A Barbecue Joint

COLUMBIANA—I am eating barbecue. Good barbecue. The kind prepared in an establishment that looks like a hunting cabin. A spot called Tin Top Barbecue. I believe God lives in the back room.

I cannot eat barbecue without first saying grace. It’s not like this with any other style of cuisine. For example, I recently tried eating sushi. Not only did I forget to say grace, apparently I also forgot to make sure my food was dead.

But with barbecue it’s impossible to look upon tender, carbon-encrusted glistening pork and not remove your hat to say a few words of heavenly thanks.

You cannot find barbecue like the kind I’m eating at mere restaurants, eateries, or cafés. You only find it in backyards, pit trailers, or at places my people call “joints.” These are usually establishments with gingham table cloths, rough-milled walls, napkin dispensers, and Merle Haggard on the radio.

I’ll bet Merle always said grace.

I remember the first time I ever ate the bounty from this particular joint:

I was about to make a speech at Shelby County High School—just down the road. The shindig was catered with barbecue from this very kitchen. When the meal was served I had a spiritual experience and I almost blacked out.

I was struck with a whiplash of hickory-scented memories. All of a sudden, I was sitting with my uncle in the middle of a cow pasture. I was watching him tend his homemade smoker.

Though, calling his heap a “smoker” would be too generous. It was really just some automotive junk my uncle would light on fire. His apparatus was a homemade cinder-block pit, filled with coals, topped with chain link fence, covered with a salvaged hood from a Chevy Impala.

Every few minutes he’d lift the hood to stab the fire with a shovel. He’d take a big whiff and say, “Smell that wood?”

I would breathe in the colorful palette of woody aromas. Hickory, applewood, pecan, and a slight sprinkling of low octane gasoline for added flavor.

So I wish I could tell you that I’m a barbecue expert, but the truth is I’m just an average Joe who likes the taste of smoke. That’s all. You could add smoke to any food product and I’d think you were a culinary genius. My friends all know this about me.

Once, my friend James even made me some smoked peanut butter for Christmas. He was just fooling around with the new grill he got for his birthday. So he smoked an entire jar of JIF. His wife thought he’d lost his mind. Me? I had one taste of and started singing “When We All Get to Heaven.”

But don’t misunderstand me, I’m not a complete barbecue tenderfoot. One time, I was even invited to help judge a barbecue competition in North Carolina, with a bunch of real aficionados. These were prestigious judges from a legitimate barbecue society, and they were very snooty. I didn’t belong.

These guys didn’t look like you’d think they would. When I think of a barbecue man, I think of a big old Teddy bear like my uncle. The kind of man who cleans his belly button lint with his after-dinner toothpick.

But these men looked like librarians. Their ringleader was a man who weighed about ninety pounds, soaking wet, with a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, a thermometer in his chest pocket, and—I’m not making this up—Gucci shoes.

The funny thing was, the event was held at the fairgrounds where there were a lot of blue-ribbon farm animals wandering around and committing prize-winning acts of agriculture on the grass. It wasn’t really the place for Italian loafers.

Well, Gucci Guy was the kind of man who spent the day lecturing us on the finer points of pork texture and muscular fat marbling. After a few hours, this guy was on my nerves. I don’t want to say I disliked him, but let’s just say that when his Guccis landed in a cowpie, I didn’t exactly cry.

Anyway, the reason I tell you this is because I learned something about myself that day. Because whenever the judges sampled contestant food, they disliked most of what they tasted. It was unbelievable. I couldn’t have felt more differently about all the barbecue I was sampling. In fact, I had already proposed marriage to at least seven of the pitmasters.

There was one particular tent where a man was preparing Saint Louis-style ribs. You could smell them clear over in Canada. After one bite of his fare, I had to sit down. It was the best rib I’d ever put in my mouth. The meat just slipped right off the bone.

The irony is, Gucci Guy hated these ribs. He spit wads of meat into his napkin and gave the contestant zeroes. I couldn’t believe it.

I asked Gucci what was wrong. He simply adjusted his glasses and said, “If you have to ask, then you shouldn’t be here.”

He was right of course. And after that I felt like a plain hick. And it was then that I realized how uncultured I am.

Even so, I know what I like to eat. And whenever I pass through Shelby County, the first thing I do is ride along Old Highway 25 until I see that familiar joint with the pinewood siding.

I order a pound of pork. I pay my tab. Then I crawl into my truck, I turn off my stereo, I remove my hat. I take one sharp sniff. I close my eyes.

And I say grace.

31 comments

  1. Betty - July 24, 2020 8:41 am

    Go back through Northport and stop at @Arcibald’s Barbecue. It’s the best in Alabama.

    Reply
  2. Susan - July 24, 2020 9:39 am

    Rib Bones in Gadsden, Alabama. The BBQ pork sandwich is as big as a headlight and it is heaven on a bun!!!

