Monday, August 20
Mr. Nunn's Barbecue Stand: North Carolina's First Barbecue Restaurant?
Back in February 2011, when Charlotte, North Carolina, was selected to host this year's Democratic National Convention, First Lady Michelle Obama found herself on the hot seat when she praised the city for its charm, hospitality, and "of course, great barbecue." The declaration drew a chorus of jeers from Carolina barbecue fans, who are passionate about their smoked pork but not so hot on offerings in the Queen City.
University of North Carolina sociologist John Shelton Reed, the co-author of Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue, had perhaps the best rejoinder. "Complete the sentence," he challenged the Associated Press. "As a good barbecue town, Charlotte is: one—not what it used to be; two—like Minneapolis for gumbo; three—good enough for Yankees; four—not far from Shelby."*
Not even the editorial board of the Charlotte Observer would come to the defense of its city's barbecue, saying, "Everybody knows to get the best stuff, you gotta drive north to Lexington."
Curiously enough, considering its reputation today, Charlotte may well have been the home of North Carolina's first barbecue restaurant. In March 1899, Mrs. Katie Nunn ran a classified ad in the Charlotte Observer announcing that she was opening a grocery store and barbecue stand at 13 South Church Street and that her husband, Levi Nunn, had constructed a large pit behind the store where he would cook the meat.
This was a good two decades before Sid Weaver and Jess Swicegood—considered among the pioneers of North Carolina barbecue entrepreneurship—started selling barbecue from tents outside the courthouse in Lexington.
Today, pork is synonymous with barbecue in North Carolina: whole hog in the eastern part of the state; shoulders in the Piedmont. Mr. and Mrs. Nunn's menu, however, included not just pork but beef and mutton, too—meats almost never seen in a Tarheel barbecue joint these days.
Little else is known about the Nunns. By 1902, their grocery store was no longer listed in the Charlotte city directory, and they appear to have moved on to another city. Perhaps they headed north to Lexington.
Robert Moss, a food writer and restaurant critic for the Charleston City Paper, is the author of Barbecue: The History of an American Institution. You can follow him on Twitter at @mossr.
*Shelby, if you haven't been, is the home of Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge, a famous purveyor of the Lexington-style barbecue that's native to the western Piedmont.