Tennessee BBQ

Tennessee State Icon

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
Ted Maclin

Interviews

A&R Bar-B-Que - Andrew Pollard - Tennessee - Southern Trail BBQ

A&R Bar-B-Que

Andrew Pollard lives barbecue everyday. He vividly remembers watching his father smoke pork and brisket. In 1983 he opened A&R. And on his rare days off of work, Pollard and a neighbor pass ribs, back-and-forth, to taste over the backyard fence.

Bill Latham's Bar-B-Q - Billy Frank Latham - Tennessee - Southern BBQ Trail

Bill Latham’s Bar-B-Q

The restaurant industry is recognized as tough work. Compared to the life of a farmer, Billy Frank Latham finds restaurant ownership to be quite easy.

Central BBQ - Craig Blondis - Tennessee - Southern BBQ Trail

Central BBQ

Craig Blondis opened Central BBQ with partner Roger Sapp in 2002. Their goal was to turn Memphis on to the “competition style” they’d been perfecting on the barbecue circuit since the early 1980s.

Charlie Vergos

Charlie Vergo’s Rendezvous

John Vergos was born the same year (1948) that his father Charlie Vergos opened the Rendezvous. It wasn’t until the mid-1950s that the Rendezvous started charcoal grilling the now famous Rendezvous ribs. As the story goes, the miraculous discovery of a old coal shoot in his restaurant’s basement location allowed Mr. Vergos to switch from ham sandwiches to pork ribs.

Cozy Corner Restaurant - Desiree Robinson - Tennessee - Southern BBQ Trail

Cozy Corner Restaurant

Family and the restaurant Raymond Robinson built are inseparable. Four generations of Robinsons work at Cozy Corner, opened in 1977. A well-established element of the Memphis barbecue tradition, things are nevertheless done a bit differently here.

Curt Blankenship

Curt’s Smoke House

Trained by some of the great pitmasters on the Lexington whole hog scene, Curt Blankenship is a young smoked meat specialist on the make. He grew up on a farm not far from the site of his restaurant, where every July 4th family and friends would gather for a whole hog feast. His grandmother would make the extra-hot sauce.

Germantown Commissary - Walker Taylor - Tennessee - Southern BBQ Trail

Germantown Commissary

Tired of the corporate business world, Walker Taylor opened his Germantown barbecue restaurant in an old country store in 1981. Though at first business was tough, the Germantown Commissary became a favorite barbecue stop for the east Memphis suburbs.

Gridley's BBQ - Doug Walker - Tennessee - Southern BBQ Trail

Gridley’s BBQ

Doug Walker believes in the virtues of “laying down food,” tasty and substantial Southern fare that makes you want to lie down and take a nap. Slow-smoked barbecue sandwiches, beans and slaw, and super-sweet tea so thick, “you can use it on your pancakes.” Clyde Gridley stated Gridley’s in 1975. Seeking to revolutionize the barbecue-experience, he added white tablecloths and tuxedoed servers.

Hays Meat Company - Crystal Norwood - Tennessee - Southern BBQ Trail

Hays Meat Company

The Hunt-Norwood family eats meat seven days a week. They feel safe doing so because in their own words, they know where their meat is coming from: locally raised, locally slaughtered.

Helen's Bar-B-Q - Helen Turner - Tennessee - Southern BBQ Trail

Helen’s Bar-B-Q

Helen Turner’s joint is one of the smokiest barbecue spots around. Located a mile off tiny Brownsville’s town-center, Mrs. Turner cooks on an open pit; a simple, yet effective operation: bricks, metal fencing, hot coals, plenty of smoke, and meat.

Interstate Bar-B-Que - Jim Neely - Tennessee - Southern BBQ Trail

Interstate Bar-B-Que

On a whim, and tired of driving twenty-miles across town to buy his Proustian barbecue sandwiches, Jim Neely opened Interstate Bar-B-Que in an old grocery store in Memphis. A successful insurance salesman, Neely had no restaurant experience, just a remembrance of barbecue past.

Jacks' Creek Bar-B-Q - Joe Joyner - Tennessee - Southern BBQ Trail

Jacks Creek Bar-B-Q

Joe Joyner is a man devoted to barbecue. Needing more free time for himself and his wife, he sold his ownership in the Jacks Creek barbecue location but stayed on as full-time pit-cook. It could be his love for pork and smoke, for pleasing customers, or it could be the mysteries of the crossroads.

Leonard's Pit Barbecue - Dan Brown - Tennessee - Southern BBQ Trail

Leonard’s Pit Barbecue

The corner of Bellevue and McLemore served Leonard Heuberger’s barbecue for six decades. Elvis loved to eat here, back when carhops wheeled around a parking lot that could fit hundreds of cars, and where Mr. Brown and Ms. White—the monikers for dark and white meat—held court.

