The diners hoist their half-liter beers in the air, toasting and swaying in time to "Que Sera Sera," as an accordion player strolls among the tables, leading the chorus.
Waitresses unload food in waves: salads topped with marinated beets and green beans, thick potato pancakes, jaeger schnitzel and red cabbage, sauerbraten and spaetzle, beer-battered tilapia, beer-marinated bratwurst and, for dessert, apple strudel and 6-inch-high slices of Black Forest Cake.
These two dozen diners - public television-watching, Our State magazine-subscribing folks mostly over 50 - are eating at the Old German Schnitzel Haus in Hickory. This restaurant is the first stop on a statewide weekend eating tour that started in Raleigh.
The tour guide, singing along to "Roll Out the Barrel" and "Rocky Top," is Bob Garner, North Carolina's barbecue expert.
Garner, 64, is the most recognized on-air personality at UNC-TV, the state's public broadcasting station. Fifteen years ago, he filmed one segment about Lexington Barbecue, a mecca of Western North Carolina's pulled pork, tomato-and-vinegar sauced style. The response led to more barbecue segments, television specials, two books and now this: Bob Garner's Restaurant Road Trips.
Garner's quest to tour the state's restaurants grew out of his love for sharing food finds with others. But before he could launch his first road trip, he had to get his health under control.
At the tour's first stop, diner Carl Curry of Graham says to another: "My wife was under the impression that Bob is much bigger than he is. I'll have to tell her that he's very trim."
Garner is walking around the dining room, checking to see how people are enjoying their food. He offers tastes of a German dumpling dish the chef sent to his table. Throughout the weekend, Garner is charming and solicitous of his guests. As the crowd files off the bus at the Highland Lake Inn in Flat Rock, 30 miles south of Asheville, he points out a golf cart to a woman using a walker: "There's your chariot." Inside the inn, Garner helps deliver luggage to people's rooms. He checks in with the chef on the status of the whole hog that will become a pig picking feast for dinner.
Married into pork
Bob Garner learned to cook a pig decades ago from his wife's brothers. Going whole hog is, in many ways, a phrase that describes his life. He and Ruthie met at UNC-Chapel Hill. He proposed to her on the morning of her last final and then drove to outside Scotland Neck - 90 miles east of Raleigh - to ask for her father's blessing.
Her dad, a farmer who grew tobacco and soybeans and raised cattle and hogs, was waiting in the pig parlor. He wore hip boots and chomped on a cigar. And pretended he couldn't hear over the squealing pigs as Garner, in his Madras shorts and Weejuns shoes, stood there, repeating himself.
"He was just playing with me," Garner says.
Garner's bachelor party was a pig-picking. He and Ruthie married Dec. 21, 1968, and moved to Denver, where Garner was attending college. After graduation, Garner's goal of becoming a network reporter didn't last long.
"I got pregnant," Ruthie says. "I said, 'I got to go home.'"
Home they came. Garner started working at radio and television stations in Greensboro. The couple had three children and bought a house in Burlington. He ended up at UNC-TV when he was asked in 1995 to do that fateful segment about Lexington Barbecue.
Soon Garner was crisscrossing the state, eating barbecue on and off the camera. On every segment, a portly Garner - trim, white haircut, large-framed eyeglasses, a long-sleeve button-up shirt - would sit with three or four plates of food before him, licking his fingers, uttering a satisfied "mmmm" after taking a bite. This new role suited Garner, who always had a large appetite. He loved barbecue, hunks of meat cooked on the grill and late-night sandwiches. Often when filming, he would eat all four plates spread out before him. "If it didn't run away from me, I'm going to eat it," Garner says.
Soon, Garner wrote, "North Carolina. Barbecue: Flavored by Time," the first such book devoted exclusively to the state's barbecue traditions. He became the expert, says historian John Shelton Reed, co-author of the more recent "Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue."
During his own research, Shelton Reed said, "Time and again people would ask why we were writing ours since his already existed - that is, they assumed there was nothing more to be said on the subject."
Stomach of steel
Garner's reputation and his personality are what enticed people to go on this trip.
Seated on soft couches in the inn's lounge before dinner, Clay Burch and his wife, Debbie, of Raleigh acknowledge this $700 weekend excursion was not cheap. "For a lot less money, we could go to these places ourselves," Burch says.
His wife responds: "But you wouldn't have Bob Garner telling stories."
