Not Just Barbecue
Bill Spoon is selling more than chopped pork at his restaurant—he’s selling a recipe for Southern romanticism that’s increasingly hard to find
Fifteen years ago, during a tour of some of the state’s best-known barbecue restaurants, Bill Spoon, the owner of Bill Spoon’s Barbecue, paid a visit to Bob Melton’s Barbecue in Rocky Mount. A near-legend, Melton opened the state’s first sit-down barbecue restaurant on the Tar River in 1924. With his cigar clenched between his teeth, the former horse trader paved the way for whole-hog, eastern-style barbecue, establishing a vinegar base as a viable—and popular—alternative to the tomato base used in Lexington-style barbecue. Melton ultimately left the kitchen to become a greeter at his restaurant, taking tickets and chewing the fat with the regulars. He lived across the street from the old location (it was moved in 1999 after one too many floods), and he was proclaimed “the king of Southern barbecue” by Life magazine before he died in 1958.
Bill Spoon had finally made his trek to the Jerusalem of eastern-style barbecue, and his expectations were considerable. If Melton was the progenitor of eastern style, Spoon was a direct descendant, having obtained his recipe from a man named John Skinner, who once worked under Melton. So, between the lunch and dinner rushes, at 4 p.m., Spoon sat down with a plate of pork to pay homage. But barbecue men aren’t overly reverential, and they aren’t the type to heap praise upon one another, regardless of ancestry. Fifteen years later, Spoon sits in a corner of his restaurant on South Boulevard, shaking his head ruefully at the memory.
“It wasn’t my barbecue,” he says, playfully crestfallen. He looks down at one of the yellow-and-white checkered tablecloths in his restaurant, stretching the four fingers of his arthritic right hand against a rubber band that he has wrapped around them, and he repeats the half-joking claim to the throne of eastern style. “It wasn’t my barbecue.”
In his 1996 book, North Carolina Barbecue: Flavored by Time, Bob Garner describes eastern-style barbecue as “the original American barbecue.” The eastern sauce that seasons the meat consists primarily of vinegar, salt, black pepper, and red pepper. “It is a fiery blend, ” Garner writes, “the chief sensory impression being of hot, salty vinegar.”
This is the style of barbecue that has been served at Bill Spoon’s for nearly forty years. Seasoned after it is chopped, the meat arrives tender and moist, red pepper flakes peering out from beneath a tangle of pork. It is accompanied by Spoon’s coleslaw (which places more emphasis on mustard than it does on mayonnaise), hush puppies, and perhaps some Brunswick stew or barbecued potatoes. Here in this lodge setting, surrounded by dark wood paneling and seated in straight-back wooden chairs, Spoon’s customers—many of them with hair as white as his own—sit down to eat and to commune with the past.
Little has changed at the restaurant since 1963, when Spoon and his partner, L. Dewey Jackson, moved from Wilmington to Charlotte and opened Jackson and Spoon’s Barbecue. The two used recipes that had been given to them by John Skinner, Jackson’s father-in-law, who owned Skinner-Daniels Barbecue in Wilmington at the time. The partnership between Spoon and Jackson turned sour after eighteen months.
“We had a controversy here one day, and we kind of nailed some nails in the coffin,” Spoon remembers. Spoon agreed to purchase Jackson’s share of the business in 1965, and Jackson returned to Wilmington, where he now owns Jackson’s Big Oak Barbecue. Spoon remained in his native Charlotte, where he and his wife, Marie, rolled up their sleeves for an exhausting two-year stretch, during which they worked seventy-hour weeks. In 1968, Spoon exercised his option to buy the property, putting down a $10,000 deposit on the land.
Now seventy-one, Spoon lives only a short drive from the Villa Heights neighborhood where he grew up, one of six children born to George and Millie Spoon. George was a house painter, and Millie worked at Highland Park Mill Number Three, in what is now the North Davidson arts district.
“God must really love poor people,” went the neighborhood refrain, “because he made so many of us.”
