by Justin Cook
We take our time moving down the highway, and the ride is smooth. NPR chatter provides the background to our conversations about Hillary Clinton, bad bluegrass, big agriculture, UNC’s frat scene, law school, the life he imagined and the one he actually lives, divorce and his parent’s political legacy. (His mother was a democratic representative from Fayetteville; his father was a judge).
Beyond the construction and hurry on the interstates, we exit down N.C. 97 toward Elm City. Naked oak stands and scrubby pines line the land. Brush and vines reclaim the grey bones of sunken farmhouses. We pass fields of brittle cotton stalks and green cover crops in tiny rows, the plants seeming to flicker against the blanched January landscape. Family graveyards, one-room white churches and pre-fabricated homes blur past the window.
About two hours later, the truck pulls into BQ Grills on U.S. Highway 301. We dismount. Dickson navigates the machine-shop maze to a gravel lot in the back, where he greets grill-maker and BQ owner Melvin Whitman and a shop hand. And there they are: two black barbecuing behemoths, double-doored, tripled-shelved, overbuilt and eco-friendly, with blowers and iPad controls. They are the stealth bombers of pulled-piggery.
One is being tested, and it’s already been cranked beyond 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Dickson’s cheeks inflate with glee.
“Holy smokes! That’s some serious business, boys!” he says. He loves the smoker’s strange smell of fresh paint, steel and grease. Whitman looks proud.
“It was a concept he had for a long time, but he had to wait for someone crazy enough to come along to pay for them and want them. I’m that crazy person,” Dickson had told me a day earlier.
The next hour is giddy but panicked. Whitman reminds Dickson that the balance is due on pickup. It’s been his unyielding policy for 25 years. He’s been burned too many times.
“This is a cash-and-carry business—I get the cash, they carry the grill,” he muses.
Dickson looks a little terrified, as he forgot to arrange payment from his lender. He paces the store, his fingers interlocked behind his head as if in surrender. At worst, he will ditch the trailer in the lot, drive back to Durham and return the next day to retrieve the smokers. He makes several phone calls to arrange a wire transfer from his bank. The cash is on its way, but he is unsure it will reach Whitman’s bank by the end of the business day, in about 45 minutes.
Still, they load the smokers with a rusty forklift Whitman named “Old Yeller." Dickson inquires about its name.
“It's old, and we're gonna have to shoot it soon,” Whitman says, chuckling.
They lash the smokers to the trailer, and banter until the job is done. The sun is dipping beneath the trees when the wire transfer comes through.
The next week, on Monday morning at 8 a.m., it’s 32 degrees. Dickson's business partner, Ryan Butler, raises Picnic’s pigs at Green Button Farm. Today, though, he runs a forklift and hovers over one of the 2,500-pound smokers near a concrete slab at the back of the soon-to-open restaurant. Dickson and some contractors help direct the lift. The muddy, uneven ground is frozen, so it crumbles under the forklift’s off-road tires as it inches the smoker into place. It’s like watching a diesel-powered elephant do surgery with its tusks.