D.G. Martin Column: Florence’s floods and puppy love in Kinston

Published 4:10 pm Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Like all North Carolinians I am worrying about the flooding causing heart-rending damage throughout our state following Hurricane Florence.

I have a special worry. It is about a puppy in Kinston.

Would the floods from Hurricane Florence put that puppy out of business in the same way that Hurricane Matthew did two years ago?

D.G. Martin

I fell in love with that puppy a few weeks ago.

I was on my way back from New Bern, where UNC-TV was recording a “North Carolina Bookwatch” interview with author Nicholas Sparks.

In Kinston, I dropped by Kings, a barbecue restaurant that is one of those locally owned places that people across the state bring up when they talk about the favorite home-cooking places they visit while they are traveling.

Lots of folks who travel to the beach on U.S. Highway 70 told me they make Kings a regular stop. I wanted to include it in a group of iconic North Carolina eateries in a new book as a follow-up to “North Carolina Roadside Eateries,” which UNC Press published two years ago.

Long before Kinston’s public TV star Vivian Howard opened the now famous Chef & the Farmer, Kings had earned its special place.

It began in 1936 when Frank King built a country store and small gas station in front of his farm. His son Wilbur took over the store in 1938 and passed it on to his son, Wilbur Jr. Tragically, Wilbur’s grandson, Wilbur III, died in an accident in 2003, and long-time employee Joe Hargitt became manager. Wilbur Jr. began transferring ownership to him.

That family tradition carries over to the employees. When I walked in to Kings unannounced, Justina Williams greeted me like a family member. “Come look at the buffet. It’s only $10.95, and you can get all you want and go back for more.”

When I said I wasn’t that hungry, she took me to the other end, sat me down at a table, gave me a menu, and introduced me to the manager, Barbara Gooding. “Mr. King hired me in 1987. Mr. Hargitt came on board about the same time and we worked together until he became the owner. Now he is my boss.”

But on the night I was there, Barbara was running the show and bragging to me about her daughters, both Eagles at North Carolina A&T.

Barbara suggested that I try Kings signature dish, the “Pig in a Puppy.” I did, and I loved that puppy from the first bite.

I am not by myself.

Saveur Magazine praised the puppy by describing it as “a quarter pound of hand-chopped whole hog laid under a mess of vinegary slaw, the pig…squished into a superabsorbent hoagie of a hush puppy — the sweet cornmeal fritter stretched out, pressed flat, and fried crisp to order.”

When I took a bite of the puppy and the barbecue, sweet slaw and crispy hush puppy, those tastes came to my mouth at the same time and blended into a wonderful treat.

That is when I fell in love with the puppy, and its beautiful memory will bring me back to Kings whenever I am close by.

Two years ago the floods following Hurricane Matthew devastated Kings. But Joe Hargitt and his crew had it up and running again in a couple of months. Hargitt held a grand reopening ceremony and announced a continuing two-for-one special on Tuesday nights: buy one dinner and get another free.

If Florence’s flood shuts down Kings again for a while, I will be waiting for the signal that it is open again and the puppy I love is ready for me to come visit again.

NOTE: If you have a favorite stopping and eating place like Kings, please share your story about it and your visits there. Send your report to me at nceateries@yahoo.com

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Thursdays at 5 p.m. and Sundays at 11 a.m. on UNC-TV. Preview the upcoming program on UNC-TV’s North Carolina digital channel (Spectrum #1276) on Tuesdays at 8 p.m. This Thursday’s and Sunday’s guest is Heather Bell Adams, author of “Maranatha Road.”