Spoon didn’t know much about barbecue when Jackson approached him—“I came up here as blind as an ox,” he says today—but the thought of going into business for himself was appetizing enough. The two men weren’t close friends, and while he still speaks warmly of John Skinner’s generosity, Spoon grew to bristle at Jackson’s abrupt manner.
“Look, I’m right in the middle of cutting up meat,” Jackson says from his restaurant. “And I’ve got to get it cut up. [Spoon] can tell you anything you want to know.”
Spoon chuckles when the exceedingly brief conversation is related to him. This is the Dewey Jackson that he remembers.
“He guarded [our] recipes like they were God’s gift from heaven,” he says, the corners of his mouth rising into his overhanging cheeks. “And they weren’t for anybody else.”
In 1987, Bill Spoon sold his recipes and his equipment to a former banker named Ralph Miller. Spoon and his wife eased into retirement, slightly discomfited when Miller changed the name of the restaurant to Bubba’s Barbecue a year and a half later. In May 1994, Miller announced that he was moving to a new location and would be ending his lease at the South Boulevard location.
“[Spoon’s] building cannot support future growth, and everything was moving toward Pineville,” Miller says at his restaurant on Sunset Road.
Miller is wearing a white T-shirt and blue slacks. Emblazoned on the shirt’s front, in red capital letters, are the words BUBBA SHIRT. Miller’s staff also wears the shirts, and they are available for sale in the restaurant’s foyer, along with Bubba mugs, hats, and aprons.
Bubba’s boasts more than 120 seats and 4,000 square-feet, easily doubling the 2,200 square feet and sixty-five seats at Bill Spoon’s Barbecue. And while the Spoons cook 900 pounds of pork per week, Miller cooks and stores more than 4,000 pounds in enormous walk-in coolers, bringing it to temperature in shiny stainless-steel heating units, where it waits to be devoured by a brisk business.
Miller bought the lot next door to his restaurant a year ago, and he plans to use the property to expand Bubba’s even further. Despite the increased size and modern-day marketing that distinguish his restaurant from Spoon’s, Miller has kept the same yellow-and-white checkered tablecloths that are a hallmark of the restaurant on South Boulevard. He also keeps a bottle of hot sauce on each table, the exact same kind that is served at Bill Spoon’s. The bottles at Miller’s restaurant carry a Bubba’s label, however, “because the Yankees didn’t know what it was.”
“I moved up here because this is the future,” Miller says. “A lot of the romantic ideas just don’t make it.”
One of the more romantic aspects of Bill Spoon’s barbecue is that the people who cook, chop, and season the meat are members of the Spoon family. Stephen Spoon, who graduated from Fort Mill High School in 2000, spends his days at the restaurant and his nights at York Technical College in Rock Hill, South Carolina, pursuing a business degree.
“If you wouldn’t eat it, then you throw it out,” Bill’s grandson says. “That’s how they taught me.” On a rainy afternoon in March, Stephen prepares the meat from two pigs. After twelve hours in the cooker, the skin on the rear and shoulder portions is brown and crispy, and the meat itself is so tender that it nearly drips from the ribs and backbone. The stainless steel table on which the pieces have been laid has long gutters that lead to a drainage spout in one corner. A plastic bottle waits beneath the spout for the first drops of fat.
Stephen’s hands move quickly through the carcasses, separating the meat into two piles; one is made up of long, neatly stacked loin-shaped pieces, and the other is finer, stringier meat culled from the shoulder portion, which contains more fat. The latter pile will go through a machine chopper for one-and-a-half rotations and will then be mixed with the loin-shaped pieces after they have been hand-chopped.
Stephen separates meat from bone and cartilage, tossing the nonedibles into a gray plastic tub behind him. The loin-shaped pieces make a wet thud as he stacks them, one atop the next, on the cutting table. A pillar of steam rises from the meat, enveloping Stephen’s upper body. The kitchen area is filled with the smell of pork.
“A lot of people don’t cook the front,” he says. “As you can see, there’s a bunch more cartilage to pick through.” He weighs a small collection of it in his left hand to punctuate the thought, then tosses it in with the rest. Finished with the shoulder, he places the skin in the tub and pushes it down firmly, making a loud crunch. He pauses for a moment to wipe a bead of sweat from the end of his nose.
