I am driving Alabama backroads. I am in search of barbecue. I always brake for barbecue.
I am searching the same way Ponce de León once hunted for the fountain of youth. The same way Hernando de Soto once looked for a mythical city of gold. The same way a guy with a dead phone battery looks for his charger.
Whenever I’m on an Alabamian road, I’m always on the lookout for barbecue. It’s my unspoken tradition. Old highways and pulled pork simply go together like French fries and ketchup. Like Peanut butter and blackberry jam. Like two familiar feelings.
In fact if you were to ask me to list the happiest feelings in the entire universe, barbecue would be up there. I can think of few things that rival the smell of distant pecan smoke, wafting through the air and bathing your awareness in the sacred smells of saturated fat.
The scent affects me the same way receiving a phone call from an old friend does. Or a postcard in the mail. Or a hug from a child, which is something else I miss in this pandemic era. Hugs.
Remember hugs? Before coronavirus, my favorite part about going to church was when service was over, when the preacher finally quit talking and people were allowed to socialize in the aisles. Because this was the moment when you hugged people. In the parking lot, kids would come running, and throw their arms around you like you were long lost pals.
And I would usually say something like, “Do you know that I was just thinking about you?”
“Yep, and I was wondering if you liked caramel candy. But, never mind, you probably don’t.”
“YES I DO!”
“No. Caramel is too grown up for you.”
“NUH-UH! I LOVE CARAMEL!”
Then I would give them a piece of wrapped caramel candy. And I would get 29 hugs in return. The old men in my childhood church always carried caramel and traded it for hugs. And if I don’t carry on this tradition, who will?
Other great human feelings are loaded fireplaces, stocked with fresh cords of wood on cold nights. And dogs—any feeling dog-related. Sleeping in. Singing with a radio in the car when your wife is on an important phone call. And receiving test results, telling you that the lump in your wife’s breast was benign. Or eating at the Gator Cafe in Baker, Florida, to celebrate non-malignant test results.
But as I said, eating barbecue ranks with the best of feelings. So does the whir of tires beneath my seat. The shallow Alabamian hillsides, rising and falling. And the idea that somewhere over the next hill is an unknown barbecue joint calling my name. Nothing like it.
Right now, my journey across this rural countryside is accompanied by farmland on both sides of my vehicle. Long green prairies to my right; golden hayfields to my left. Bass ponds. Cattle. Splintered barns, barely able to stand upright.
Lonely brick chimneys in hayfields. Creek bridges. Dogs crossing highways. Enormous John Deeres holding up traffic, driven by men old enough to remember the presidency of William McKinnley.
It’s funny. Before COVID-19, I was always driving. I was always on the road. In fact, I was practically born on the road.
Seriously. The particular moment my mother went into labor she called my father at work. She shouted into the phone that he should hurry home because she was, quote, “about to squirt this baby out!” But he couldn’t get home quick enough.
So Mama crawled into an old Ford and drove herself to the hospital. Her water broke in the car while she was speeding across an open two-lane highway.
I wasn’t even two seconds old and I was already on the road.
As a boy, I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to drive the backwaters of America, aimless, in my own vehicle. Which is exactly what I did when I was hit my late teens. When I was 17, I began driving the roads in earnest, playing music with regional bands.
These were my adventures. I played music with anyone who would have me. I played piano in Georgia one night; the next night I played guitar in some water hole in Mobile. The next evening I’d play in the corner of some Panhandle bar. The following morning, I’d be at church by seven.
Many times I slept in my truck at night. My dog would accompany me on these trips. Sometimes after gigs, on long drives home I would be too tired to drive so I would pull into vacant farmland to sleep. Technically, this was trespassing. But who’s counting?
I would unroll a blanket, my dog would curl beside me, and it was like being born again. Because the views were perfect. The sky would be nothing but scattered stars on the purple fabric of night, and I was the only human around for miles.
Now that I’m older, I realize this former teenage boy was searching for himself. Because, as embarrassed as it is to admit this, I had no idea who I was. Neither did I have any idea what life was supposed to be about, nor where I was going.
