Barbecue man Wyatt Dickson stands in an aisle at Tractor Supply in Hillsborough. He’s searching for the right pintle hitch so that he can haul a 12,000-pound trailer to Elm City, a little hamlet outside of Wilson. There, he will retrieve the two 2,500-pound BBQ smokers of which he’s dreamed. His highly anticipated new Durham barbecue joint, Picnic, opens at the beginning of February, and it’s time to install the centerpieces. First, he has to get them.
Today, Dickson is behind schedule and not even sure the store has the hitch—the first small snafu of the day’s many.
“Turkey nuts!” he mutters to himself. He’s burly and jowly and bearded, his voice a matter-of-fact blend of Southern manners and gristle.
He finally finds what he needs. Four bolts and some maneuvering later, he attaches the hitch and trailer, and we’re off.
Dickson’s Chevy Silverado 2500HD Diesel is white and flecked with mud. The engine thrums. The floorboard is home to tool bags, a box of Pig Whistle BBQ Sauce and paperwork for Picnic, including an FBI background check and a fingerprint form for a liquor license.
On the dashboard, there’s a red trucker cap stitched with “MAKE BARBECUE GREAT AGAIN,” a sarcastic homage to Donald Trump. Dickson doesn’t think we can make America great again, but we can improve local life. This attitude, he says, fuels Picnic’s sustainability ethic: Source local, humanely raised hogs and barbecue them in environmentally friendly smokers.
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.
Picnic partner and former Piedmont chef Ben Adams prances around the scene, giggling and taking photos with his iPhone.
“Yeah, baby,” yells Dickson, encouraging Butler. “Forward. A little more. Turn a little to the left. Perfect!”
The lift lowers the smoker into place. Butler reverses slowly. Suddenly, the back of the lift fork bumps the ground by the slab. The fork tilts upward, catching the bottom of the smoker. It begins to tip toward the forklift.
“WHOA! STOP!” hollers Dickson.
The smoker settles back into place. The fork is leveled, and the lift backs away freely. Butler cuts the engine. Everyone exhales.
The barbecue men step back and admire their handiwork.