After my lunch at the Hillsborough BBQ Company, I continued my barbecue ease-down at The Pit in Durham, another Campaign for Real Barbecue-certified place, and my friend Jim Oliver came over to join me. Jim and I shared an office when I worked in the Criminal Section of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. He was over in Creedmore helping his Momma, who is 91 and still lives pretty much on her own.
I grasp in vain for words to describe Jim Oliver, words that I can use in a family blog. Jim is one of the funniest people I know, and one of the most, well, unorthodox. If you step into a crowded elevator with Jim, you want to be the first one to say, “Did the penicillin clear up your … problem?” When I was in the Criminal Section with Jim, the office had a training session on voir dire, the questioning of jurors to identify which ones you want to keep off the jury. An outside attorney was doing the training, and conducting voir dire of all of us, and, as a potential question, he asked Jim, “What’s your favorite magazine?” After a pause, Jim replied, “Do I have to answer that?”
Let me try this to give a sense of Jim: Before dinner, Jim had been to Smith’s Red and White in Dortches, North Carolina, and had bought some of their famous sausage (you should buy some) and a half dozen ham biscuits to take to Clyde Jones over in Bynum in Chatham County. Mr. Jones is a self-taught artist, an independent logger who, having injured his back, devoted his life to creating Critters. Do an internet search for “Clyde Jones Bynum NC” and click “images.” Go ahead, do the search and click images. You’ll understand and appreciate why there’s a “Critter Fest” every April in Chatham County. In some bizarre ways, Jim Oliver is the Clyde Jones of the legal profession, except that you could not legally promote a Jim Oliver Festival using a means of interstate commerce.
That’s Jim the next day at breakfast at Mama Dip’s in Chapel Hill. (Very well cooked bacon.)
Jim and I met at The Pit in Durham. There’s a related Pit in Raleigh, too, and I had gone there in 2015 with a whole bunch of Tanners — brother Jim, and Henry and Sally and Jimbo and Michelle — and was favorably impressed. It was much better barbecue than I had expected from a relatively upscale barbecue place. The one in Durham has more of a hipster atmosphere. It’s in an erstwhile light industrial area, set in a sprawling former warehouse with several large windows where once there were loading bays. It’s one of the newer style barbecue places, with a full bar, “BBQ soy nuggets” (The Pit is near Duke), and a list of craft beers that struck me as … precious. I enjoyed a comparatively prosaic Hoppyum. Two, actually.
The Pit, God bless them, offers barbecue (by which I mean pork cooked directly over wood) several different ways. You can get (1) Eastern North Carolina style whole hog chopped and tossed with vinegar and pepper, (2) whole hog pulled and seasoned only with salt and pepper, (3) Lexington style pork shoulder chopped and tossed with dip, and (4) shoulder sliced and with dip. Curiously, the menu describes the sliced shoulder as “coarse chopped.” How does that differ from the regular coarse chopped?
I left that mystery unsolved, and ordered the whole hog barbecue, chopped, with collards, black eye peas, and green beans — an extra side.
Jim ordered the whole hog pulled with collards, black eye peas, and, not to be outdone, french fries.
The chopped pork is, of course, tossed with a vinegar and pepper sauce. My pork was very peppery, more peppery, I believe, than any North Carolina sauce I’ve tasted. I’m a big fan of pepper, but here the pepper muted the pork flavor somewhat, and overwhelmed the smoke flavor. The smoke only managed to sneak through in a few bites. One or two bites had a refrigerated taste, as if they had just thrown Independence Day leftover meat into the refrigerator loosely wrapped, and then mixed them with the freshly cooked meat. Leftovers, of course, should go into Brunswick Stew.
Jim was enthusiastic about his pulled pork, and volunteered that it tasted smoky. The absence of the pepper sauce probably made a difference. Jim didn’t offer me a taste, and, like so many others who have learned the hard way, I know better than to reach within stabbing distance of Jim Oliver. And, again, my smoke-tasting meter may have been out of whack after eating a few pounds of my own very smoky barbecue the day before, and there was all that pepper.
All of the sides came in very generous helpings. The collards were good, as were the black eye peas. The green beans were interesting. The beans were very thin, almost like haricots verts,
and they apparently were cooked with little if any meat, but with lots of onions and butter. These weren’t the ordinary green beans I so love, but they were very tasty. If you can’t have fatback, go with butter. Butter is good.
After we finished, Jim invited me to go to a bookstore with him. My Momma didn’t raise me to go to that sort of book store.
So what’s the verdict on The Pit? Favorable. All in all, the pork was good, and I am inclined to forgive lapses on and immediately after the ultra-high volume days, such as Independence Day and major sports weekends. Things get hectic, people understandably skip work to go to the game, and everyone is (or really should be) focused on the significance of the day itself. Jim’s strong thumbs up and the overall quality of the pork warrant a recommendation. Give The Pit a try.
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