This N.C. Restaurant Taught Me the Meaning of Barbecue

Bullock’s Barbecue is a Durham institution and the backdrop of my best childhood memories.

Bullock's BBQ spread
Photo: Sarah Crowder

Barbecue comes in many forms, and means many different things, depending on who you’re asking. It can be beef or pork, chicken or turkey. It spans ribs, brisket shoulder, belly, and sometimes the whole hog. It can be roughly chopped or sliced or pulled, doused in sauces that are thick and sweet or smoky or vinegary, or even mayonnaise-based (which I will not allow, no offense to the great state of Alabama).

Everyone is entitled to their barbecue preferences—I’ll allow that—but to me, and for many of the folks I grew up with in central North Carolina, barbecue simply means really good smoked pork, served with the works: a plate crowded with baked beans, coleslaw, mac and cheese, Brunswick stew, and a handful of hush puppies, just to be safe.

But beyond the piled-high plates and the inevitable meat sweats, barbecue means family.

The Bullock family in Durham, N.C., own and operate Bullock’s Barbecue, one of my favorite childhood restaurants, and the source of countless happy food memories with my extended family. Because at a place like Bullock’s, you’re treated like family from the moment you walk in—greeted by name if you’re a regular, or maybe “honey” if you’re not—and led past a wall of familiar framed smiles, where Tom Selleck proudly declares “Best BBQ on the East Coast!”

Once you reach the dining room, you’re left with a piping hot basket of hush puppies and a gentle reminder to save room for dessert, because there’s pie and a ten-layer cake, and you get ready to do what everyone else is there to do—to share a meal with the people they love.

READ MORE: The United States of Barbecue

Known to be the longest running restaurant in the history of Durham, Glen and Lillian Bullock opened the original Bullock’s Barbecue in 1952 after years of barbecuing at home. A family of humble beginnings—as his grandson Thomas “Ty” Bullock tells it, “you could see the chickens through the floorboards, they were so poor”—Glen started cooking pigs at home in the 1930s as a means to feed his family and survive.

In the 1940s, he started selling cooked pigs door to door for 15 cents a pound, and people wanted more, so they opened a restaurant. Eventually they grew some more, so they built a new location in the late ‘60s, with Glen and Lillian’s son Tommy helping them run it. Now in its fourth generation, the restaurant is a true family operation, where customers are always made to feel like they’re part of the brood, too.

That notion of barbecue as family extends far beyond Bullock’s and North Carolina, to Texas, and Kansas, and Tennessee, and even New York City, the city I now live in, known for many cuisines that aren’t barbecue. And yet, New York is where I’ve celebrated numerous special occasions at chain barbecue restaurants (yes, really), including the time my husband and I took his mother out for a barbecue dinner on Mother’s Day, significant not because of where we ate, but because the kosher-keeping family I married into loves me so much that they will regularly eat at restaurants that specialize in pork.

Since my childhood, Bullock’s has continued to grow. They now ship nationwide, sending their family’s food to other families across the country. They’ve catered movie sets and backstage buffets at Kenny Rogers concerts, and provided chef Bill Smith with barbecue at nearby Crook’s Corner for many, many years. Yet after all these decades, regardless of what all those framed, autographed photos near the entrance declare (David Letterman is a fan of the ribs) the Bullock family has never strayed from Grandmother Lillian’s belief that every customer in the door should be treated like an invited guest.

Back in August, when the restaurant celebrated sixty-eight years of operation, the Bullock family welcomed back a diner who had visited as a ten year old on opening day in 1952. At the time, his dad said, “Hey, this place is brand new, let’s see if they have anything good to eat.”

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