Today I went on an excursion to J.C.’s Kitchen on East Main Street in Durham. Much to my surprise, it’s actually the same location as Parker’s, a favorite haunt of Duke students desperate for good barbecue when I was in school there.
Mr. Parker was reputedly an ex-Army cook from WWII. He looked frail, ancient, and a little gray even in the mid-80s, when I was a frequent visitor to his restaurant. Most of his customers were black residents of the neighborhood and the mostly white students who went there for a little local color (in many senses of that word, not all of them so great). I like to think I went there because I was a Southerner and wanted Southern food, but I was in reality probably no better than any other student who showed up to be what they thought of as daring and edgy.
So here we show up 20 years later. This time I’m probably even more out of place in my business clothes. The building is the same. It’s been suspended in a state of genteel aging shabbiness, like a fifty-year-old woman addicted to plastic surgery. But it does have a fresh coat of paint and a new mural that reads, “The food is anointed and you won’t be disappointed.” Or something like that.
Inside the “new” owners have disposed of Mr. Parker’s plastic cafeteria-style trays and replaced them with styrofoam plates, set upon placemates printed with the “Footprints in the Sand” story. And there is a sense of holy wonder in the fact that Parker’s/J.C.’s Kitchen endures. The tea (iced, of course) is still like simple syrup and the barbecue doesn’t seem to have changed significantly–finely chopped, a little spicy, with no need for extra sauce (a rarity for NC barbecue, which can turn out dry).
Thank God for some stability in this crazy world.