Actually, I still don’t know these things. To be perfectly honest, the only thing I’m sure about is that this life is not nearly long enough. Which somehow, only makes it infinitely more majestic. And it makes you want to just hurry up and do as much living as you can before they roll the credits.
Also, I know that each time I drive through the heart of the Alabama countryside with the windows down, on a vacant highway, I always brake for barbecue.
Charaleen Wright - February 8, 2021 6:29 am
Sandi. - February 8, 2021 6:48 am
Really good barbecue has a ‘more-ish’ taste … the more you eat of it, the more you want.
Terri Lynne Thorn - February 8, 2021 8:34 am
Well Sean, that would make a great bumper sticker! “Warning: I Brake For BBQ!” 😂 Also, you don’t usually have to drive very far on these Alabama backroads(or main roads for that matter!) to find you some barbecue. Changing the subject, but I SO LOVE Your Column!! I read them all, I don’t always comment – but I still haven’t seen one yet that I didn’t like! Your words make what your saying very relatable to the everyday average Joe – which is a wonderful thing. Thank You for sharing your gift with the rest of us!!
Betty - February 8, 2021 9:33 am
Archibalds BBQ in Northport, AL right outside Tuscaloosa is by far the best. If you haven’t been it’s worth the trip.
Philip Jennings - February 8, 2021 10:50 am
Alabama is rich with backroads. I can’t wait to return as resident this spring. I loved going inside the country store as a kid, get a Virginia Dare soft drink and a candy bar. The floors creak and the old cash register would ring. As for barbecue, family recipes and traditions run deep. The backroads of Alabama is where barbecue pits are well seasoned and produce perfect ribs, chicken and butts. Plates and sandwiches are served in heavenly concrete buildings loaded with that aroma of deliciously flavored smoke.
Yes Sean, your search is for the fountain of youth and so mine will be. I hope to see you this coming spring on my search for ‘que as I will have a “fair hope” of success in my search from our new home in Baldwin County.
pdjpop - February 8, 2021 2:13 pm
Whitt’s Barbeque in North Alabama. Best pulled pork sammich ever! See Miss Bonnie in Athens! You won’t regret it!
Pam BISHOP - February 8, 2021 11:46 am
Jim’s bbq on Hwy 82 between Billingsley and Maplesville……the absolute best!
joan moore - February 8, 2021 12:24 pm
When on I-65 N to Huntsville, take exit 308 Cullman left toward Cullman and Johnny’s BBQ is on the left! Great BBQ 👌
Lisa Weir - February 8, 2021 12:27 pm
I so love that you bring dogs into your stories. I need a truck to drive around and curl up in and nap in with my four dogs, even if I am a 57 year old woman. I can still do that!
Greyn - February 8, 2021 12:55 pm
Greatly evocative piece. I always brake for conecuh sausage.
Debbie g - February 8, 2021 1:02 pm
Make it count. as you enjoy your journey. And sounds like you know every second counts 🙂🙂
Patsy A. Boshears - February 8, 2021 1:11 pm
Peppermints. Old women at church, carefully tucking your hair behind your ears and giving you peppermints.
Jan - February 8, 2021 1:18 pm
Wonderful as always! You spin such a great tale with so many things I love – Alabama countryside, barbecue, church life, children and old people (of which I am one). Thank you!
Kate - February 8, 2021 1:21 pm
All the things I love too. When I saw the title of your story this morning, I immediately started thinking about all the wonderfully times I have had BBQ, the cookouts, the tiny road side stands, the people who I have eaten BBQ with, and somehow that led to the old fashion fish frys we use to have. What you do Sean is magical, because you somehow write and a magic wand causes us to remember GOOD things, and love. Thank you
Bill - February 8, 2021 1:42 pm
Sean, brought back a ton of memories of things I’ve done over my life. It also brought back memories of things I didn’t, but wish I had. That doesn’t mean I can’t do them, but it will now take more effort because I’m older and their are other things that are more important for me to do. If the things I haven’t done are really important, why haven’t I done them or at least tried them. Thanks for the memory jogger.