He begins chopping the loin-shaped pieces. At age twelve, he says, it took him a full two hours to get through two pigs. Today, at age eighteen, forty minutes is his personal best. In the years between, cousins and friends have taken jobs at the malls, sitting at those freestanding commerce carts, selling stuffed animals or T-shirts and watching the clock. He’s never seen the appeal. Tiny splinters of meat land on his rubber yellow gloves and his forearms as he chops.
When he is finished, all of the meat is in a single plastic tub. He covers the cutting table with two white aprons and places the tub on top of them. Mark Spoon, Bill’s son and the general manager of the restaurant, walks into the back, claps a hand on my shoulder, and grins broadly.
“This is the part where we season the meat,” he says. “You can’t write about this.”
Bill Spoon is sitting at the front counter, where he always sits. A customer stands waiting for the verdict. His balance is somewhere between $28.30 and $28.40. Spoon looks at the figure and furrows his brow.
“How about . . . twenty-eight?” he asks.
“All right, sir,” the man replies.
This is another one of the romantic aspects of Bill Spoon’s barbecue; he rounds bills off in the interest of saving time. Spoon’s refusal to accept credit cards is more common, but while the average proprietor might position a blunt message beneath the register—“ATM next door,” for example—Spoon is more forgiving. “We accept cash, checks, and promises,” his notice reads. Bill Spoon takes I.O.Us, and letters from cash-less patrons hang on the bulletin board across from the front counter, thanking Spoon for his patience.
Spoon does not begrudge Miller any of his success, but he does quibble with the notion that the two men are selling the same barbecue. (“He’ll tell you it’s just like Bill’s, but it isn’t,” he says.) Beyond the competition, Spoon misses the retirement.
Five years after Miller’s departure from South Boulevard, after the resurrection and renaming of Spoon’s Barbecue (Bill Spoon’s Barbecue was born of a legal settlement reached between Spoon and Jerry Bardin, the owner of several Spoon’s Restaurants), a staph infection took Spoon’s left leg in 1999. Spoon pulls up his pants leg and reveals a prosthetic with a foam rubber cosmetic cover, complete with white sock and black shoe.
“I never did walk or run, so I don’t miss that,” Spoon says. The amputation took place below the knee, and Spoon says he occasionally manipulates the remaining flesh to get a rise out of his friends.
“I can flex the muscle in my leg and make it look like an old man chewing tobacco,” he says. He clenches and unclenches his fist to mimic the chewing motion and laughs loudly. “It’s a fun thing. I’m not handicapped.”
But Spoon is getting older, and the notion of selling the business yet again holds some appeal. In order to make lease payments, Spoon says, a new owner would need to generate additional business at night. (Currently, the restaurant is open from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday.) And, of course, such a person would have to embrace the somewhat romantic notion that this is more than just selling pork.
A young black woman with hoop earrings and a blue and gray windbreaker steps in from the rain. She walks up and leans over to study the menu, taped to the glass countertop.
“Hey, honey,” Spoon says. “How are you doing?”
“Hello, how are y’all?” she replies without looking up. “God, it smells good in here.”
Spoon engages her in some friendly conversation and throws her a softball, asking if she likes barbecue. The woman’s name is April, and she says she loves it, and that her parents love it, too. A couple of friends recommended Bill Spoon’s to her, and so she stopped for some takeout.
“There’s a place called Bubba’s Barbecue up on Sunset,” she says, unprovoked, “but it’s horrible.”
“Did you say horrible?” Spoon asks.
“Horrible,” she says.
The old man’s eyes light up as he rises from his stool behind the counter, leaning on his prosthetic. He hobbles forward and begins speaking in a lower, conspiratorial voice with his new friend. She will get an extra side with her small platter, and she will be called “honey” a few more times, and she will smile when he hands her a piece of chocolate before she leaves.
“It doesn’t have to be unique, what we have,” Spoon says after she leaves. “But unfortunately it is.”