    Reply
  3. Robert M Brenner - July 24, 2020 11:57 am

    Sean, one of the GREATEST lines ever written! I mean I’m talking right up there with “to be or not to be”! Folks, you have just read a “Masterpiece”!! I’m referring to “the kind of man who cleans his belly button lint with his after-dinner toothpick”. I’m writing this with tears in my eyes. This day will go down in the history of all literature as an epic day! Sean you are “The Bard of modern day literature”.

    Congratulations “Sir Sean of the South”,
    Bob ❤️ 😂 (Happy Tears)

    Reply
  4. Sandy - July 24, 2020 12:15 pm

    Thanks, Sean, for bringing back so many memories of eating in “‘joints” !!! Oh my, that food was the best. I will read your story over and over. Have a wonderful day, my friend, and enjoy —–

    Reply
  5. Joe Bolton - July 24, 2020 12:17 pm

    ABSOLUTELY!! When I was in school at UA, I saw Bear Bryant several times at Archibald’s.

    Reply
  6. Noah - July 24, 2020 12:48 pm

    We lived in Tuscaloosa many years. Always enjoyed Archibald’s. Wonder if it is the same now.

    Reply
  7. Helen De Prima - July 24, 2020 12:59 pm

    One error in your story: beat-up license plates (primarily from states where barbecue is the official language) should decorate the walls. And yeah, my husband, (whose email handle is bearbq) once served as a judge.

    Reply
  8. Richda D McNutt - July 24, 2020 1:14 pm

    You’re talking to the mother of a guy who would have replaced manna with barbecue – I sent your column to him today. If this piece doesn’t turn him into a loyal Sean of the South reader, nothing will. By the way, he’s an academic librarian – but nothing like the ones you had contact with. I think you two are made for each other.

    Reply
  9. Retired Ol' Geezer - July 24, 2020 1:40 pm

    Well Sean, next time you’re in Shelby County, you may want to try the original Tin Top Barbecue. It’s on Hwy 31, about three and a half miles south of The Heart of Dixie Railroad Museum in Calera. The Columbiana branch is good, yeah,sure. However, as Dobie Gray sang in 1965, in his hit, “The In Crowd”, “The original is still the greatest”.

    Reply
  10. Kathy - July 24, 2020 2:01 pm

    Steve would be happy you’re still enjoying barbecue at the Tin Top

    Reply
  11. Bill Strawn - July 24, 2020 2:49 pm

    You are obviously a man after my own heart. I love your writing style, but more I like your thoughts on our world. And as for gucci man, Bless his heart.

    Reply
  12. Jill Gardner - July 24, 2020 2:54 pm

    I love this story.
    I grew up with a father and older brother spending a day around a brick bbq pit we had in the back yard.
    I also love the smell of BBQ smoke on a man.
    It’s hard to find real bbq around where I live. some people are crazy about some of the local spots – but it isn’t real bbq.
    You said it right . and I am a bbq snob like you. good company!
    Here’s to more good bbq this summer. And I do think I make great ribs!!
    Jill

    Reply
  13. Dee Thompson - July 24, 2020 3:02 pm

    Loved this one! In my house growing up BBQ was like a religion. My daddy would drive 20 miles of bad road to eat at a barbeque joint somebody told him about. When we moved from Augusta to Knoxville in 1971 he was so distraught at leaving Brown’s BBQ that the first party we had, he paid a guy to get Brown’s cue to us. The man put 20 lbs of Brown’s BBQ and sides in coolers and put them on the Greyhound bus to us in Knoxville. Dad nearly cried when we got it. When Dad retired he started making his own BBQ out of Boston butts, and taking the BBQ to all the friends and family in town on Christmas eve. He always forgot how much fatty pork cooks down, so each present was about enough meat for one sandwich, but everyone still appreciated the effort. I like to think that now, in heaven, Dad get the best BBQ ever made, and he gets to drink an ice cold beer while he eats and swaps stories with his brothers and maybe Lewis Grizzard; that would be his idea of heaven..

    Reply
  14. Mary M Berryman - July 24, 2020 3:06 pm

    Good one, Sean!

    Reply
  15. Anne Arthur - July 24, 2020 3:15 pm

    I second that.
    Sean, the way you come up with words like these … priceless, hilarious, and sooo uplifting. You make my day. 🙂

    Reply
  16. Anthony - July 24, 2020 3:54 pm

    What exactly does “joint” mean? Anybody?

    Reply
  17. Linda Moon - July 24, 2020 4:26 pm

    Two BBQ joints in my Alabama home are God-sends for my family and me. I’m not sure if one is still open…it’s been a while since I’ve been there: Let’s Eat Smoked Meat in Hueytown. The other one is Bob Sykes BAR-B-Q in Bessemer. I must say I’m glad you don’t fit in with snobby swells of any sort. So, the next time you’re near Hueytown or Bessemer, drop by Bob Sykes BAR-B-Q and tell Van Sykes I sent you. And, today I’ll be singing Merle’s song to wish you safe travels on your way back home with good memories from your Road Trip through Alabama!

