If you want to spark an argument in Limestone County, just cuss a man’s dog, say his Mama can’t cook good cornbread, or slander the Alabama Crimson Tide. But the worst insult of all is to tell him that sliced pork roast with tomato sauce poured on top is BBQ. The fight will be on. I know about these things.
At one time we owned 17 foxhounds, two bird dogs and a yard dog. Daddy housed the hounds inside a hog wire fence that resembled a Japanese labor camp. They were fed large pones of crusty cornbread that Mama cooked in a black iron skillet. They loved Mama’s cornbread and so did I. It made us smart and happy. Sometimes we ate cornbread and gravy for breakfast. I’d eaten so much gritty cornbread by age 12 that my teeth were smoother than the mouth of a 20-year old mule.
As for football, when I was attending law school at Alabama in the mid 1960’s, Coach Bear Bryant and I use to enjoy coffee at Druid Drug on the edge of campus. We didn’t sit together, but we were in the same building at the same time. Most afternoons, he’d appear around 3 p.m. and walk past several of us law students on his way to a booth.
“Afternoon Coach,” we chimed in unison. He grunted and kept walking. I don’t think he liked incubating lawyers. He’d smoke cigarettes, sip coffee and stare into space, no doubt hatching up a winning play for Saturday’s game. Or, perhaps he was thinking about a good looking co-ed he had seen on campus. I don’t know. He never confided in me about that.
I also learned a lot about football from my second wife, “Arkansas Pat.” Pat hated Bama, loved Auburn and idolized Bo Jackson. Her brain was chock-full of football trivia. She could recount plays from years back. On Friday night before Auburn played on Saturday, she always got diarrhea. After Auburn, she loved the Arkansas Razorbacks. I had to learn to “Call the Hogs.” How demeaning to a Crimson Tide fan who use to have coffee with the Bear. Mental anguish it was. I was going to use it as evidence in our divorce trial. (“Boo-hoo-hoo, Judge she made me feel less than a real man. Please don’t make me pay alimony.”) The Judge was female, an Auburn fan, and had been voted “Worst Judge” by the Bar. I pulled out my checkbook.
I first heard about Barbecue on July 4th when I was about 5 years old. Cousin Wallar Thomas on Nick Davis Road barbecued several shoats and sold the meat to neighbors. Mama helped pull pork and was compensated with a dish pan of barbecue seasoned with vinegar sauce. It sure was good. “Cudn’ Wallar cooks the best barbecue in the world,” declared Daddy. That was technically correct since our world stretched only 8 miles from Capshaw to Athens.
In the mid-1950’s, Mr. Isaac Thomas converted a chicken house on Nick Davis Road to H & H BBQ. You couldn’t get a seat there on Saturday nights and Sunday after church. After selling to Jimmy and Ann Holmes, he and former Sheriff, Clyde Ennis opened Hickory House on Highway 72 East, (now 306 BBQ). Clyde’s hushpuppies were so delicious that he came to see me about obtaining legal protection of his secret recipe.
Limestone County’s reputation for great BBQ was further enhanced when brick layer, Floyd Whitt constructed a pit in his backyard on Elkton Road in the 1960’s giving birth to famous Whitt’s BBQ. Early 1970’s, Coleman BBQ, Memphis, came to Athens and obtained a 5-year lease from my client, Wayne Jennings. They sold sliced pork roast drenched with tomato sauce. “This is the barbecue capitol of the South,” I said to Wayne. “Folks won’t eat it.” Wayne agreed. “That’s what I told ’em. They claim to know more about barbecue than anyone in the business.” Coleman folded within a year.
After serving as Limestone County Sheriff for 16 years, Buddy Evans and family opened Catfish Cabin, (now Hickory Barn) on Highway 72 West and also purchased Greenbrier BBQ. Lawlers opened in Athens. Hickory Barn and 306 Barbecue are newcomers, but receiving high praise. Whitt’s doesn’t enter into cooking contests, cater or advertise much. They don’t have to. In 1985, Mr. Whitt was in my office, and after finishing our business, I asked him the secret of cooking the best BBQ around. He looked to be sure the door was closed.
“You’re my lawyer and what I tell you is confidential, isn’t it?” he asked me. “Yes sir, it will go to the grave with me,” I said. “When I was in Italy during World War II, I walked behind a house where an old Italian man was cooking barbecue. He taught me the secret of pulling the smoke under the meat, just right,” he said. “Well, I’ll be doggone. So that’s how it’s done,” I said.
Later, I told his daughter, Bonnie I knew the secret and related what her father had said to me. She laughed. “Daddy has a different tale for everyone.” Whitt’s opened on Labor Day, 1966. I’m told that Athens school teacher, Guy McCune, Sr. was the first customer. Back then, folks helped one another. Mr. Wallar Thomas, BBQ King of Limestone County, and his wife came and helped the Whitts make slaw and pull pork.
Mr. Whitt gave me wind chimes that he made from galvanized pipe. They hang in my carport and when I hear the sweet music, I think of Mr. Whitt and good hickory smoked barbecue.
Following the replacement of my heart valve with a pig valve in 2013, I stopped eating pork BBQ. It’s a matter of respect. I stand in solidarity with my porker brothers. Power to the pigs, I say. But I love turkey barbecue.
Who cooks the best BBQ in Limestone County? Folks will argue about that. It’s like choosing between a beautiful blonde, brunette or red head – all mighty fine, but a little different. My test is this: If it tastes good, it is good. But that doesn’t include sliced pork roast drowned in tomato sauce. That ain’t barbecue!
There are four good reasons to save the Earth: it’s the only place in the universe where you can find a good dog, eat delicious cornbread, and watch the Alabama Crimson Tide while eating real BBQ.
By: Jerry Barksdale