Or, What’s Wrong with Mississippi Barbecue
There’s a waist-high pile of ashes behind Payne’s Barbecue in Memphis. If you park by the side, you’ll be looking straight at it; when I first saw it, I wondered what was going on– are they digging a ditch back there? Nope. To produce all that barbecue, they burn a lot of stuff, and have been doing that in one location since the 1970s. That’s a lot of ashes.
What they apparently don’t burn at Payne’s is logs– I’ve heard they burn charcoal. I say “I’ve heard” because the folks at Payne’s don’t reveal anything about their methods. To quote Yogi Berra, you can observe a lot by watching, but the folks at Payne’s don’t share information about what they do. They don’t sell the sauce other than as a part of a sandwich, and just don’t talk about what goes in what. I spent years trying before I could produce a credible version of their sandwich (literally years), and my son has sworn me to secrecy about my conclusions.
Last Saturday, I was in Payne’s, and they had a crowd. I took some iPhone pictures, reaching across the counter to get the one above, of the proprietress chopping from a shoulder she’d just taken off the pit. And, while I was there, she had to fuel the pit– producing the pictures below, where I think you can see a charcoal bag, and details like the shovel used to clean the pit. That bit of blue light you can see inside the pit in the middle of the picture is sunlight coming down from the chimney.
The charcoal / firewood division– a divide that causes some to scoff at Payne’s, although I find the final proof, as always, in the results– started me thinking of the way much writing and talking about barbecue divides types into dichotomies that aren’t at all false. Many are at the heart of longstanding barbecue traditions– the shoulder / whole hog divide in North Carolina, a version of which also separates Lexington, Tennessee and Memphis, or North Carolina’s tomato-vinegar divide. Some involve debates about what’s real or right– charcoal versus firewood, competition versus … every non-competition type, and even between exponents of shoulder/whole hog and other traditional local variants.
But after years of reading about and eating barbecue in other places, I’ve been pondering Mississippi barbecue (or its lack) recently, and it just doesn’t fit the narratives used to tell the barbecue story elsewhere. Sure, you can kind of force the puzzle pieces together to make the story– the earliest dated barbecue places– such as Abe’s in Clarksdale– are from the early twenties, as in Memphis (Leonard’s) or North Carolina (Bob Melton’s), just as folks started driving around highways in cars. There are parts of the story involving ethnic restaurateurs—Abe’s again (Lebanese) and the Greek proprietor at Old Timer’s in Richland, which compare to the Greek barbecue places in Birmingham or to the Rendezvous in Memphis.
There are even some local variations that offer hints of the notion that southern barbecue involves very localized traditions; you see some methods that seemed to have been used a long time and are peculiar to the area. At least two places I know, Old Timer’s in Richland and Goldie’s Trail in Vicksburg, have for years taken barbecue off the pit and refrigerated it, slicing it and heating it on a griddle before serving it on a sandwich. I’ve only seen this done before at Lamb’s, a long-gone barbecue place in Memphis that dated back to the thirties. But you know why no one else does it? It’s a horrible idea, totally messing up both the texture and taste of what might otherwise (particularly in the instance of Old Timer’s, which still uses a very traditional pit, pictured just below, and slow cooks over hickory and oak coals) be good barbecue.
There is one particular and very local African-American tradition, although it is entirely unavailable to passers by: In Panola, Lafayette, and Tate County (and possibly surrounding areas), there’s a tradition of cooking goat for summer picnics and reunions. You’ll encounter it at the Labor Day fife and drum party at the Turner family picnic in Gravel Springs (in a version that is not tasty, although the picnic is a great time and well worth the trip). The best version I’ve had is by Oxford pitmaster Deke Baskin, whose goat was always better than his pork, and who would cook it for reunions, and, when he had a regular barbecue stand, special occasions.
But in any event, I can’t see the usual histories of barbecue applying to Mississippi without some forcing. Which leaves me pondering: What is the story of Mississippi barbecue? And why does it just not seem to measure up compared to some of its neighbors?
