But walking into the stadium, my purple shirt quickly falls out of fashion. Pirate Nation has deemed the primetime matchup a “blackout” game, and legions of fans are decked out in solid black, a few devoted students even going the extra mile and painting themselves in full body skeletons.
As the pregame clock ticks down, the Pirate mascot raises an ECU flag onto an aluminum mast behind the endzone. The crowd rises to its feet, anticipation thickens in the night, and they exchange boisterous chants of “purple”……”gold”….across the field. Soon after, an inflatable pirate skeleton in the west endzone begins to quake as the tinny notes of Jimi Hendrix’ “Purple Haze” come screeching across the loudspeakers. Bright purple smoke wafts from the mouth of the skeleton, billowing and hovering heavy in the air like a brush fire. As the guitar chords reach their crescendo, the Pirate squad comes bounding out of the helmet, streaking across the field enveloped in purple fog. The crowd wails away at the top of their lungs, rhythmic clapping echoing off the press box façade. It’s everything a phenomenal entrance should be, and among the most unique in the sport.
On the field, the Pirates look formidable for the first three quarters. They play smothering defense, holding the ground heavy Owls to a paltry 72 yards of rushing the entire night. As the teams jockey back and forth for field position early in the game, the conservative Pirate attack finally breaks through, reeling off a 14 play, 80 yard touchdown drive in the second quarter. Pirate quarterback Blake Kemp manages the game well, and shines for a moment as the second quarter draws to a close when he leads the team 75 yards down the field before firing a touchdown strike to wide receiver Quay Johnson with only :18 seconds remaining in the half.
Coming out of the tunnel after the break, the third quarter turns sloppy. The two squads trade a few punts, and the Pirates throw an interception which is offset when Temple botches the following field goal attempt. Both teams held scoreless in the third frame, the Pirates cling to a tenuous 14-10 lead as the quarter draws to a close.
The atmosphere grows tense, and the smell of an upset wafts through the anxious Pirate faithful. Between the third and fourth quarter, the crowd rises to its feet, compelled by the crushing guitar intro of Guns n’ Roses “Welcome to the Jungle”. Once standing, the entire stadium crosses their arms in an X shape above their heads to mimic crossbones, a handful of them waving bright crimson Jolly Roger flags with the slogan “No Quarter” emblazoned across the bottom. The same red “No Quarter” flag is hoisted ceremoniously onto the aluminum flagpole in the east endzone, replacing the purple one. The slogan, a reference to the pirate policy of taking no prisoners and offering no quarter once engaged in battle, is the fourth quarter rallying cry for the team and fans alike to fight until the bitter end. The raising of the “No Quarter” flag at the start of the 4th quarter is a tradition unique to ECU football, and a menacing one for opposing players and fans alike.
Unfortunately, on this night, the No Quarter flag bears the mark of the black spot. The Pirate defense, which had remained stout for three quarters, collapses. With 3:31 remaining in the fourth frame, they give up a crushing 71 yard touchdown drive, and the Owls regain control at 17-14. The hobbled Pirates add to their woes only four plays later, when after going three and out on offense, their ensuing punt attempt is stuffed by Temple. Assuming control with only a 15 yard field, Owl running back Jahad Thomas promptly scampers into the end zone for another score, extending the lead to 24-14. Down by 10 with scarcely two minutes remaining on the clock, the Pirate’s fate is sealed in Davy Jones’ Locker, and the purple faithful head for the exits.
In the end, East Carolina is one of the gems of the American Athletic conference and college football at large. It has a rabid, quirky fanbase and a handful of unique traditions that belie its smaller prominence on the national landscape. It feels more like an SEC “light” school, and the Pirates could easily hold their own when it comes to game day atmosphere amongst some of their larger conference brethren. In fact, East Carolina may, arguably, make for a more interesting football gameday visit than its basketball crazed neighbors on Tobacco Road. But for now, it remains one helluva sleeper and I’d gladly go back for a marquee Saturday matchup, and maybe a few more bites of barbecue….
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