Introduction by James R. Veteto and Ted Maclin
In 1923 Calvin Coolidge assumed the Presidency of the United States, Hank Williams was born in Alabama, and Thomas Jefferson “Bozo” Williams opened Bozo’s Hot Pit Bar-B-Q in Mason, Tennessee. Many years later, in the 1980s, Bozo’s the barbecue joint was engaged in a decade-long trademark battle with Bozo the Clown. The restaurant ultimately won, but only after the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. Barbecue in Tennessee is serious business, with a long history that is intimately wrapped up in local identity and authenticity.
The barbecue geography of Tennessee is as rich and varied as the population itself. In the Appalachian Mountains to the east, you are likely to encounter smoked hog shoulders or hams served with a thick and sweet sauce. Perhaps the most famous and quintessential example of this style can be found at Ridgewood Barbecue in Bluff City, where a barbecue platter consists of thinly sliced pieces of smoked ham drizzled in a dark red, sticky-sweet sauce with home-cut French fries piled in a poetic mess on top. Journey into middle Tennessee in late July and you might be lucky enough to catch the St. Patrick’s Irish Picnic in McEwen, a fundraiser for the St. Patrick’s Church and School that has been ongoing since 1854. Don’t let the small size of McEwen (pop. 1676) fool you. It is not unusual to see 25,000 people show up for the event that was honored in the Guinness Book of World Records in 1988 as “The World’s Largest Outdoor Barbecue.” The barbecue features a secret sauce rumored variously to have originated in Ireland or developed locally in the 1920s.
Heading southwestward from McEwen will land you in west Tennessee where the barbecue is cooked whole hog, slaw is served on the sandwiches, and the density of barbecue joints greatly increases. The entries in the SFA’s oral history project speak to the dizzying array of smoked pork options: Bill’s Bar-B-Q, Bobby’s Bar-B-Q, Foster’s Bar-B-Q, Hays Smokehouse, Helen’s Smokehouse, Joyner’s Bar-B-Q, My Three Son’s Bar-B-Q, Papa KayJoe’s Bar-B-Q, Sam’s Bar-B-Q, Scott’s Bar-B-Que. Okay, you get the picture. For a rural area there are a ridiculously high number of barbecue joints. In the urban heart of the Barbecue Belt, Memphis, the smoked pork is shoulder instead of whole hog and is available at a hundred or so restaurants around the city. Memphis is also host to the most famous barbecue competition in the world, Memphis in May, held annually on the banks of the Mississippi River just off Beale Street.
But smoking meat is not confined to restaurant or competition activity; Tennessee also has a long and proud tradition of homestead barbecuing that predates both. Smokers may be simple pit constructions for whole hogs, converted barrels, commercial side-box smokers, or grand smoker-trailers with lights. Smoking meat is a day-long affair: a full day or more for whole hog, less for smaller cuts. Most often hickory, but also oak, apple wood, and wine or whiskey barrel staves, are the raw materials that lead to a pinkish “smoke ring” just beneath the surface of the meat. The act of smoking barbecue has a certain Zen-like quality: minimalist, with an abiding awareness of temperature, smoke concentration, and the particulars of the meat. It is a meditation on time, smoke, and flesh that requires non-action as much as decisiveness. Producing good barbecue—meat that is falling-off-the-bone tender, moist, and smoky—is a skill that can earn local (or familial) fame, even when the results are never sold or entered into a contest.
– James R. Veteto and Ted Maclin
James R. Veteto and Ted Maclin are both Ph.D. candidates in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Georgia and both come from barbecue loving west Tennessee families. They are co-editors of the book, tentatively titled, The Slaw and the Slow Cooked: An Anthropology of Mid-South Barbecue, forthcoming from Vanderbilt University Press.
James R. Veteto