News & Observer
Bill Whitley’s competitive whole hog barbecue career – by his own admission – was not that illustrious.
But Whitley, 59, of Kinston, has raised two children who are burnishing the family name into the state’s annals of competitive barbecue.
His son, Tyler, 24, was the champion of this year’s BBQ Festival on the Neuse in Kinston – one of the state’s largest whole hog barbecue competitions, with about 90 teams. His daughter, Amy, 43, is on a roll this year. She took home the top prize at the Cape Fear BBQ Festival, the N.C. Blueberry Festival’s annual barbecue cook-off and last weekend’s BBQ for Paws contest in Snow Hill.
This weekend, the siblings and about 22 other teams are competing for thousands of dollars in prize money in the N.C. Pork Council’s Whole Hog Barbecue Championship. The teams’ swine-festooned tents and cookers were in a downtown Raleigh parking lot Friday as part of the bluegrass festivities. After the hogs are cooked overnight, judges will evaluate the barbecue Saturday morning and the state champion will be announced by noon.
Between brother and sister, there is a bit of a rivalry.
“I taught her all of the ropes and showed her how to do it. She’s done pretty good this year,” said Tyler on Friday while seated under the Hawg Head cooking team tent.
Amy, who competes with her Ms. Hawg Head cooking team, said she knows what to expect if she beats him: “He’ll say, ‘Congratulations.’ I might get a hug, and I might not.”
Their father started it all. He worked for Smithfield Foods for more than 30 years. In about 2000, he helped with the company’s competitive barbecue team at the Kinston festival. Within a few years, he had bought a pig cooker and started competing, often with 8-year-old Tyler in tow.
At the time, Tyler loved visiting the competitions after his Friday night baseball games and would beg his mom to let him stay up all night. By age 15, he and his dad were traveling to compete. By 18, Tyler was competing on his own at up to a dozen contests a year, tweaking his sauce recipe and watching others to learn how to best keep the pig’s skin crispy.
At first, Amy, who co-owns a childcare center in Kinston, helped her father and brother. But one weekend, she stepped in for her brother, who had entered a contest but couldn’t attend. She liked it so much that she bought a cooker, refurbished it and started entering by herself. The first time she competed with that new cooker, she won first place.
“It was on then,” said Amy, who has taken home 15 trophies since 2014.
Wherever and whenever his children are competing, Bill Whitley is there. He cannot walk that well anymore between his bad knees and COPD. But he parks himself in the truck, on a stool or in his wheelchair. “I get one-on-one time with both of them,” Bill Whitley beamed. “I’m really happy that they both qualified this year. I’m very proud of both of them.”
The competition that the Whitleys face is tough. The past two years, the state championship has been won by four-time state champion Joe Peterson or his former teammate, Ernest Twisdale. In 2014, Twisdale was champion and Peterson took second place. Last year, they switched places.
Peterson, who wears a custom-made gold pig pendant on a gold chain around his neck, respects his competition. About the Whitleys, he said: “Both of them are really good. Amy is really good. She’s won three times this year. She’ll sit up all night long making sure it’s the right temperature.”
By Saturday morning, the Whitley siblings will find how they did in the state championship. Regardless, Bill Whitley said, “It’s a win-win — no matter who wins.”