TONY KAIL (orig pub 04/13/2011)
For those of us living in the South, the culture of barbecue joints has been an integral part of the Southern landscape for many years. The quintessential barbecue joint symbolizes much more than just food but rests in our memories as a place of iconic imagery. It reminds us of good memories and simpler times. There is a certain pageantry to pulling up to an old wooden shed. It’s roof billowing with smoke. Its imperfect lettering painted across a tattered wooden plank. A screen door that hides a room of fellowship and great culinary talent. The southern barbecue joint is a true cultural treasure.
Sadly, many of these iconic treasures are disappearing right in front of our eyes. On a cold December evening, I pulled up into the gravel parking lot of Herb’s Bar-B-Cue, a local barbecue landmark that has served the community of East Jackson Tennessee for several years. The building seemed to glow with its deep blue colored paint and it’s flashing neon sign in the window. For years I had visited this sacred temple of pork after high school, during college and as a grown adult. Its history seemed to mark some of the personal highlights in my own life.
As I got out of my car, I noticed that there were no familiar clouds of smoke coming from the pit behind Herb’s. There was a certain coldness to the whole scene. Upon opening the creaking wooden door that had greeted me throughout the years, I was met with an uncomfortable silence. I no longer heard the sound of a blaring television set that entertaining a table of old men nursing cans of cheap beer and barbecue sandwiches. The wrinkled poster boards that served as menus that once advertised ‘pigs feet’ and ‘rib tips’ were no longer hanging above the counter. I turned to find the owner Mr. Herb stacking dishes in cardboard boxes.
“Mr. Herb, how ya doin?” I asked. His tired eyes looked up from thick stained glasses. “We closed” he responded. I said “Oh, you need me to come back another day?” I asked. He wiped his forehead and said “ No son, we’re closing for good.” For a moment, I was speechless. I felt like someone had hit me. No longer would l smell the robust smoke from the pit calling out to the street. No longer would I taste the sweet spicy sauces concocted from family recipes guarded like secret formulas. A place that had become part of my life was going away.
“ Son, Do you know where an old man can get a job? Do you know anyone hiring an old barbecue cook? Do you know I don’t know anything else but cooking barbecue?” I stood there, shocked and numb.
I looked at Mr. Herb. His old man suspenders straining against his shoulders. The gray hairs on his head marking his years working in the pit. Here was a man who like many in the barbecue business had sunk their life into this art. The closing of the business didn’t just mean an end to making ends meet, it also meant that an artist could no longer make his art.
“ I tried to make it. I tried to keep her open but I couldn’t make it through this last time. Finances too hard. People aren’t buying barbecue like they used to. They are going to these big restaurants. They don’t wanna help the little man.“
Unfortunately the same sentiment is being echoed throughout the South in many of our local pits and smokehouses. Big business barbecue is becoming the name of the game and the smaller, family-owned places are slowly disappearing. In West Tennessee there used to be a gallery of barbecue joints that seasoned the countryside in rural farm towns and throughout inner city communities. These days, it is becoming harder and harder to find these landmarks of folk history.
The tools and techniques used by the great barbecue artisans of West Tennessee are being slowly replaced by an industrialized society of electric smokers, computerized cookers and the latest technological gadgets. Those few remaining artisans who work the traditional pits utilize the bare essentials…meat, fire and wood. Some of the elders of the barbecue communities see a breakdown in the art as one of the reasons for this disappearance. “ My grandchildren don’t want to stand out here and cook!” one pitmaster tells me. “It’s hard work. Takes to long. You gotta know when to put your meat on. Know when to turn your meat and know when to pull it off. These kids today don’t want to spend 18 hours in a pit. They wanna stick the meat in an electric smoker.”
The disappearance of the barbecue joint in West Tennessee has opened the South up to a number of large corporate owned barbecue establishments. Many of them try to ‘recreate’ the aesthetics of barbecue joints with blues music, pig images and promises of ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ dishes. Many of them unfortunately offer over-priced, synthetic, mass marketed meals. In his book Smokestack Lightning, writer Lolis Eric Elie writes about his experience in a big chain barbecue restaurant. The “antiseptic quality” of the service and food is ever present. It is place that Elie says “wouldn’t take much to turn into a TGI Fridays”. These antiseptic hot spots are becoming more and more common in the South.
As barbecue joints in West Tennessee are being replaced with high-end restaurants selling barbecue we are losing some of our local folk culture. Most of the families that own those existing barbecue joints in West Tennessee speak of creating barbecue out of love for the dish. This is something that gets lost in translation with big business. A zit faced teenager shoving pig in metal drawers to be digitally smoked can’t compare.
Most of the pit owners I met on the West Tennessee barbecue trail barely keep the lights on from their earnings. I assure you that many are far from getting rich by cooking the hog. Yet most would be appalled at selling a sandwich for seven dollars. Historically barbecue has been the food of the common man. Those essential elements of meat, fire and wood can be harnessed by any socio-economic group. Many barbecue joints in West Tennessee are instrumental for providing meals to many lower income households. The barbecue joint functions as a social community where restaurant owners can keep a finger on the pulse on the economic status of their customers. Prices may change when meat goes up but it typically never gets out of range of the local community affordability.
Our communities need barbecue joints. I believe that we can keep these culinary traditions alive by patronizing those existing joints, pits and smokehouses that make up the barbecue community. I believe we can keep these businesses open by patronizing locally owned businesses. Lastly, we need to preserve these icons of southern heritage by recording their histories. Many of these establishments have a rich history that typically begins with a family. Generations of recipes and techniques are handed down and presented to the community around them.
The barbecue joint is an important cloth in the fabric of the South. It represents values like family and having pride in your work. It represents hearts that resist the temptation to sell out and become cookie cutter feeders that are overpriced and under quality. It represents a story of survival. This is the heart of the barbecue artist. This is why West Tennessee barbecue joints must survive.
TONY KAIL is a freelance writer who grew up in rural West Tennessee. He is the author of four books including Meat Fire Wood: The Survival of West Tennessee Barbecue Joints. He and his wife are founders of the blog Foodies in the Bible Belt.