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Oral Histories

The SFA oral history program documents life stories from the American South. Collecting these stories, we honor the people whose labor defines the region. If you would like to contribute to SFA’s oral history collections, please send your ideas for oral history along with your CV or Resume and a portfolio of prior oral history work to


Sam and Mary Donald

SUBJECTS: Sam and Mary Donald

DATE: March 27, 2003
INTERVIEWER: April Grayson


April Grayson: Could you tell me your whole name and the name of your business?

Sam Donald: Samuel R. Donald.

And your barbeque, it’s called Sam’s Barbeque?

SD: Sam’s Barbeque.

Could you also tell me, were you born in this area, or where were you born?

SD: Gibson, about five miles from here.

Ok. Do you mind telling me what year you were born?

SD: 1920.

Ok. Wow, that’s great. How long have you been in business here?

Mary Donald: Ever since ’88.

SD: ‘88. ’88. My sister’s husband used to run it. I was working at the arsenal, and he passed, you know, and it closed up. And my son come on telling me, why don’t I open it up. Open it up. And after I retired, I decided to open it up.

Do y’all run it together?

SD: Yeah, that’s my wife?

MD: Yes, I’m the wife.

You’re his wife. And what’s your name?

MD: Mary Donald.

Mary Donald. Nice to meet you. So y’all have been here since 1988.

MD: Um-hmm.

So have you been in the same spot the whole time?

SD: Yeah, right here.

Ok. And had you run a barbeque business before this, or was this your first time?

SD: I worked up there at the next place, the barbeque place up there at the motel. My brother-in-law used to run that up there, and it was sold, and this was his grocery store right there. And the motel was sold, he decided he wanted to fix a barbeque, and I had been telling him about building a concrete pit up there.

[A customer arrives]

Hello. Come on in.

SD: Building a pit up there. And he come back from work one day, he’s talking about, can you make one? I said yeah. And I built a pit for him out there. … I built it out there. And then they built a big building over it, you see.

Sam’s Bar-B-QOh ok. So even when he owned it, you built the pit for it?

SD: Um-hmm.

Great. So who taught you how to barbeque?

SD: Well, it’s just something that I picked up?

How young were you when you started?

SD: I retired from the …arsenal at 65, and see I worked for him some a bit at the motel, and just through, just taking your time and learn how to cook.

So just watching your brother-in-law and over the years you picked it up.

SD: Well, see, I cooked for him.

Oh, you did.

SD: At one time.

Ok, so was this something that your family did when you were growing up? Did you cook a whole hog barbeque or anything like that?

SD: Now, he used to cook—my brother-in-law used to cook some whole ones.

Ok. So what do you cook here now?

SD: Shoulders.

Shoulders. Now do you use wood or electric, or how do you cook it?

SD: Oak wood and hickory. Oak and hickory wood.

Oak and hickory. Where do you get your wood?

SD: Sawmills, sawmills down there in Hardeman County, back down through that a way.

Ok. And where do you get your hogs, your shoulders?

SD: Dalton’s, over at Jackson.

Ok, ok. Do you have a specialty here that you serve or is it pretty much—?

MD: Sandwiches, sandwiches.

Pork sandwiches?

SD: Sandwiches. The pound and the whole shoulders, just whichever way they want it.

Ok. Do you ever cook anything like chicken or ribs or anything like that?

SD: I used to. I used to cook them, turkey and everything. But see, Father Time has put a governor on me. [Laughs] So I had to drop that all. Round a holiday, something like that, they’d have turkeys laying all around for me to cook. It was just too much work on me. See, I’m 83 years old, and it’s just so much you can do.

Sam’s Bar-B-QYes, sir. So how many days a week are you open now?

SD: Three.


SD: Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.

Were you, at one time were you open more than that?

SD: Yeah, one time I was open five and a half days a week.

Ok. Do you still have a lot of your regular customers come in on the days you’re open?

SD: They come, they come, yeah. They come. Some had come in and they’ll get it and carry it, carry it to New York—they carry it everywhere.

Uh-huh, well that’s good. Well, what about your sauce? Do y’all make your own sauce?

SD: I make my own.

Do you have a hot and mild?

SD: Hot and mild.

And do you serve any sides? Slaw or beans or potato salad or anything?

SD: Naw, naw, naw.

Just barbeque, huh?

MD: Too small….

Amy Evans: Any desserts?

[Mary Donald shakes her head.]

No desserts.

MD: Just fresh made barbeque.

Well that’s good. What do you think makes your barbeque distinctive from other people’s?

SD: I still cook it the old, old-fashioned way. Now most of ‘em is going to electric. Most of ‘em is going to electric or gas or something another cooking, but I’m still using wood.


SD: Hickory and oak.

How long do you cook a shoulder for before it’s done?

SD: Well, I don’t rush it.

MD: All day and all night.

SD: I put it on, let’s say this morning, and tomorrow sometime I’ll take it up and put on some more.

Ok. Well, have you changed anything about your recipe or cooking process since 1988 when you opened?

SD: It’s the same old way, same old way. Now lots of ‘em is gone to the electric, you know. Something like that because, you know, it ain’t a lot of work in it. The old-fashioned way, you still get the same good barbeque.

So do you ever consider doing the electric ‘cause it’s easier, or you just—?

SD: It’s easier, but it’s lots different than the—

MD: It tastes different. You don’t get that hickory smoke taste.

So you think as long as you keep doing this, you’ll just keep doing it the same way then?

SD: Well, Father Time ain’t gonna let me go keep going because ol’ arthritis. [Laughs]

MD: Yeah, as long as he’s cooking, in business, he will cook it the same way, with wood.