KATY @ 9:04 A.M. - February 8, 2021 2:05 pm
🐷💟Sounds like heaven on earth, Sean, heaven on earth 💟🐷
Patricia Gibson - February 8, 2021 2:24 pm
Amen to that! Enjoy every minute that you can❤️
Jeri Blom from Blaine, MN - February 8, 2021 3:42 pm
I feel like I’ve just been on a road trip through Alabama! In my mind, we stopped at Ann Biggs Williams Lottie home, and eventually we stopped for barbecue! I can picture every bend on the road!
Farris Jones - February 8, 2021 4:13 pm
If you want rural Alabama and to support locally owned and operated business , try the Smoke Wagon corner of Hwy. 331 South and Hobbie Rd , Snowdoun Alabama , great BBQ sandwiches and cheeseburgers ! Open thur-sat 11-2 , hope you get to try it soon 🙂
Floyd White - February 8, 2021 5:05 pm
I have been reading you now several years, just wondering if you have ever been to Atmore. . . .
Deborah - February 8, 2021 5:11 pm
You need to check out the barbecue in Western Ky!!! That would be Paducah, Kentucky and you should come to Paducah for Barbecue on the River!!! September 2021!!!
Linda Moon - February 8, 2021 5:50 pm
Bob Sykes Bar-B-Q in Bessemer, Alabama. Hugs. Caramel Candy. Just thinking about them gives me great feelings. Alabama, its barbecue, and my heart will always welcome you, Sean Dietrich. When I see your wife again, I’ll tell her how happy I am about her benign test results! And I’ll hug her first…..then you!!
Julie - February 8, 2021 6:05 pm
What I take from this is…eat as much BBQ as you can, because “this life is not nearly long enough.”
I have one of the easiest and best tasting BBQ recipes on the planet…and the not-so-secret ingredient is marinating the pork in lite beer. You have my email address, Sean…you won’t regret it, I promise!!
Cynthia Staton - February 8, 2021 8:07 pm
Sean, if you will visit our little church in Pinson, AL, you will get a hug from me and probably from some other folks, too. We are being COVID safe but we still hug each other and love on each other all the time. It surely does help in this crazy world we are living in right now. If you’re interested, just email me back and I will tell you where our church is.
Barbara Pope - February 9, 2021 12:56 am
Got to try 13th St Bar B Que in Phenix City. When are you coming–don’t want to miss it?
Lori - February 9, 2021 2:45 am
I’ve enjoyed everything you write. So wonderful. Takes me to lovely places in my mind. Thx
Donald Walters - February 9, 2021 10:45 am
Hello Sean first time reading can’t tell u the fear of not knowing went thru the same thing cancer is a bad word in our house me and my wife own and operate krazyrayz smokehouse been though when covid hit but we hit back we are located in Hancock MD and we love what we do hope to hear from u god speed. Thank you.
Steve Winfield (Lifer) - February 10, 2021 3:56 am
Golden Rule in Helena is way up there.
Who’s to say what’s the best?
Like you, I’m still happily exploring. Most if it is pretty good. Some are great. So many claim to be world’s best.
If I live long enough I may write a guide.
Deena - February 10, 2021 4:27 am
Never pass up an opportunity to stop at the Farmhouse ( little restaurant) in Dawson Ga if you are ever in the area. Open Thursday- Saturday. No better BBQ around (well, except for my Macedonia Church’s BBQ and you can only buy it on the special days in the year that it’s cooked). Try it! You will love it!!
EZD - February 18, 2021 8:07 am
I wonder how that would work if you were a black guy?
Roger A Burrell - March 4, 2021 1:58 am
Lannie’s Bar-B-Q Spot
(445) · $ · Barbecue
2115 Minter Ave
Closed ⋅ Opens 8AM Thu
“The best bbq I have ever eaten.”