Celebrating the Life of North Carolina’s Barbecue Legend Wilber Shirley

Earlier this month, Wilber Shirley, a true legend in North Carolina’s barbecue world, passed. In honor of his legacy, we have chosen to post his interview from John Shelton Reed, Dale Volberg Reed and William McKinney’s co-authored Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue.

“That grease hitting those coals makes the smoked flavor. You can’t spray it on there, paint it on there, put it on there—that’s the natural way to cook it to get the smoke taste.”

Wilber Shirley opened his restaurant (it’s too nice to be called a joint) on Highway 70 in Goldsboro in 1962. Since then it has become a regular stop for flyers from nearby Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, and so much a part of many people’s beach trips that you wouldn’t be surprised to see patrons in bathing suits. Mr. Shirley cooks split halves of whole hogs over oak coals in closed pits, and serves his barbecue with a simple Eastern-style sauce.  

The first thing I remember about barbecue was my dad used to cook for family reunions, and we’d dig a hole out under a shelter and take a piece of wire and put across it and cook the pig down in the hole. That’s just an old tradition that we’ve had as long back as time, I reckon since they first started cooking a pig. You know, there wasn’t a lot of commercial barbecue places around.   

Later I came to Goldsboro. I went to work at a place called Griffin’s Barbecue. They had a pit, of course, a cooking house, and they had rods [they put across the pit]. That’s how I first learned to cook it and that’s just the only way I know to cook it, really. It’s the most expensive way you can cook it.  

[Our pigs weigh] between 90 and 100 pounds. We used to raise pigs in the country and they’d be two years old before you got them to weigh 100 pounds dressed. Now they’re grown so fast, a pig that will dress out at 100 pounds is probably not as half as old as when they grew so slow. These pigs here, they’re grown just like you would raise a baby in a nursery at Chapel Hill.  They get dietary food; they’ve got medication. These mills have formulas where they feed them, and it cuts down the fat content.  If you’ve got one that’s grown fast and it’s a younger pig, he’ll cook better than one that’s real old.  If you’re talking about a pig eight months old or less, he’ll cook faster than one that’s a year and a half old, like back when we first started. And the skin looks different and the meat texture looks different.

This time of the year [summer] we’re running probably 100 to 125 pigs a week. Wood-wise, it’s supposed to be a cord and a half or something, anywhere from twelve to fourteen loads a week.  We try to keep it not piled up. If you get too much ahead and it dries out, when you burn it to make the coals you got ashes, so you got to have it kind of green.  

I’ve got a man that’s been cutting wood for me for thirty years and I don’t know what I’ll do when he retires or dies. I don’t know a thing about cutting wood.  We use oak.  That’s predominantly what you find around here. You can use any kind of hardwood, but predominantly in this area it’s oak. You’ll find a little hickory, but I could burn all the hickory in this county in a year’s time. Some years ago [my wood buyer] got to buying behind the timber buyers. You know how these timber buyers go in and they cut the pine and all that, and we go behind them and cut the hardwood.  So there’s been a supply of wood. That’s not a real problem. 

I think it’s a better product [with wood]. See, you cook it with gas and electricity, your cooking process starts out different. In most cases you have the flame at the top, so you put [the pig] with the skin down and the ribs and meat up. As a result that skin holds the grease and it sits there and boils. If you cook them like we do, with the skin up and the meat down and you fire coals underneath, it drips.  And when it does that it’s doing two things. One, it’s getting the grease out and it’s not sitting there boiling in the meat. The second thing, is that grease hitting those coals makes the smoked flavor that you won’t get any other way. You can’t spray it on there, paint it on there, put it on there—that’s the natural way to cook it to get the smoke taste. And it’s what people in this area grew up accustomed to. [Our sauce] is just a recipe we had down there that we use—just vinegar and pepper and hot water and boil it

[Changing to gas] goes through my mind sometimes because of the cost and the labor. They can take a thermostat and they can put their pigs on there, and if it takes seven or eight hours they can go home and go to bed. Ours, you stay there with them from the time you put them on until the time you get done. [Putting more coals on is] not a clock thing. You really kind of go by when it goes to dying down, but you kind of gauge that—it’s about every thirty minutes. It gets cooked, but there’s a tremendous cost of the wood, the labor, and all. As I get older and I look at what may happen to the place—I don’t know. I don’t plan to [switch] as long as I’m able but I don’t know what will happen in the future. I don’t know whether anybody [else] would be willing to put into it what it takes. 

We do most of our cooking at night. We put them on and try to get them started by 9:30 or 10:00 and they’re through the next morning about 9:30 or 10:00. We’ve got three different guys:  one of them works four nights and one of them works two and one works one—seven days a week. And then we have other people come in the morning, take them over.  