After eating their fill of chopped pork, beans, boiled potatoes and peach cobbler, they trek down to the lakeside campfire. Garner, his face lit by the fire, tells them about Henry Evans, a preacher and freed slave who took his sermons and barbecue to Fayetteville. He talks about Adam Scott, a black janitor who turned the back of his Goldsboro house into a restaurant in the 1930s where whites and blacks lined up together to eat. He notes that Hursey's Bar-B-Q was spared vandalism during race riots in the 1960s because the owner had insisted that black customers be treated the same as whites.
Then Garner tells them a more personal tale. About six months ago, he had gastric-bypass surgery. That's why he looks trimmer than they expected. "So many people have been saying, 'You look so much heavier on TV.' I'm sure it's confusing for people."
At his heaviest, Garner carried 321 pounds on his 6-foot frame. The turning point came two years ago when Garner, his wife and friends from church went ice skating, and he was so chubby he couldn't lace up his skates properly. "I was so humiliated," he says.
When a woman at his church had success with gastric-bypass surgery, Garner started wondering whether that could be his answer. His children feared this would become a quick fix, not the long-term change he would need to stay healthy. They wondered whether he could still do his job or launch these road trips. (His daughter calls them "eat fests.")
The doctors issued warnings: It might take nine months to regain his sense of taste. Sugar and fried foods might make him sick.
But Garner seems to have a stomach of steel. His sense of taste returned in three days. In September, he judged a barbecue sauce contest. Ruthie says she and her two oldest children were panicked. They thought: "This can't be right."
So far, Garner has lost almost 100 pounds from his peak. He's eating a third of what he used to; Ruthie serves him on salad plates and in custard cups so the portions don't look so tiny. He has lost his taste for big hunks of meat. But if he does eat too much or too quickly, Garner says he will get sick.
"This is going to be his ongoing challenge," Ruthie says. "He can eat almost anything."
Bite. Repeat. Bite.
The morning after the campfire, Garner is preparing to film a segment for "North Carolina Weekend," the weekly UNC-TV show devoted to the state's worthy destinations from tourist spots to hot dog stands. Garner fills a plate at the Highland Lake Inn's breakfast buffet: fruit and yogurt; egg casserole with ham, spinach, onion, Asiago cheese and portobello mushrooms; cheese grits and pancakes and syrup.
"I'm going to come back and get another plate," Garner says to the cook.
He sets the first plate down on the table in front of the cameraman. On his second plate, Garner piles biscuits and gravy, bacon and the house specialty: oatmeal with peaches, apricots and figs.
As Ruthie walks into the dining room, she eyes the spread on the table before her husband. "Oh, Bob, you are going to enjoy all of that, aren't you?" she says.
With the cameras rolling, Garner takes a bite of the oatmeal, the grits, the casserole. He tastes. He comments. He repeats.
But once filming stops, Garner takes another bite or so and stops eating.
That, Garner says, is how he can still tape segments about restaurants and food traditions across the state for "North Carolina Weekend."
Trying to get better
His newfound restraint also makes these road trips possible. The idea has been percolating for years. People often ask whether he needs a driver. He and his wife thought it might be fun to take a group on an eating adventure. He would tell stories and they would eat . He would, too, but not much.
"They aren't really interested in what I eat," Garner says. "They're interested in what they are eating."
At the final stop, Ye Olde Country Kitchen, a country cooking buffet in Snow Camp, about 30 miles southeast of Greensboro, the diners can't stop talking about the paper-thin deep-fried squash, the chicken and dumplings, the persimmon pudding. No one notices that Garner loads his plate but barely makes a dent.
Sated, on Sunday afternoon, the diners climb back onto the bus, and it heads to Raleigh. Now, they start asking Garner questions about his surgery.
"Did your taste buds change?"
"What about barbecue?"
"Barbecue doesn't bother me, as long as I don't eat it too quickly," he says. "My eating is so strange now. I'd just as soon eat a Lean Cuisine or a Stouffer's stuffed pepper."
As the bus gets close to Raleigh, Garner stands up in the front and grabs the microphone: "Everybody, thanks so much for being such a good group. ... We didn't have the sauce for the barbecue. We had the wrong peach cobbler. We made a wrong turn here and there. We would love to get any feedback from you. We want to always be getting better."
Someone says: "We can probably give you a little feedback right now" and leads the travelers in applause.
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