Say it ain’t so

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An iconic North Carolina barbecue restaurant is no longer open.

Wilber’s Barbecue in Goldsboro closed Thursday afternoon. The N.C. Department of Revenue seized it for not paying approximately $70,000 in taxes. The business had six liens from the state.

Word quickly spread, first by social media and then by traditional media. Everywhere people were talking, “Can you believe it? Wilber’s is closed.”

This is probably not news to any of our Tribune readers, but the business deserves some space here.

Wilber’s opened in 1962 by now 88-year-old Wilber Shirley. The signature of the business was that the whole hog was cooked over oak wood in an open pit. Not just shoulders, no propane. The wood smoke gave Wilber’s Barbecue its distinctive flavor, dressed simply with vinegar and spices. Many would say it was some of the best barbecue in the state, if not the best.

When politicians came to town, it was Wilber’s Barbecue on the menu. Both Presidents H.W. Bush and George Clinton ate there.

When visitors came to town, they would buy it up in batches and take it home.

It was featured in books, magazines and on TV shows.

And the business looked primarily like it did when it opened.

Earlier this year over in Wilson, Bill Ellis Barbecue closed after almost 56 years in business.

The namesake of the popular eatery, William “Bill” Lawrence Ellis, died on Feb. 27, 2017, but had retired in 2015 after spending 50 years transforming a small hot dog stand into a local landmark with a restaurant, catering business and the Bill Ellis Convention Center, The Wilson Times reported at the time.

A few weeks before Bill’s shut its doors, Allen & Son near Chapel Hill closed. Owner Keith Allen worked long hours to chop the hickory and slow cook his shoulders. It was also one of North Carolina’s most noted barbecue joints.

Earlier this month the Mount Olive Tribune on this page shared a column by D.G. Martin titled, “The real barbecue crisis.”

In it he wrote, “North Carolina’s most important emergency is not the next federal government shutdown. Nor is it a fake national emergency on the nation’s southern border.

“Our state’s real emergency is a real threat to its dominant position in the world of barbecue.”

Cooking barbecue is hard work. Especially cooking barbecue over wood. We in Eastern North Carolina take it for granted. But it looks as though we need to treasure it.

Maybe Mr. Shirley can turn things around. We hope so. But if not, hats off to Wilber’s for a good run.

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