Recently, I’ve been eating more local barbecue and read with interest some oral histories from Mississippi barbecue places while trying to think this through. The eating part has been less than optimal—I’ve not yet turned up the hidden barbecue gem that I’d secretly and half-hoped was out there.
It’s clear that there have been barbecue places in Mississippi for generations—Abe’s is almost ninety years old, Old Timer’s and Goldie’s over fifty, I’ve heard about a favorite place in Columbus in the 1950s, and folks can remember small town barbecue places the way I remember K’s Barbecue in Oxford, which closed sometime around 1980. What I see no sign of is anything like deep-rooted traditions, with localized styles developing around well-remembered pitmasters. I have had good barbecue (a sandwich 20 years ago in Ashland comes to mind), along with the worst barbecue sandwich of my life (in Winona. It was inexpressibly bad), but, with the possible exception of Deke Baskin’s goat, never anything remotely close to transcendent. And I don’t know why.
But between the eating, and looking around at the barbecue places and thinking about and reading about their histories, I have noticed some patterns, which are reflected in the title. Pretty much all of the barbecue places fit one of the three parts of the title. Looked at another way, they’re the three stages of Mississippi barbecue. First, places often start out cooking in a welded trailer rig. Deke Baskin in Oxford and Lep’s in Pontotoc started out that way. With the exception of a brief period when he had a restaurant with a big brick pit, Deke pretty much stayed that way to this day (and was even known to rely on his trailer rig, which he understood, when he had the place with the real pit). The second kind of place involves the traditional pit. Both Old Timer’s in Richton and Leatha’s in Hattiesburg (you can see where its pits are in the picture below, to the left) involve the most old-fashioned sort: just short of waist-high cinder block pits in a shed with a tin roof. The brick pit is an under-recognized hallmark of real barbecue. The stable gentle heat that can be achieved in a block pit accomplishes slow cooking like nothing else.
Unfortunately, there’s a third pattern. Places that started out with real pits (like Goldie’s in Vicksburg) at some point decided to grow, or modernize, or possibly just acquire fire insurance, and got sold on commercial electric ovens that are designed to cook a load of pork shoulders while burning no more than a stick or two of wood, producing tender slow-cooked pork that does not have the characteristics of meat cooked over direct coals: a caramelized bark that will mix in nicely with the interior meat and impart a strong flavor of hickory to it. I’m not sure what is causing it, but the meat coming out of these cookers is drier and vastly less interesting in texture than the product of a well-tended pit. And the flavor is bland. I’ve never had barbecue from one of these places remind me of hickory smoke off a campfire the way I’ve had from really great barbecue places that burn wood.
From a lot of experience, I’ve no doubt it makes a large difference to cook pork with direct (approximately 24 inch distance) connection to live coals; rigs that make the heat source indirect, or worse, just don’t produce the same effect. And the oven/pits aren’t even designed for cooking pork. As near as I can tell, one of the largest manufacturers is one in Texas which is making a machine with internal rotating racks based on a design from a forties Texas barbecue place (that cooked briskets) but replacing the open fire with a heating element that burns a little wood. My experience with a multiple chamber rig from Texas that got great results for brisket but so-so results for pork shoulders makes me dubious that designs for one work for both, and I have no doubt that swapping the coals for a heating element is a snare and a delusion. But these ovens are much easier to use (you load them up and go home and don’t have to fuel them every hour or two), people that have them are not at such peril of pit fires (and can even buy fire insurance). And so, to anyone who has had a big success with a trailer rig, or who has grown tired of tending a pit, they’re looking more and more attractive. And this third part of all Mississippi barbecue thus seems to be coming on strong.
Beyond that, there is a lot of individual variation and tendencies in Mississippi barbecue. Some places, like Old Timer’s, are as much as thirty or forty years old, and have roots that go back farther. Some, like Lep’s in Pontotoc or Squealer’s in Meridian are recent and involve things as varied as retirement or side-projects where a skilled home cook “graduated” to cooking in a small barbecue stand. Some are pretty new and bring competition backgrounds or newfangled ingredients like mango (Beasley’s in Meridian), or both, into the picture. What doesn’t exist is a local or particular tradition, and Mississippi barbecue is notably poorer for lack of it.