Prior to the world of technology, before the wars of the world, even before the civil war, the professions of mankind consisted of knowledge of mentors passed on to their apprentices. Some of these professions included pottery, leather, iron, and steel craftsmen. The young apprentice, typically a family member, was eager to learn the family trade. Their position was more than a job, it was a process of lifelong learning. Their advancement consisted only of themselves becoming the mentor of a younger apprentice, but still remaining one in their mentor's eyes.
One of the few professions left that requires this type of traditional "training" is "pit-cooked Lexington style" barbecue. All of the remaining pit-cooking restaurants in Lexington have a connection to Warner Stamey. Stamey learned the craft from Jesse Swicegood. Swicegood and Sid Weaver are the two gentlemen credited for the origin of "Lexington style" barbecue. They began by setting up a stand across from the Davidson County Courthouse. Rising well before dawn, they started a fire with hickory wood. While the wood was burning down to coals, they placed pork shoulders on an open pit. When the smoldering coals became available, they would scatter the coals under the meat. This process continued every 30 minutes to an hour, for 8-10 hours. After about four hours, they would turn the shoulders, similar to cooking a wild boar on a spit in the Old West. During the cooking of the shoulders, the smoke would rise into the sky and float across the town. Smelling the aroma of fresh pit-cooked barbecue, the Judge would call a recess for lunch, and go across the street to devour one of those delicious barbecue sandwiches.
After gaining a few years of experience under the tutelage of Swicegood, Stamey moved to Shelby, NC, where he opened a barbecue restaurant of his own. Several years later, he chose to return home to Lexington, to open another barbecue restaurant. This decision was the biggest influence on Lexington style barbecue, and leads us to the present day status. While at his Lexington location, he not only trained his family, but he mentored famous Lexington barbecue craftsmen such as Wayne Monk, Jimmy Harvey, Joe Cope and Doug Gosnell.
Gosnell, following the path of the others, left Stamey to open his own restaurant. Gosnell moved to North Main Street and opened a dairy bar and barbecue restaurant. Eventually, he moved farther up Main Street and created the Barbecue Center. During his career, he took his brother-in-law, Sonny Conrad, under his wing. Following Gosnell's death in 1967, Sonny ran the restaurant for Gosnell's step-mother. Two years later, Sonny bought the restaurant and has ran it with his wife, Nancy, ever since. During his long tenure as the owner of the Barbecue Center, he has passed down the art of cooking barbecue to many people, including his two sons, Cecil and myself (Michael). Thus far, none of his apprentices have followed the tradition to go out on their own or take his place, although his reign is far from conclusion.
If you visit any barbecue restaurant in Lexington, you will always find family members involved in the operation. They most likely will be learning barbecue craftsmanship from their grandfather, father, uncle or cousin.
I have been asked several times along my road to becoming a mentor "how can I learn to cook barbecue." My only response is, "you cannot learn barbecue, you LIVE barbecue."