And that meant a trip to Bud Hawes … I can’t quite place exactly where Bud Hawes’s pit-cooked barbecue operated when I was a kid but I still see the place. I know it was close by the telephone office off South Peachtree. My sister, Deb, tells me a parking lot covers the spot. What a shame.
When I was a boy Saturdays were special and not because school was out. No, they were special because Dad would go to town and buy a chunk of Bud Hawes barbecue. I went along for the ride and recall a screened-in shack where the hog simmered over hissing coals. You could get drunk smelling that cooking hog. Vinegary sauce spiced the air. And the smoke? Three words describe it: de-lish-us! You couldn’t have great BBQ without smoke.
As usual this memory bobbed to the surface when I heard do-gooders are assaulting the tradition of cooking a pig over coals. If you read my columns regularly the name Robert Clark is familiar. Robert and I collaborate on books and recently we decided to document the pitmasters who bless the Southland with the country’s best barbecue. Like so many beloved traditions, they’re under attack. Robert and I will put photographs and narratives of one or two in our book. They’ll live on, immortals, their smoke frozen in time.
Smoke. The do-gooders think it creates pollution. They want to ban pit-cooked barbecue. Over our dead bodies. You can take my word. If we keep letting do-gooders cancel things we’ll all turn into lifeless, colorless drones. And our society? Bland as bland can be. Southerners have a long love affair with barbecued hog. It’s in our DNA. So don’t tell us the bureaucrats want to mess with a favored food. Them’s fighting words.
Cooking a hog overnight is a part of growing up southern and so is the smoke. I heard stories about men staying up all night, cooking a hog with care. They’d choose wood that imparts the perfect flavor to the pork. And that flavor, in part, came from the smoke.
It took teamwork. I remember seeing men turn a whole hog held in place by a wire attached to metal poles. Raising and lowering the rack, they timed it just so, looking each other in the eye and saying not one word. Then in a flash they flipped it so the other side faced the coals. The delicious dripping resumed.
The magic man behind this great custom is the pitmaster. Lincoln County had two in my day. Bud Hawes was a legendary pitmaster as was Tommy Quit Elam. We called him Tommy Quit. You old timers recall that name. Tommy’s place was close by Price’s Store.
Like Tommy Quit Granddad Poland pit cooked pork down Double Branches way. He drowned it in a vinegary sauce swimming with ground pepper. He died in 1972. Even now I see him standing at an old oak table, crosshatched by many, many cuts. He wears overalls and a felt hat of the 1950s. In his right hand he wields a hatchet. Upon the table sit chunks of barbecued pork. Down comes the hatchet. Over and over he chops until a fine grade of meat covers the table. Barbecue southern style straight from the farm.
For sure the South reigns supreme when it comes to barbecue. True southern states—think the Confederacy—flaunt 70 of the top 100 barbecue restaurants and most top barbecue restaurants outside the South cut their teeth on southern techniques and recipes. And what are those techniques? Well, the secret to mouthwatering BBQ resides in a fundamental trio: meat, woodsmoke, and most secretly, the sauce.
I don’t recall that Bud Hawes had a secret sauce but I’d bet he did. Any purveyor of BBQ had a secret sauce or pretended to. That mysterious taste-bud-pleasing alchemy gave great barbecue masters a reputation. Tommy Quit was the Double Branches pitmaster. He had a coveted secret sauce and no amount of persuasion would pry it from him. People offered him money and more. A story he told made its way through the county. A woman was so desperate to get his sauce she put a knife to his throat and threatened to kill him. He refused to tell her. It makes for a good story and his legend grows.
Barbecue grew up in the South where cooks like Tommy Quit and Bud Hawes learned to slow-roast meat over fire pits. Make no mistake every southern state claims to have the best cooks and best style of barbecue. Best methods too. We understand. We all take pride in hot coals and sizzling pork no matter how we down it.
Over here in South Carolina the hog’s meat might be pulled, shredded, or chopped. The hog might be rubbed with a mixture of spices before smoking over coals and then mopped with spice and vinegar. Tangy!
In South Carolina you can tell where a fellow’s from by the style he prefers. Near the Georgia line Carolinians prefer a peppery tomato or ketchup-based sauce. In the Midlands a yellow sauce made from mustard, vinegar, brown sugar, and spices holds sway. In the coastal and Pee Dee regions folks love a spicy, watery vinegar-and-pepper sauce.
Barbecue in Georgia embraces a range of styles, traditions, and influences. Georgians slow cook pork over an open pit stoked with oak or oak and hickory. It’s served with a sauce based on ketchup, molasses, bourbon, garlic, cayenne pepper, and other ingredients.
Georgia, like other southern states, is a melting pot of regional variations. You can find almost any sauce or cooking style in the Peach State but what dominates is hardwood-smoked pork with a tangy rub and vinegar-based sauce. You best find it at small-town barbecue huts. Hit a back road and ask the locals.
People like to debate which sauce is best and where you find the best barbecue. Some folks take this debate seriously. Back in the late 1990s I worked with a fellow who took off on a two-week tour of southern states in quest of the best BBQ. He and a buddy and their wives tasted their way through Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, and North Carolina. They started out in the Palmetto State. They put down a bait of BBQ as my Granddad Poland used to say. The winner? A little place in Tennessee.
I suspect that little place isn’t hard to find. There’s one thing about the South that’s truly special. You can get off the beaten path and ask a local where the best barbecue is. You can bet your bottom dollar they’ll tell you where to find it. Over in Tuscaloosa there’s a place called Dreamland. You won’t need help finding it. A lot of folks swear by its “bar-b-que” ribs as the folks at Dreamland spell it.
The best barbecue I remember was in my youth. Saturdays a drive uptown to Bud Hawes meant a feast. I see the place now. Small in size, huge in memory. A tiny screened-in shelter where men in overalls always seem to be standing around. A bed of coals glowed red; ashes covered others. As the hog sizzled, fat dripped onto the coals sending up flavorful smoke, the very smoke do-gooders want to outlaw.
It seems like yesterday. Dad and I get out of the car and the sweet, sweet smell of cooked pork fills the air. Soon the world’s best BBQ fills me. It fills me with good food and good memories and all the smoke pouring forth is part of the magic. Long live the magic. (Do-gooders be damned.)