Every time I go back to the place where I grew up, it feels a little bit less like itself and a little bit more like everywhere else. That place is farm country near Wilson, North Carolina, a town of 50,000 about 50 miles east of Raleigh. I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area not quite 10 years ago, and I don’t return to North Carolina that often. When I do make it back, though, I always make a point to visit a culinary time machine called Parker’s Barbecue.
The place I grew up doesn't owe me stasis. It doesn't owe me a guarantee that the things I knew will never disappear. But every place—from a small town in eastern North Carolina to a large city in Northern California—owes itself a food culture that it can claim with pride. People deserve a cuisine that allows them to declare, “This is the food that makes us who we are.”
The economy in Wilson, as in so many other American towns, has become almost entirely chainified. The main roads are lined with the same beige smear of restaurants as suburban arterials all around the country: Ruby Tuesday, Chili's, Applebee's, TGI Fridays. The food inside is just as uniform as the buildings, each chain prepending different adjectives to its endless variations on pasta with chicken, chicken with Caesar, chicken in some kind of bread wrap—chicken anything, really, on the substrate of your choosing.
That's not just a loss of variety. It's a loss of identity. The cuisine that once helped define Wilson—not some generic Southern food but specifically eastern North Carolina barbecue—is much harder to come by. But you can still get it at Parker’s.
I don't romanticize the Southern past, but I make an exception for the interior of Parker's. It hasn't changed since I was a child—since before I was born, really—from the Dr Pepper Vim Vigor Vitality clock on the back wall, to the simple wooden tables and chairs, to the framed prints depicting a golden-hued (and golden-leafed) way of life built around tobacco farming, once the dominant regional industry. It’s not just the décor that hasn’t changed in decades, but the food, too.
Barbecue in eastern North Carolina means one thing: slow-cooked, whole-hog pork, chopped into thin shreds, with a vinegar and hot pepper sauce. Ketchup, mustard, or other amendments to the sauce are not tolerated. There are other styles of barbecue in North Carolina, and in that other Carolina. I won't dignify them with description. I'm told there are varieties elsewhere that involve beef, though I can't understand how such abominations could exist.
Parker’s makes eastern North Carolinian barbecue better than anywhere else. Some people will tell you that one of the other so-called barbecues is superior, but those people should be shunned. (If you happen to be one of them, there's still time to repent before the great Pig Pickin' in the Sky.)
Parker's has been serving this one true barbecue, its natural ally coleslaw, and a limited selection of other items in the same Wilson location since 1946. I'm pretty sure the only changes to the menu over the last few decades have been the prices. They also provide the requisite sweet tea and foil-wrapped miniature peppermint patties by the register, where they still don't accept plastic forms of payment. It is unabashedly and gloriously stuck in the past.
But as good as Parker’s barbecue is, I don't eat it—I don't eat meat from land animals. That’s something I picked up in college, well before I’d moved to California and discovered just how insufferable I could make my personal food choices. When I go to Parker's, I order one of their seafood plates. I choose vegetable sides that are cooked without—well, let's say with less visible pork. I even eschew the sweet tea, because all I can hear is Wilford Brimley's voice in my head: DIE-A-BEET-US. Besides, the bright green coleslaw is so sweet I eat it as dessert.
In fact, nothing in the place is good for you, nor does it pretend to be. Like the once-thriving tobacco industry that’s celebrated on the restaurant’s walls, the food at Parker’s is at odds with just about every notion I have about healthy eating and living. It’s almost a refutation of life inside my usual Bay Area bubble: my CSA membership and backyard garden and seasonal diet; my regular hikes in the hills; my inability to throw a rock without hitting a vegan, no matter how hard I try to aim away from the poor little creatures.
I don't go to Parker's because I miss barbecue and yearn to be near it. I don't watch with wild, Renfieldian eyes and slavering mouth as the people around me enjoy theirs. I'm not some kind of abnegation junkie.
Even though I no longer let myself consume all that it offers, I’m glad Parker’s is there. I want my still-hypothetical grandchildren to be able to walk through the door, stand for a moment at the Please Wait To Be Seated sign, and order a plate of the same barbecue that I ate as a kid with my grandparents, before I relegated myself to spectator status.
I want this partly for selfish, nostalgic reasons. But I also want Parker’s to be there because it holds within (and on) its walls the collective memory of a place. There once were lots of local restaurants that could say that. Now there are only a few, and fewer every time I visit. Wilson is losing its food, and in the process losing part of itself, to the gradual Olive Gardening of our country.
Nowadays I don’t go to Parker’s to eat the barbecue. I go there to eat the place. It tastes like nowhere else.
Also by Brock Winstead:
• No I Don’t Want to Split 4 Deviled Eggs 6 Ways: Why Sharing Sucks
Brock Winstead lives, eats, and writes in Oakland, California. He was trained as an urban planner, worked in politics for a while, and then gave it all up for a glamorous life of writing on his blog, here at CHOW, and elsewhere.
Photos by Brock Winstead