I was eating one of my many meals at a local barbecue joint that was not my family’s barbecue joint when a famous local stopped by the table and told me he was proud of me for not eating barbecue pork in a restaurant that was not Fresh Air Barbecue. While I understood what he meant, I imagine he would have been surprised to know that I love barbecue and frequently enjoy barbecue in places other than Fresh Air (and I eat often at this competitor and other local barbecue establishments because the food is great)-even if my grandfather might have raised an eyebrow about it. It is true though, when you are a third generation member of a family that has been in the barbecue business for over 80 years in a small community, that people do notice if they see you eating barbecue somewhere besides the family “pit”. In my defense, I will say that while I enjoy Bill Quinn’s barbecue a lot, that night I was actually enjoying some of the best catfish I have had in years. If there is a food group I enjoy more than barbecue its fried catfish on the bone with hush puppies, cole slaw and fries. My grandfather was the same way and the regular trips with my entire Butts County family to Falls View Restaurant for fresh catfish with him leading the way were some of my best family memories.
Still, people ask me why I went into government work instead of the barbecue business. Instead of explaining why I went into government, I’ll expound instead on why I did not go into the family barbecue business. One of the benefits of NOT working in the barbecue business is that you actually can enjoy good barbecue. When I was growing up, I loved eating at my grandfather’s barbecue restaurant and did so as often as I could. What I couldn’t understand was why the employees of Fresh Air Barbecue didn’t eat it too. A benefit of working there was that your meals were free! This seemed the best possible benefit of working there because you could eat as much barbecue as you wanted to, yet the employees always ate other meals that were prepared on site by the “chief cook and vinegar jug washer”, never the barbecue. I found out why when I was in my early teens. The barbecue business is HARD work….or let me rephrase that, the RESTAURANT business is hard work….and those that work with barbecue all day, several days a week generally don’t like to eat it that much…but those who toil to bring good food to others deserve respect for the long hours and backbreaking labor that go into making a restaurant run. Now I am not averse to hard work….I just prefer to work in air conditioning and not on my feet all day and I enjoy technology and locking up and going home at 5:00 and not having to worry about stoking a fire at 11pm or whether we have enough food cooked for the next day.
My father and my grandfather made sure that I understood how much work went into making a dollar (which back in my teenage years would buy a barbecue sandwich with change). Every bowl of Brunswick stew bought by a customer, every sandwich consumed, every spoonful of sauce put on a sandwich is the result of hours and hours of work. Take the stew for instance. The beef has to be cooked, enough for a 60 gallon run. Then it has to be strained. Fifty or more potatoes and a like number of onions have to be peeled, by hand, and these were no runt potatoes or onions either. There is nothing that will make you shed tears like peeling 50 onions at a time, believe me! Then the meat, potatoes and onions have to be run through grinders into a pulp before being put in the boiling pot with water, along with giant cans of creamed corn, tomatoes and a lot of herbs and spices you wouldn’t be interested in. Once all the ingredients were in this enormous black pot, it cooked for several hours and you stirred it constantly to make sure it didn’t stick. We used a wooden boat oar to stir up the mix and for hours you would stand there and gently stir it with this big boat paddle until it was finally done. Then you went and got sixty of the 1-gallon sized pickle jars (from all the pickles we sold) and dipped up all this stew by hand until all the jars were full and set them on a long table to cool down enough that they could be put in the cooler boxes. Bear in mind this was all done at least twice and sometimes three times per week. Later on, my father purchased a stainless steel stew cooker that heated and stirred the ingredients and had a spout on the bottom to fill the jars, which cut down on a lot of the physical work but all the preparation processes have been the same since before we ever had a barbecue business. It was hot, sweaty and sometimes bloody work if the potato peeler every slipped.
That’s just the stew part of things. Let me tell you, making the barbecue was a lot harder. Fresh Air’s barbecue hams are slow cooked using indirect heat and smoke. Hams were put on each day and they cooked all day and night and were taken off the next day and served as needed. Several times a day you will open up the lid to the cooking pit and stick your head into a smoky, hot environment, eyes burning and check the hams progress, moving them and rotating them as needed, taking them off as needed, cutting them up by hand with a large knife and fork (and later with a mechanical meat cutter) and so forth. The fire ran 24 hours a day except on Tuesday when the pit and racks were cleaned (the dirtiest and smelliest job in a barbecue restaurant and I won’t go into the details). Wood was hauled in daily by pickup truck, logs applied carefully all day to keep the fire just right, trips back at night to check the fire and get it settled in for the night and making sure the right combination of heat and smoke were maintained. Too hot a fire and the meat would overcook; too low and it wouldn’t cook in time.
Barbecue sauce was made by hand as well. You started with Twelve Oaks white vinegar in gallon jugs, mixed in tomato sauce and all the spices and then you would stand there and shake those jugs about 30 times in 4 different directions to get everything mixed right and then you store it. Before any was served, it had to be brought to a boil in a saucepan and then it was ready to serve. Suffice to say, when I was working there, nothing we sold was prepackaged except cokes, bread, chips and pickles and we reused every pickle jar and every vinegar jug for the storage of sauce, stew and later, cole slaw (also prepared by hand daily).
I decided after being held hostage a few of the worst summers on record that I did not want to work in the barbecue business and became the lone member of the family who wasn’t involved with it, but I had an understanding and an appreciation of what went into it. When I worked there, we didn’t have air conditioning and in the summer, the temperature could rise as high 130 degrees in the food prep area. We also had an ancient cash register that did not total an order so every order taken had to be added up in your head (if you were my father and grandfather) or on paper (if you were me). The restaurant had to be swept free of sawdust every morning, tracked in by customers through the day from the sawdust front yard, trash hauled off to the trash pit (the only fun part of working there was getting to burn the trash pile every week, a bonfire to rival any college homecoming fire). It was and still is a never ending cycle of work, work, work, all to produce the best barbecue we knew how to make. My brother Chris and my cousins and their families know this well.
So yes, I eat quite frequently at Bill’s and for years, my wife and I trekked out to Stark to eat barbecue turkey at the Mathis Brothers restaurant. I used to enjoy the barbecue prepared by Betty and R.A. Cook at Cook’s Lunchroom and I have sampled some of Tony and Scott Thurston’s excellent Que several times. I am not biased about barbecue except when it doesn’t have quality and Butts County has some of the best quality barbecue (and now catfish) places and cookers anywhere around, hands down…and my hat is off to them all….Bill and Tanya, the Browns & Crockarells who run the old Mathis Brothers as the Blind Pig now, Scott and Tony Thurston, the United Methodist Men and their excellent barbecue chicken and all my family too because I know how hard they have to work to make it good. You have to love the restaurant business to be in the restaurant business and I just didn’t love it….but to those that do, you make a lot of people happy. I can honestly say I was involved in the barbecue business but the rest of my family was committed to it. The difference in being involved and being committed is like breakfast….the chicken that gave the eggs was involved but the pig that gave the bacon was committed!