One time is all it took, and I was hooked on smoke.
No, I’m not talking about the Lucky Strikes of my youth. One puff of that smoke, and I was done forever.
I’m talking about a fresh pork ham, dripping juices on hickory coals, and that smoke’s doing its magic. The genesis of my barbecue love affair began in 1957 in the barnyard of my grandmother’s farm—about a Hank Williams double-spin on Camilla’s WCLB-AM—down Highway 91. Newton, Baker’s county seat, squats on the Flint River’s bluff in Southwest Georgia.
It was an all-nighter.
My mother’s brothers, Joe (we called him Bubba) and Billy Vines, had dug a hole in the ground. In the late afternoon, they stacked hickory logs in the pit and struck a match to some kindling. By dark thirty, the wood was crumpling into a bed of white-hot embers.
Next, my uncles stretched a swath of wire fencing over the hole. Gently, they placed a yellowish, white splayed hog which had been butchered while the rooster was crowing that morning.
Jim Auchmutey’s new book is hot off the
University of Georgia Press
Hog-killing time is usually after the first frost, so I was shivering. And I was shivering from excitement. I was just a 9-year-old boy, and they were men who had invited me to join them in what was to be my first all-nighter.
When Bubba and Billy asked me to swab on the sauce, I felt as if I was almost ready to shave. As the hours inched through the night, they’d point to the pit, and that was my signal to mop on more homemade sauce.
All the while, my nostrils were celebrating the aroma of the pork dripping on hickory coals. And for the next 61 years, every bite of barbecue has been compared—no, judged—to the culinary reward of my first smoke-filled all-nighter.
When I returned from lunch Friday, there was a gift on my desk. Its shape signaled a book. Our son Eric knows that books—like barbecue—are among my favorites. When I peeled off the wrapping, I smiled. It was a double doozey: SMOKELORE, A Short History of Barbecue in America by Jim Auchmutey.
With the book hot off the University of Georgia Press, I couldn't wait to turn the pages. Walking over to Eric’s office, I plopped down next to him, struggling to keep the drool off my chin. He laughed as I read excerpts aloud.
Eric and his older brother, Alan, never got to spend an all-nighter with their great-uncles, but they inherited those Baker County barbecue-loving genes. The three of us are known to ignore the GPS if there’s a rumor of a good barbecue joint “somewhere over there” and not on our satellite-guided route.
By the time I got to page 138 in SMOKELORE, I was salivating. Right there was Mr. Wesley Jones’ Barbecue Mop recipe. The instructions of the then-97-year-old pit master from Union, South Carolina, had been written down in the 1930s and printed in 2019.
I stopped reading and started dreaming of a barbecue pit on our farm and hickory smoke.
Where’s my shovel?