Now do you help him cook some?

MD: No, he does the cooking himself.

And you kind of run the business part of it.

MD: Um-hmm. And serve. And the cash register.

Sam’s Bar-B-QSo do y’all have children or anybody that you think will take it over? What do you think will happen?

MD: We have four children, sixteen grands, and five great-grands. And two of ‘em said they might take it over. One daughter and one granddaughter said they may. We don’t know. Our son knows the business. He used to work here with us, but I doubt if he’ll come back. He’s a minister in Atlanta. But who knows? We don’t know.

SD: Now when I’m cooking, I’ll cook, be back and forth, up til 12:00 at night, 11:00, according to how I feel. And then the next morning around 6:00 I’m back up here cooking.

Wow. So this is pretty much your life then, huh?

SD: Yeah.

MD: Since ’88 it is. …

SD: Now my brother-in-law used to run the place up here at the motel up here. And when I started to cooking for him, he had one little pit. When I quit him, we had two pits…facing each other. And they had both of ‘em running. And then we’d, sometimes we’d run out of meat.

So about how many people do you serve on the days that you’re open? Do you know?

SD: Just, if they come by.

MD: It varies. More on Fridays and Saturdays. And on holidays—Fourth of July and all that—people are all out there across the street lining up. We sell out sometimes at 11, 12:00. ‘Cause they buy whole shoulders.

Wow. So how many other barbeque places are there in this town here, Humboldt?

SD: It’s one right up the street here.

MD: Right up the street.

Is that Armour?

SD: Armour.

MD: Uh-huh. Now there might be some more out there.

So have a lot of your customers been coming here for years? Have the regular customers.

MD: We have new ones all the time, regulars and new ones.

From local and everywhere else?

MD: From everywhere. We have people who come here and take meat back to over in Canada. Detroit. Texas.

How do they find out about it? Drive by?

MD: I guess word of mouth. They found us.

SD: Now my sauce is mine. There was a guy come in here one time, in business with his brother-in-law, and he wanted me to sell him some. I said, “Well, I don’t make that much. I just make so much.” And I let him have a bottle of it, you know, and when he come back, he come in the door, and he says “Now, I want a gallon of this sauce,” And he says, “Here’s the money right here. Here’s the money right here, here’s $200.”


SD: He says, “Here’s the money.” I told him, I says, “I ain’t got that much made.” I says, “I just make a certain amount.” And I says, “I’m gonna make some….” And he says, “Well, when you gonna make some?” I says, “I’ll make some Wednesday.” And he says, “I was intending to go back home Monday,” he says, “but I’ll be here when you make some.” [Laughs] And when he come by, he was getting ready to go back, he handed me $200 for a gallon.”

Sam’s Bar-B-QWow. Is it a vinegar-based sauce?

SD: Yeah, got vinegar. And they always ask me how do I make it, how do I make it? I say I put a little of this, a little of that, a little of this, a little of that, and then I’ll taste it. I says, um-umm, I need some more of this, and I put more. That’s the way I do it.

If that works, that’s great, huh?

…[exchange with a customer who wanted to remain anonymous but claims Sam’s barbeque is the best.]…

Do you ever do barbeque contests?

MD: He figured he wouldn’t win. No, he has never.

Never. Most people say they don’t have time for contests.

SD: Before Father Time put a governor on me, it was a restaurant out on the other side of town, and I used to cook for him.

MD: At Capper’s.

What was the name of that?

MD: The restaurant he was talking about.

SD: Capper’s.


SD: I used do the cooking, and he would come get his meat every week.

MD: Dr. Crenshaw, too.


SD: Now he used to have a place when he started there, where I’d cook maybe 60 or 70 pounds for him, you know. And then he finally got a cooker that he uses himself out there. But he comes here and gets barbeque. How many did he get this morning?

MD: He got nine sandwiches.

SD: Nine sandwiches. He’s a doctor.

Dr. Crenshaw, you said?

SD: Yeah. He got nine. He comes just about every day and gets some sandwiches here.

Does he eat them all himself? [Laughs]

SD: Huh?

Does he eat all nine himself?

MD: No, I imagine it’s for the people that work with him.


MD: They have a little get together maybe.

Well, do you see yourself fitting into a tradition around here of barbeque? When you grew up, were people doing this, a similar kind of barbeque?

SD: It used to be people a long time ago that had barbeque. Lots of ‘em would have a pit dug out there, and they’d put stuff…and cook. Now there was a man here who used to sell, they called it pig sandwich. Well, now, the way he would do—he had to use ham. He’d put the ham in an oven or stove and bake it, and then he had a thing, oh about as big around as over here, and they’d put charcoals in there. And put them hams on there and let the grease drop down on the charcoal. Well that would put a flavor in it. Now people thought he was cooking on that, but where he cook it was in the oven or the stove, and he’d put it on there to smoke it.

MD: The people around Henderson do, too, have big barbeque.

SD: Yeah, around Henderson, they have down there.

MD: Around the 8th of August they have a big picnic there. My mother and daddy used to go. My daddy was a railroad man. They would go there on the 8th of August, to the big picnic. They still have picnics there on the 8th of August. And they cook it with wood.

We’ve interviewed a few people in that Henderson area. Well, do y’all have anything else to say about barbeque?

MD: No, I sure don’t. Except, unless it’s cooked by wood, it’s not good barbeque.

Great. Well, thank y’all so much.

Date of interview:

April Grayson


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The Southern Foodways Alliance drives a more progressive future by leading conversations that challenge existing constructs, shape perspectives, and foster meaningful discussions. We reconsider the past with research, scrutiny, and documentation.


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