Start out every morning, we open the door at 6:00. There’s a crowd here that’s got to go to work, but they come at 6:00 and they get out probably about 7:00. And then there’s another crowd that starts drifting in of those that are retired or whatever, and they sit here and shoot the breeze from then until 9:00 or 9:30. Then it clears out, and then starts over again about 11:00.  It’s a gathering place, I guess. 

Of course over the years we’ve added on some stuff.  When I was at Griffin’s literally all we sold down there was barbecued chicken and barbecued pork.  We have a lot of people that eat here several times a week, so we have a daily special, and we have seafood and hamburger steak and fried chicken and things like that.  We have a barbecued chicken we cook one day a week on the pit, but the rest of the time it’s the barbecued chicken that I brought the recipe [for] from Griffin’s. It’s cooked in the oven.

We cook beef on Wednesday night for Thursday.  Cook briskets. A fellow came here and opened a barbecue beef thing down on the highway and I decided I’d try [to cook] some of it, too. And everybody asks, “Is that Texas beef?” and I say, “I have no idea.”  I’ve never been to Texas, so I don’t know what it’s supposed to taste like. We chop ours; you’re probably used to slicing.  It didn’t take long [to learn to cook beef]. I gave it away the first three or four times I cooked it.   I tried it because it was entirely different than what people normally around here would think of.  We’ve had good success with it. We’ll cook about—raw beef – 700 or 800 pounds.

When you get started in something, I think there’s a certain amount of challenge to it. But I can take the deed to this place and go down to the mall and I could ask 100 people to take it if I give it to them, with the stipulation that they had to put the number of hours that I did, and I doubt if I would get one taker. [I work] seven days a week. [Laughs] Some weeks I come in eight days a week. It’s not hard if you’ve been doing it for forty years.  

The hardest part is the help, employees. With ninety employees I’ve got ninety different opinions. [Laughs] I’ve got one waitress who has been here over thirty years, waitressing. I’ve got a cook in the kitchen that was here when I bought this place.  (See, this place was built and another fellow bought it and he got out after six months.  He was used to making fast money. This is slow.)  I’ve got one son-in-law that works [here]. He’s not as committed as I am. [Laughs] Nobody is committed as I am. The boy behind the counter has been here almost twenty-five years, and there’s another one that has been here like twenty years. He came in high school. As a matter of fact, my son-in-law came here in high school. He came to work here and then, you know, married my daughter. We still work high school students, but usually they come and go. That’s been one of the biggest accomplishments I’ve had personally is just having high school students come and work, and we help them while they’re in school, and they go on and lead successful lives.

We don’t do a lot of advertising. It’s mostly word of mouth, and we have become more involved in helping churches and schools and the [Air Force] base—a couple times they’ve come home and we’ll have a pig-picking. I sponsored a softball team for twenty years. We played in New York; we played in Florida and Tennessee and South Carolina and various places, Detroit.  It was Wilber’s Barbecue Softball Team. So people would see the name.  And then I’ve been involved in state politics and I got known pretty much statewide. And I was involved in the [North Carolina State University] Wolfpack Club for 25 or 26 years, and that gave more exposure. So it’s just been one thing or another. People see you here and there, at tournaments and ballgames and stuff, and when they come by they stop and eat. 

A woman in here the other day said her grandson went to Disney World and more people at Disney World saw that Wilber’s shirt and stopped him—she said he was amazed. He’d be walking around in Disney World and people were coming up to him.  I had a similar thing happen several years ago. I went to Disney World and my wife wanted to check in her coat and all, so I walked up to the boy and I had on a Wilber’s Barbecue cap and he said, “You know Wilber’s Barbecue?”  I said, “Well, I am Wilber.”  He said, “I used to eat there all the time.” He was in the service and was stationed here, and he got out of the service and he’d gone to work at Disney World.

We’ve been written up in right many magazines over the years—Southern Living and what have you. This past weekend there was a couple here from New Jersey, and they had seen it on the Food Network.  There was a girl who interviewed me from a radio station from England. I said, “Who in England do you think is going to listen to you?”  What she was going to do was take it back and use it on her radio show, you know—that she had been to the States and all. A girl from New York on ABC Talk Radio called up and asked [an employee] to talk and he said, “You don’t need to talk to me; you need to talk to the man that’s got forty-one years in his head and see if you can get it out of his head.” And I guess that’s the bad part about me because so much of this mess is in my head and nobody don’t know where it is or what it is.  

Depending on how my health holds out, I’ve got no plans to retire.  

John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed live in Chapel Hill, NC. Both are members of the Southern Foodways Alliance. John Shelton Reed is author of Barbecue: A Savor the South Cookbook, and he is co-founder of The Campaign for Real Barbecue and one of the moving spirits of the Carolina Barbecue Society.

William McKinney founded the Carolina BBQ Society while a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He now lives in Virginia.