Plenty of Country Cooking along the Music Trails
By Bridgette A. Lacy
North Carolina Arts Council Correspondent
The early bird gets the crackling pig skins at Morris Barbeque in Hookerton. And that says a lot for this rural Eastern North Carolina community with a population of under 500.
“If you’re not there by 10 o’clock forget the skins,” says owner William Franklin Morris, Jr.
His grandfather, Willie McKinley Morris, founded this legendary roadside barbeque spot in rural Greene County in 1931 during the Herbert Hoover days, peddling his barbeque down the streets of Hookerton on his mule and cart.
By 1956, he built a small white building in the country. Folks are still making their way on Saturdays to the restaurant on the side of the road for pints of chopped Eastern North Carolina pork seasoned with a vinegar-based sauce. The community is located along North Carolina Highway 123, southeast of Snow Hill.
Morris Barbeque is only opened one day a week. And that draws the crowd. About 200 customers make their way to the counter from the time it opens at 8 a.m. on Saturday to 2 p.m. when it closes. People drive from nearby Snow Hill, Kinston, Goldsboro, and as far away as Durham and cities in Virginia for a fix of chopped cue on a bun topped with coleslaw or to take a couple of pints home to enjoy throughout the weekend.
Morris says his grandfather knew it was too hard for working customers to drive almost 30 minutes one-way during the week for his tender pork.
But on Saturdays, it’s almost a religion for some to pick-up their orders of finely-chopped barbeque, skins, ribs and bones.
“You have to call almost a week ahead to get those skins and then keep your fingers crossed,” says regular Hoyt “Rooster” Minges of Kinston. Customers often reserve the skins and the ribs earlier in the week because on Saturdays they disappear fast. By 11 a.m., the ribs are gone, Morris says with a big grin. Customers scoring the last order of skins and ribs almost seem giddy. It’s like they have won the lottery.
“The ribs are one of our specialties,” says Morris, the third-generation of his family to run the business. “They are not doctored. They are seasoned on the grill. We don’t use a heavy sauce: we use a vinegar-base sauce, and it comes with coleslaw, the same recipe my grandmother used. It has a light sweet taste. The hush puppies are cooked in cast iron pots.”
Morris’ daughter, Ashley Godley creates the homemade cakes, pies and banana pudding while his mother, Margaret Morris, is the unofficial greeter, encouraging newcomers to sign the guest book while exchanging small talk with the regulars.
Simon Sutton of Kinston is a familiar face around the restaurant. He arrives early morning and walks away with four pints of chopped barbecue with coleslaw. “All of it is good,” he says, rushing off to complete the rest of his weekend errands.
Minges said he likes that the meat is always fresh. “No leftovers from the day before.” The Morris family and employees start chopping the meat around 6:30 a.m. Saturday. “They are consistent in the chopping. No big chunks or skin mixed in. You can bet the farm on it,” Minges says.
Now if you are looking for some home-cooked vegetables to go with your pork, head over to Snow Hill. Fast Break is a gas-station eatery and convenience store. This popular Snow Hill spot is known for breakfast and lunch. Residents often start off their day with a homemade biscuit stuffed with hoop cheese or a pork chop sandwich on white bread for a hot and quick breakfast.
But the locals come for collards and cabbage and 30 pounds of each are cooked daily, says owner Prashant Patel. The collard greens are seasoned with ham hocks so the servers of this cafeteria-style eatery often ask if you want pieces of ham hocks with your order.
One of the famous Speight sisters, Annie Speight was visiting her native Snow Hill and had some of the greens. “They are seasoned like I like them,” she says during a telephone interview from her daughter’s house in Maryland. She prefers her greens prepared with some salt, black pepper and pork meat. “That makes the seasoning come through. They melt in your mouth,” says Annie, the oldest of the gospel trio.
“I get my collards there for Thanksgiving,” says Mary Betty Kearney, co-owner of the Benjamin W. Best Country Inn and Carriage House in Snow Hill.
Michelle Mooring says she normally orders the meatloaf or fried chicken but she always gets the collards and mashed rutabaga. “It’s good country cooking,” she says. “It’s seasoned just right.”
While most folks seem order food to go, the convenience store does have a small plain dining room area for locals and motorists ready to rest their feet and enjoy a hot home-cooked meal.
The dining room is furnished with posters of John F. Kennedy, Muhammad Ali and James Dean and small orange booths. Snow Hill resident Ashley Ward sits and savors her meal of semi-sweet mashed rutabagas, fried chicken gizzards and cabbage. “Everything is so flavorful,” she says.
If you are looking for more good eats stop by Old Plant Diner located further down the road in Jones County. This local restaurant is a popular spot for breakfast, offering biscuits stuffed with eggs, cheese and country ham.
Owner Alton Bruinton says his small place specializes in home cooking. Folks come to this cozy, casual diner for the juicy burgers, crispy fried chicken and fresh collard greens seasoned with smoked turkey.
“The service is friendly,” says Anna Lassiter, the Jones County Arts Council president. Her family has known the Bruintons for generations. She enjoys the variety of the buffet featuring all types of home-cooked vegetables including green beans, field peas, black eyed-peas, sweet potatoes and cabbage.
Local musicians eat at this popular spot, as well, including Jeffrey Hall, a singer and guitarist with the Drifters.
If You Go
891 Morris BBQ Road
Hookerton, N.C. 28538
Old Plant Diner
346 W Jones St.
Trenton, N.C. 28585
Bridgette A. Lacy is an award-winning journalist with a public love affair with food and culture. She authored a column “Morsels” for The News & Observer in Raleigh for many years and writes about food, chefs and culinary trends for The Independent Weekly and the North Carolina Arts Council. She’s the author of Sunday Dinner, a part of the Savor the South series by UNC Press and a finalist for the Pat Conroy Cookbook Prize