Mississippi BBQ

Mississippi State Icon

Introduction by Tom Freeland

Mississippi barbecue has a few elements found in other states. The earliest extant commercial establishmrom the 1920s, when good roads and inexpensive cars catalyzed American automobilents such as Abe’s in Clarksdale are fe culture. Mississippi barbecue is ethnically diverse—Abe’s was and is Lebanese owned, and Old Timer’s in Richland has a Greek proprietor.

Community barbecues have a long tradition in the state and may be more central to the history of Mississippi barbecue than commercial places. In Panola, Lafayette, and Tate Counties, goat barbecue has been a part of summer picnics and reunions for generations. The Turner family’s Labor Day picnic in Gravel Springs is almost certainly the oldest public barbecue event in the state, held in a small community that produced musicians like Fred McDowell, Othar Turner, Napoleon Strickland, and the Hemphill family.

On picnic weekends, goats are slaughtered and dressed, parboiled in big cast iron laundry kettles over open fires, and then smoked briefly over charcoal. Music and dancing is lead by a band of homemade cane fifes and drums, forming a circle with a crowd dancing around it. Once found in African American communities across the South, this music remains a living tradition only in this place, and the picnics are more of a celebration of musical traditions than the barbecue, beer, and pickled boiled eggs that fuel them.

There are three identifiable patterns in Mississippi commercial barbecue. Many, like Deke Baskin in Oxford and Randy Lepard of Lep’s in Pontotoc, began cooking in a welded trailer rig.  A trailer rig may be the easiest way to move from home barbecue to commercial—Leroy “Spooney” Kenter in Greenwood hauled his cooker from his backyard to his front yard and, with that move, started a small neighborhood business.

The second kind of place has a traditional pit, the under-recognized hallmark of honest barbecue. The stable gentle heat and smoke that can be achieved in a block pit accomplishes slow cooking like nothing else.  Both Old Timer’s in Richland and Leatha’s in Hattiesburg work waist-high cinder block pits set in tin-roof sheds.

Recently, a third pattern has emerged.  A number of places have changed over to electric ovens designed to cook a load of pork shoulders while burning no more than a stick or two of wood. This represents a diminution of the traditional scene. Rodney Beasley at Beasely’s Best Bar-B-Q, who cooks over hickory and pecan on a rig he welded himself, says electric and gas cookers “don’t put the flavor into the meat.”

Mississippi barbecue is defined by family relationships. At Leatha’s in Hattiesburg, Leatha Jackson’s daughters take your order and tell you they have the best barbecue there is. At Westside, Mr. Reaves and sons make the barbecue and Mrs. Reaves bakes the cakes. The Shed in Ocean Springs—one of several new barbecue places on the coast since Katrina—grew out of a family’s campground business, and now has a huge outdoor party area for blues music to go with ribs and shoulder and a sweet, mild sauce that may be the one constant of Mississippi barbecue.

The oral histories collected here introduce you to these community centers and to the families behind them. From these family stories you can begin to piece together a tale of Mississippi barbecue.


Tom Freeland is a lawyer in Oxford, Mississippi. He has written about food, blues music, Southern history and culture, and law, both in print and on his blog, NMissCommentor. He has a pit in his backyard sufficient to barbecue a whole hog over hickory and oak.


Tom Freeland

Interviews

Beasley's Best Bar-B-Q - Rodney Beasley - Mississippi - Southern BBQ Trail

Beasley’s Best Bar-B-Q

A native of Flint, Michigan, Rodney Beasley always had a passion for cooking. At sixteen, he started teaching himself how to barbecue in the backyard of his parent’s house. Eventually, he built his own smokers and perfected a fruit-infused sauce recipe that he uses to this day.

Deke's Bar-B-Que - Deke Baskin - Mississippi - Southern BBQ Trail

Deke’s Bar-B-Que

A native of Oxford, Mississippi, one of Deke Baskin’s first jobs was washing dishes at a fraternity house on the campus of the University of Mississippi. There, Deke met a man by the name of Jack Johnson, who became his mentor and taught him how to cook. At the time, there was a fraternity tradition of cooking a whole hog on football weekends when Ole Miss would play Arkansas (their team mascot is a hog), and that’s how Deke learned to barbecue.

Goldie's Trail Bar-B-Que - Randy Wright - Mississippi - Southern BBQ Trail

Goldie’s Trail Bar-B-Que

In 1960, Gola “Goldie” Marshall and his wife, Hattie, purchased Rosette’s Grill, a little restaurant in Vicksburg on the bank of the Mississippi River. The tiny building that used to be a White Castle hamburger stand became Goldie’s Trail Bar-B-Q. Goldie and Hattie enjoyed success on the riverfront for over twenty years. At 72 years old, Goldie decided to retire and let his nephew, who had apprenticed alongside him for years, run the place.

Lep's BBQ and Ribs - Randy "Lep" Lepard - Mississippi - Southern BBQ Trail

Lep’s BBQ & Ribs

Tailgating brought Randy Lepard into the barbecue business. An education major at Mississippi State University, Randy spent a lot of time watching baseball games from the Left Field Lounge, a tailgating area at Dudy Noble Field. Randy’s grilled pork chops and sausage were so good that his friends joked that he should open a restaurant. After spending almost fifteen years as a teacher in Lee County, Randy decided his friends were right.

Spooney's Bar-Be-Que - Leroy "Spooney" Kenter Jr.

Spooney’s Bar-Be-Que

Leroy Kenter, Jr., better known as “Spooney,” started cooking barbecue in Kansas City, Kansas. When he returned home to his native Greenwood, he knew he wanted to have his own place and make a name for his own brand of ‘cue and sauce. He started out with a smoker in his mother’s yard. In 2009 Spooney decided to downsize and dragged his smoker back to the old neighborhood and set it in front of his house in Greenwood’s historic Baptist Town.

Squealer's Hickory-Smoked Bar-B-Que - Teresa Cranmore - Mississippi - Southern BBQ Trail

Squealer’s Hickory-Smoked Bar-B-Que

A native of Meridian, Teresa Cranmore worked as an accountant for twenty years before deciding to venture into the barbecue business. She opened Squealer’s Hickory Smoked Bar-B-Que with her husband, Terry, in 1998 in a tiny, stand-alone structure that was once a sno-cone stand. Finding immediate success, the business outgrew its small quarters, and the Cranmores opened a second location in the College Park shopping center in 2003. Known for their pulled pork sandwiches and delicious desserts, Squealer’s has ranked as “Best Barbecue” in the Meridian Star’s Reader’s Choice Awards every year since the store opened for business.

Tommy Leonard's Bar-B-Q - Tommy Leonard Hughes - Tennessee - Southern BBQ Trail

Tommy Leonard’s Bar-B-Q

In Horn Lake, Mississippi, less than ten miles south of Memphis, Tommy Leonard Hughes—a fourth generation barbecuer—carries on the family legacy.

Westside Barbecue - James Roy Reaves - Mississippi - Southern BBQ Trail

Westside Barbecue

After a thirty-year career installing glass in high-rise buildings in Memphis, James Roy Reaves decided it was time for a change. With the help of a relative who owned a barbecue restaurant in McKenzie, Tennessee, James Roy and his wife, Verna, already locally known for her delicious cakes and pies, opened Westside Barbecue in 1988.