Back to Bullock’s

Today marks the 21st anniversary of my graduation from Duke, and the 14th anniversary of Fred’s graduation from library school at Chapel Hill. We’re back where we started; we’ve returned to the scene of the crime; we’re on the old stomping grounds. And as a bit of a commemorative move, we went to Bullock’s for lunch.

When I was a student, my friends raved about Bullock’s, legendary in Durham for its barbecue. The place is your basic vinyl-boothed, gum-chewing-middle-aged-waitress, cleaner-than-average Southern meat and three, located off the intersection of I-85 and 15-501 in a forest of strip malls and warehouses. The decoration is circa 1985. There are photographs of Italy on the wall (perhaps because spaghetti appears on the menu?). But . . . .

Well, one thing has not changed in 21 years, and now I’ll put it in print: Bullock’s is just not my favorite North Carolina barbecue joint.

The barbecue itself is certainly decent. We both ordered the hand-pulled pork. The meat was tender, and the sauce is unique: spicy, rich, with a little more tomato and less vinegar than your average Eastern NC ‘cue. I’d characterize it as a cross between Buffalo wing sauce and the classic Eastern Carolina barbecue. (The sauce borders on Western NC barbecue, I think, though for once I will confess that I’m not yet well-versed enough in the difference to offer an opinion.)

Where Bullock’s falls down is in some of the sides. The black-eyed peas Fred ordered seemed to be canned, and so did the beets. The turnip greens were flavorless, even with salt, vinegar and Texas Pete added, and the collards were similarly unremarkable. And the Brunswick stew tasted as if the corn and lima beans were canned–the stew had that flat taste I associate with places that don’t use fresh or at the very least frozen vegetables.

The slaw, though, is a perfect complement to the barbecue, and I love its finely chopped texture with just the right amount of mayonnaise. And the hush puppies, though smaller and less crisp than I normally like them, are perfectly seasoned.

Still, J.C.’s Kitchen remains my favorite barbecue in Durham.

J.C.’s Kitchen

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.