At Burley's Bar-B-Cue on Oakland Mills Road in Columbia, customers get a taste of more than what William Burley calls his "anointed meat." They get the remnants of a rural, historic, black community - now a small enclave squeezed by the rows of suburban homes that surround it.
Sitting on a hard wooden bench in front of the ramshackle blue building that decades ago was his great aunt Dora Mack Carter's grocery store/gas station, the plain-spoken Burley, 67, personifies old Guilford - the black community that long predated suburbia.
"He's an icon in this county," says the Rev. John L. Wright, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Guilford, who has known Burley for 28 years. "He's a person of outstanding character, very gentle," who has spent years mentoring young men in the community.
Burley is a friendly, expansive man, with a gray goatee, a generous belly covered by a T-shirt advertising his business, a few missing teeth and a strong sense of belonging, despite all the new development around him.
"When we were boys, we used to go and get hay from a man named Ryan, who was a builder," he says. "He said to us that one day there's going to be a city here. We laughed at him. Sure enough, there's a city there."
Burley's great-aunt Dora and her husband, Richard Carter, built the half-dozen small bungalows that line Oakland Mills Road and Cartersville Road, a private lane next to his blue "Club House." He uses the building for storage and as a meeting place for his Young Men's Club of Guilford.
The club has 13 members, he said, young men he counsels and mentors and who help him keep in touch with the community. Burley lives nearby, in Jessup.
Richard and Dora Mack's old white frame house stands empty next door, though two dogs are tied in the back yard among several of the extended family's rusting vehicles. On Burley's storefront porch, the mailman cheerfully stuffs several letters into a hole in the wall next to the battered door frame.
Richard Carter died in 1941, and his nephew Samuel helped Dora run some family enterprises. Dora Mack Carter, famous in the Guilford area for teaching music to generations of children, operating two grocery stores and selling insurance and real estate, lived until 1979, when she was 98. A building down the street, next to Wright's church, is named for her, the "Dora Mack Carter Christian Center."
No matter how close they get, new homes and new people don't bother him, Burley says.
He tried living in Columbia once, he says, but moved out after running afoul of the planned town's covenants - they wouldn't allow him his outdoor CB radio antenna. His handle was "Triple B," for Bill Burley's Bar-B-Cue.
It might seem that Columbia's sprawl will some day surely replace old Guilford's small homes, but Burley doesn't seem concerned.
"They can't close in but so close on me," Burley says. He glances at the modern Guilford Elementary School across Oakland Mills Road, and the townhouses, garden apartments and detached single-family homes that surround the tiny community his family built. Burley says he and his sister Felicia will never sell.
As his meat simmers in a mobile cooker hooked to the back of one of his three aging trucks, he frequently nods or smiles at friends and customers who honk or wave as they drive past.
"He tortures us all with the smells," says Bette Kennard, an instructional assistant at Guilford Elementary who has stopped by to chat at lunchtime. "I've never met such a character."
Burley says, "I just like mentoring, and talking to interesting people, and discussing the Bible."
Never a drinker or smoker, Burley says he's not a regular churchgoer, but "I read my Bible. You do your job out here. I live as close to the Ten Commandments as I can and treat my fellow man right."
Born in 1933, Burley grew up in Howard's rural, strictly segregated society. His old, all-black elementary school stands just around the corner on Guilford Road, now an apartment house. He has relatives and ancestors buried in the First Baptist Church of Guilford cemetery behind the Club House, and others in a family plot farther east on Guilford Road in Asbury.
He learned cooking during his childhood, he says, dropping out of Cooksville High School - the only one for blacks - after the 11th grade. "I wanted to be on my own and own something," he says.
Owning land and businesses was a mark of Burley's extended family, Wright says.
"They were quite successful as entrepreneurs and owners of property," Wright notes, very unusual then for African-Americans. Relatives owned car repair garages, a bus service and a taxi service.
Burley says he worked as a laborer at Fort Meade, served a stint in the Air Force, where he was again a cook, drove charter buses professionally for some years, and then in the 1950s rigged a pickup truck with mobile cooking facilities and starting selling ribs. He married his wife Edna, in 1960, and they raised three children.
"He's a really great guy," says Doris V. Harriel, who attended primary school with Burley and works as a secretary at Guilford Elementary. "He has become a religious person. He helps people out in the community."
Wright agrees: "He's a real moral person, a real example in the community. A lot of African-American men are touched by him."
Seven years ago, that strong sense of right and wrong made him a local hero. Sitting on his porch in September, he saw a man he knew was a convicted rapist watching young mothers delivering their children to Guilford Elementary.
When the man followed a woman back to her nearby townhouse, Burley wasn't far behind, and when he heard screaming inside, he burst in armed with a stick he had picked up along the way. The woman was saved from harm, the man was arrested, and Burley found himself in the spotlight.
"I was on national TV," he says.
And one of his newer friends, Wayne Hollis, 52, of Bermuda, backs him up. "It was on television in Bermuda," Hollis says.
Hollis, who was visiting Burley last week, came to Baltimore in 1992 for a heart transplant and happened to drive past the barbecue stand while recuperating in Howard County. He stopped for ribs, and he and Burley became friends. He comes back once or twice a year for checkups, he says - and some of Burley's $20-a-rack ribs. He bought six full racks before returning to Bermuda, "for the kids at home," he says. "They look at it as a feast."
"It really tastes different," Hollis says. "I don't know how he does it."
And neither does anyone else, Burley adds - not even his son Dion Kyle Burley, who sometimes helps him cook.
"If the Lord doesn't take me out all at one time, my son will get it," he says about the secret recipe he carries in his head.
If he does die suddenly one day, he says, Dion "knows different places to go," to find the secrets.
Why not tell him?
Burley answers with a story about a father who opened a business and had his son working with him. The father did so well the son opened a place next door. Soon, "he put his father out of business," Burley says with a meaningful look.
Although he has no restaurant building, doesn't keep strictly to his advertised hours of 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., and takes Sunday, Monday and Tuesdays off each week, he's not taking any chances.
And he's not worried about the fancy chain restaurants popping up in east Columbia like spring weeds. A new barbecue place called Famous Dave's just opened in the Columbia Crossing shopping center on Route 175 at Dobbin Road. He says he's taken years to perfect his recipe, based on travels all over the country.
"They're not competition to me," he says, giving a visitor an incredulous look. "They don't have the product that I have. I have anointed meat. I have a creation."