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.