Liz's BAR-B-Q

Liz’s Bar-B-Q

Whole hog barbecue is disappearing in Western Tennessee because people “got lazy” according to Liz and Ike Kinchen. Both past the traditional retirement age, the Kinchen couple continue to cook four to seven hogs six days a week. These two are as loyal to the whole hog, as their customers are to them.

Papa KayJoe's Bar-B-Que - Devin Pickard - Tennessee - Southern BBQ Trail

Papa KayJoe’s Bar-B-Que

Located in the “buckle” of the Bible Belt, Centerville, Tennessee is home to one of the South’s more unconventional barbecue sandwiches. Devin Pickard borrowed and expanded on the recipe from a restaurant he cooked at as a teenager.

Payne's Bar-B-Q - Flora and Ron Payne - Tennessee - Southern BBQ Trail

Payne’s Bar-B-Q

Flora Payne never thought she’d run a barbecue shop. But when her husband Horton Payne tragically passed away in 1984, his widow along with his mother, co-founder Emily Payne, took the reins of the restaurant. The name ‘Horton’ is still proudly displayed, stenciled on the building’s bright-red awning.

Richard's Bar-B-Que - Richard Hodge - Tennessee - Southern BBQ Trail

Richard’s Bar-B-Que

Richard Hodge, from tiny Hornsby, Tennessee, grew up watching the men—the elders—in his area gather every Fourth of July to cook whole hogs in big holes in the ground, watching them smoke all night long. He has cooked shoulders for over twenty years at his third establishment, this eponymous pit-house in Bolivar. Richard’s slogan is pork as “Sweet and Tender as a Mother’s Love.”

Ridgewood Barbecue - Larry Proffitt - Tennessee - Southern BBQ Trail

Ridgewood Barbecue

In 1948 Jim Proffitt and some partners opened a little country roadhouse in Bluff City, Tennessee, where they sold steaks, chops, and beer. They called their place the Ridgewood Inn. But in 1952 Sullivan County went dry, and Jim’s partners wanted out. Jim took the place over and reevaluated his business plan. Remembering a restaurant he saw on a family vacation to Daytona Beach, Florida, he decided he would have a go at barbecue.

Scott's-Parker's Barbecue - Ricky and Zach Parker

Scott’s-Parker’s Barbecue

Ricky Parker has been working sixteen to twenty hour days, six days a week at Scott’s Barbecue since he was thirteen years old. He never stops working, so it’s hard to tell if he is joking when he says he exhausts four to five pair of shoes each year. He is consumed by barbecue, famously repeating that he is more married to the job than to his wife.

Siler's Old Time Bar-be-cue - Chris Siler - Tennessee - Southern BBQ Trail

Siler’s Old Time BBQ

Though Chris Siler has owned the Old Time BBQ only since early 2007, he has worked at this place for five years prior. At this spot in a bend in the highway—as the legend goes—the rituals of barbecue have been performed for over a century and a half. Henderson is what it is, men who do not barbecue, who do not eat barbecue, have no place here.

The Bar-B-Q Shop - Frank and Eric Vernon - Tennessee - Southern BBQ Trail

The Bar-B-Q Shop

The Bar-B-Q Shop is a classic Memphis smokehouse. The centrally located restaurant, run by the Vernon family, dishes out the standards, while still offering enough unique twists to keep a visit (or habit) interesting. Sandwiches may be ordered on grilled Texas toast. Half-and-half ribs—a split portion of dry and wet—are here for the indecisive or the taste testers.

Three Little Pigs Bar-B-Q - Charlie Robertson - Tennessee - Southern BBQ Trail

Three Little Pigs BAR-B-Q

Barbecue has been served at the present site of Three Little Pigs in east Memphis for over four decades. Since 1989, Charlie Robertson, under the Three Little Pigs name, has been serving shoulders—never butts—and amassing customers and an immense collection of pig paraphernalia.

Tom's Bar-B-Q and Deli - Adam Itayem - Tennessee - Southern BBQ Trail

Tom’s Bar-B-Q and Deli

Adam Itayem is a Jerusalem-born, Palestinian-American cooking barbecue in Memphis. His restaurant proves how pervasive the city’s smoked meat foodways are; Memphis barbecue incorporates all cultures.

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.

Woodstock Store N' Deli - Anthony Bledsoe - Tennessee - Southern BBQ Trail

Woodstock Store N’ Deli

Anthony Bledsoe cuts his own trees for fuel. He chooses hickory trees from the forests that surround this tiny community of Woodstock, Tennessee. Fresh green hickory imparts a flavor, he says, that is unbeatable; conventional dried, aged, and soaked hickory chips just go up in smoke.