CHARLOTTE, N.C. For as long as I can remember, the people of Goldsboro told themselves that an Olive Garden was supposed to open in their city. Growing up in this small Eastern North Carolina city, I remember the rumors of the restaurant’s coming circulating through pool parties and soccer games.
“You know, I’ve heard they’ll start construction next month,” I would overhear someone tell my mother. Fine Italian dining in our town; mouths watered at the prospect.
They made it sound magical. I imagined frescoed walls painted in warm, rich palettes. I dreamed of menus filled with dishes I couldn’t pronounce. The town imagined an Olive Garden as a upgrade to its lifestyle.
For much of its existence, Goldsboro has been a place to pass through. It was founded as a railroad junction in the early 19th century. General Sherman paused briefly in the town during his campaign through the south. Today, the town hugs the highway that links the Triangle to the beaches of Bogue Banks. The roar of jets, constantly taking off and landing, at Seymour Johnson Air Force base form part of the city’s backdrop.
I felt that an Olive Garden would establish a permanence to the town that it had never known, a reason for the casual passersby to pause and acknowledge our existence.
The sons and daughters of Wayne County are reared on an ample supply of pork barbecue. We are baptized in sweet tea. Unconfirmed reports abound of epiphanies bordering on a religious experience while eating at Wilbur’s Barbecue. I remember attending the county fair and reading a banner boldly proclaiming Goldsboro the barbecue capital of the world.
Pork was seared into the town’s identity, but it seems that identity was being reconsidered. Of course, there were concerns. Would this new restaurant mark a wrenching transition from family-owned to franchised dining? The unthinkable possibility of unlimited salad and breadsticks usurping hush puppies and coleslaw rippled through the town’s churches.
In high school, I welcomed the potential change. I condemned all the Friday nights filled with eating burgers and fries in one parking lot or another. I anxiously awaited the moment when those currents that flowed so swiftly around our town would redirect and bring bigger and better things.
But in my senior year of high school, the Olive Garden rumors had become muddied. Conflicting reports emerged that a Red Lobster was coming instead. Some said town planning and zoning restrictions had chilled Olive Garden’s interest.
At the university in Chapel Hill, I found my hometown did have a reputation, and that reputation preceded me. “Oh you’re from Goldsboro,” fellow students would say in first introductions. “I love barbecue!” Late-night burgers and fries gave way to later night pizza and beer. I loved college, but I was prone to homesickness at times. Being homesick is a lot like being hungry. You feel it in your stomach, and it doesn’t go away until something is done about it.
At long last, the Goldsboro council approved the construction of an Olive Garden last summer. There were no celebrations or riots in the street. Restaurants have opened in town, some have closed, but Goldsboro’s purpose has persisted: to fill transient and residential bellies alike. I have come to appreciate that fact. It is not the neon glow from a chain restaurant’s sign that guides me back home, but the smoke signals cast high into the sky from Wilbur’s oak-fired grill.