Bum’s Barbecue, Ayden, N.C.

Bum, Shirley, and Larry Dennis Bum’s Restaurant, Ayden, NC

The Pit turned the second Barbecue Heritage Dinner menu over to its guests of honor for the event, the Dennis family of Bum’s Restaurant in the Pitt county community of Ayden, near Greenville, N.C. We wanted guests to experience a true sampling of the kind of food served at Bum’s for the past five-plus decades, so attendees feasted on a typical meal: chopped whole-hog, wood-cooked barbecue (complete with Bum’s own special sauce), the restaurant’s signature Pitt county cabbage collards, traditional “red potatoes,” coleslaw, cornbread and Bum’s famous sweet potato muffins, and — to finish this coastal plains tour de force — meringue-topped banana pudding.

Bum, Shirley, and Larry Dennis, Bum’s Restaurant, Ayden, NC, August 16, 2011

Bum’s Restaurant is a community gathering place in downtown Ayden, and Larry Dennis is continuing the tradition begun (at least in this specific location) by his father and mother, Latham “Bum” Dennis and Shirley Dennis: cooking genuine, whole-hog, eastern North Carolina barbecue, slow-roasted for hours over real wood coals.

Bum’s Barbecue, Ayden, NC

The family barbecue legacy goes back considerably further than that, however. A Dennis ancestor, Skilton Dennis, reportedly began cooking whole pigs and serving barbecue to church gatherings out of the back of a covered wagon in Pitt County as early as 1830. “Bum” (who picked up that moniker because his mother couldn’t think of a suitable name for the as-yet unborn child) and Larry share the Skilton Dennis ancestry with another well-known Ayden restaurateur, the late Pete Jones, former proprietor of the Skylight Inn.

Jones was one of North Carolina’s most outspoken proponents of wood-cooked, whole-hog barbecue. But while Pete Jones place has always served only barbecue, slaw and cornbread, Bum’s is known for serving up all manner of terrific country style meats and vegetables in addition to some of the region’s very best pork barbecue. Most memorable among these offerings: North Carolina’s most perfectly prepared collard greens. This is especially impressive since Ayden promotes itself as the Collard Capital of the World.

The town has an annual collard Festival, which features both collard cooking and collard speed eating contests. The yellowish “cabbage collards” that seem so well-suited to the soil around Ayden are milder and sweeter than the darker green “Georgia” collards most commonly found elsewhere. Bum Dennis is so picky about the greens served in his restaurant that he grows them in his own garden. Bum’s is also well-known for its special, eastern-style, “red” or barbecue potatoes, banana pudding and sweet potato muffins. All these specialties were served up at our August 16 dinner, along with reminiscences from Bum and Shirley’s more than 50 years at the restaurant.

In addition, we heard some observations from Larry, who is not only a dynamo as a cook and pitmaster, but who also shares his love for his profession and family tradition on Facebook.