    Reply
  18. Janice - July 24, 2020 5:57 pm

    Shelby County — my neck of the woods once upon a time. Columbian is a special town!!

    Reply
  19. Larry - July 24, 2020 6:33 pm

    A ‘joint’ means any establishment that doesn’t cater to, or is appreciated by, pretty college boys in loafers nor girls with their nose so high in the air that they drown in light rain showers when caught outside. It might be a bbq shack or a local tavern serving cold adult beverages and pickled pig feet or pickled boiled eggs. The cream of southern life.

    Reply
  20. oldandblessed - July 24, 2020 6:53 pm

    Smoked peanut butter? 😲

    Reply
  21. MAM - July 24, 2020 7:37 pm

    “Joint” means original, unpretentious, friendly, genuine, and delicious. We had one of those where I grew up in south Texas. They served ONLY pork that they raised, and it was the best barbecue I’ve ever had and will ever have. They smoked it in a shack in their backyard and you ate sort-of-outside in a screened in building (to keep the voracious flies and mosquitoes out). They only served in the warmer months, not when it got chilly at night. And usually a hunk of fresh watermelon was dessert. I’m salivating just remembering it. Fall off the bone, awesome!

    Reply
  22. George T. Jacoby - July 24, 2020 8:32 pm

    Sean, if you have not stopped at the BBQ House in Ft. Mitchell, you have missed a contender for Alabama BBQ Hall of Fame. It’s on 165, mile or so north of “downtown” Ft. Mitchell, and a half mile south of the road to Ft. Benning and Fryar Field Drop Zone. Absolutely one of if not the best I’ve encountered in my three-quarters of a century living all over the south (and foreign lands, like Texas, New Mexico, and (shudder!) Baltimore, MD). Their BBQ slaw is by far the best ever, surpassing what I thought was #1 at Mike and Ed’s in Phenix City. Since I can’t post a picture, here’s alink to the Giggle Street View of it:
    https://www.google.com/maps/@32.3190504,-85.0151473,3a,18.7y,250.55h,89.96t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sIqs9bxO9Mc_-EhmnUeoSxQ!2e0!7i16384!8i8192

    Bone appateet!

    Reply
  23. Nancy M - July 24, 2020 11:05 pm

    You were the only true judge of barbecue. Those Gucci librarians should’ve been judging sushi or anything else. They didn’t know barbecue!!

    Reply
  24. Dawn Bratcher - July 25, 2020 12:06 am

    That Gucci guy needed to go back to whereever he came from! Moist, fall-off-the-bone, rich deep sauced caramelized ribs that make you sing, deserve a medal!

    Reply
  25. MJ - July 25, 2020 3:01 am

    Got a screened in porch if you want to dine in.
    otherwise, just like always.

    Reply
  26. Gordonthegearhead - July 25, 2020 10:27 am

    @Anthony. A ‘joint’ is an establishment; a barbeque joint, a sushi joint, a steak joint. Whatever. Unless you were kidding. In that case, I did not reply.

    Reply
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  28. Susan Kennedy - July 27, 2020 1:13 am

    I know we’re talking about Alabama BBQ, but if you’re ever northwest of Atlanta in Cartersville GA, you ought to stop in Scott’s Walk Up BBQ. I think you’ll like it! 🙂

    Reply
  29. dexq - July 28, 2020 12:34 am

    Greetings from Emma’s BBQ, Seattle

    Reply
  30. Sharon Clark Chang - July 29, 2020 9:10 pm

    In Fredericksburg, VA we have Allman’s Barbecue. It might be one step up from a joint since they installed outdoor seating and a canopy to shelter it, but regardless, it’s definitely a legend.

    Established in 1954 by converting a filling station on Route 1 just opposite the smokestack on the campus of Mary Washington University..

    Fly-specked screen door.

    Waitresses who call you “honey.”

    Behind the counter, the taxidermied head of what must once, at a time roughly coincidental with the Fall of Rome, have been a pig.

    AND you can get barbecue any way you want it, as long as you want it:

    1. Pork.

    2. Sliced or minced.

    3. On a bun or as a platter–or to take out in a pint or quart container.

    Oh, and forget about trying to go there on a Sunday. They’re closed.

    Stop by next time you’re in town.

    Reply
  31. WDS - August 1, 2020 12:08 pm

    Being a damn Yankee and visitin’ my grandparents in SC as a kid brings back the memory of waiting for Friday night and having BBQ from the local joint. Fast forward many years and a relocation I once again enjoyed that mustard based delicacy until my GF and I visited her Mom in TX. Well, she took us to a BBQ place out on a dirt road somewhere and all I can tell you I’ll never eat mustard based BBQ again I don’t care who “fixed” it.

    Reply

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