“June” Brunson: 68 Years at Parker’s Barbecue, Wilson, North Carolina

It’s time to celebrate another pit master, one who is also a fried chicken legend.

An article in the Wilson Times marks 68 years that June Brunson has spent at Parker’s Barbecue in Wilson, North Carolina.  June (a nickname) or Johnny Brunson started at Parker’s when he was 14 years old.  That was in 1950, four years after Parker’s opened its doors.  He started cooking whole hogs back when they cooked with wood, before The Fall, and even when Parker’s descended to gas he managed to turn out very tasty pork  But he hasn’t been limited to barbecue.  During those 68 years, he has done it all.

And doing it all at Parker’s means a lot of hard work.  They cook about 50 hogs a week, on average, and have cooked as many as 100-plus (Wilson Times reports vary from 103 to 150) in one day, according to Our State.  That was in 1954 when they catered the opening of a Ralston-Purina plant and served 17,000 people.  These days, Parker’s is busiest on Mother’s Day, when they cook around 45 whole hogs and use all 26 of their chicken fryers.

As I say, that’s a lot of hard work, and Brunson has been an incredibly hard worker.  He’s  filled in and cooked whatever needed cooking when others couldn’t make it to work, including Parker’s famous Brunswick Stew and their legendary corn sticks.  At times, that meant pulling all-nighters — starting at 7:00 or 8:00 p.m., and then working straight through his day shift the next day.

That sort of work puts a strain on a man, but Brunson hasn’t had a drink in 35 years.  One night in 1984 he unscrewed the cap of a half gallon of Smirnoff, and screwed it right back on.  He still keeps that full bottle in his home — even kept it when he moved to a new house — as a reminder. “I won’t take any of it and I won’t throw it away.  I want to see what God took away from me and where He brought me from.”

For some years, Brunson was Parker’s fried chicken chef, the Pavarotti of fried chicken.  A typical day had him managing a dozen busy frying stations and turning out sensational fried chicken, the best I can remember eating aside from Dear’s.  You can read about Brunson’s fried chicken here.   And you can get the recipe (via Saveur!) here.  Of course, having the recipe and actually executing are two different things, especially if you’re going to meet Parker’s lofty standards.

As you might have guessed, Mr. June, as he is known, works part time now.  But he’s taught Tommy Horne, the new fried chicken guru, well.  Hurry on down to Parker’s to try it for yourself.

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