We may need to make room for another historical marker uptown: First barbecue restaurant in North Carolina.
That’s right, Charlotte. Our city is often maligned for its lack of North Carolina barbecue (even by the Observer’s own editorial board). But a Charleston culinary historian thinks Charlotte may have been the site of the state’s first documented barbecue restaurant.
Robert Moss is a writer for the Charleston City Paper and a culinary historian who wrote “Barbecue: The History of an American Institution” (University of Alabama Press, 2010). This summer, Moss has been writing blog posts about barbecue history for the Southern Foodways Alliance.
Last week, as Charlotte twirled in the national political spotlight, Moss posted a claim about Charlotte: An ad in the April 1899 edition of The Charlotte Daily Observer showed Mrs. Katie Nunn opening a grocery store and barbecue stand at 13 S. Church St., with meat cooked by her husband, Levi, in a pit behind the store:
“Call at the barbecue stand for good barbecued meats, beef, pork and mutton. Well-prepared by the only barbecuer in Charlotte.”
Moss says he found the ad while searching online archives for a genealogy website.
“It may be pushing it a little to call it a restaurant,” Moss said Wednesday. “But it’s certainly the first barbecue stand I can find. There’s so little evidence from back in those days.”
Before the 20th century, barbecue was usually a large, public event. On farms or in rural areas, people gathered for everything from family reunions to political speeches and cooked meat, usually done in a pit in the ground. It wasn’t until the 1920s or so that commercial barbecue businesses cropped up.
Most North Carolina barbecue histories credit the start of the modern barbecue business when Sid Weaver and Jess Swicegood began selling barbecue from tents outside the courthouse in Lexington. The Nunns’ business would have predated that by 20 years.
The address on South Church Street no longer exists, but would have been on the east side of Church just north of Fourth Street. Another news item noted that it was behind The Charlotte Daily Observer, at 32 S. Tryon St.
Apparently, the Nunns’ business wasn’t a big success. By December, another ad showed that 13 S. Church had become the location of Fasnacht’s Candy Manufacturing.
Records show that the couple moved on from Charlotte. The 1910 Census shows Levi and Catherine B. Nunn in Norfolk, Va., where he was a housing contractor. Levi L. and Katie B. Nunn are listed as buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery in Norfolk.
Moss conceded that barbecue fans will be quick to argue about whether the Nunns’ store could be considered a barbecue restaurant.
“There’s something about barbecue that you can’t help stirring up trouble,” he said, laughing.