Barbecue restaurant owners take great delight in imagining every possible way to spell the term. Driving through almost any Southern town you will discover establishments offering from an endless list of spellings- Bar-B-Q, Barbeque, B B-Q, Bar-be-que, Bar-BQ, Bar B Que, BBQ, Bar-b-que, Barbque, and on and on. For the benefit of English teachers, proof readers, or obsessively correct spellers, even highly respected dictionaries cannot agree and offer a variety of spellings.
Barbecue fans adamantly argue about the best barbecue with unmoving loyalty as seriously as football fans argue about the best teams. Some believe if it is not pulled pork or pork ribs, it is not barbecue. Those with a Texas lean will tell you it must be beef. Chicken has its following and the sauce may be white rather than some shade of red.
In spite of the various dividing points on this subject, surely very few will argue with the proposition that barbecue is a cherished symbol of the South. It marks patriotic holidays, brings families and friends together in homes, at picnics, or other social gatherings, and became a traditional offering at political rallies and church meetings. We cook it ourselves with secret family sauce recipes and buy it for take-out from the local seller or the folks offering it on the side of the road or in the church parking lot. We might eat-in at a small local restaurant or a big chain because it gives us comfort and pleasure and may even awaken memories of non-returnable days when our lives seemed less complicated to maneuver.
JOE MOORE’S DREAM
Several years ago the lucky individuals who lived and worked near downtown in the vicinity of the old Dairy Queen location would wake up or get to work and find themselves looking around, closing their eyes while savoring the wood smoke, and then quickly realizing that Joe Moore was cooking barbecue at The Rib Cage.
Raised in a family with fourteen children, Joe remembers always having some kind of part-time job, even as a youngster. One of those jobs was shining shoes at Collins Barbershop in Tuscaloosa. Several of his well-known customers included Bear Bryant, Leroy Jordan, and Joe Namath. After working for a packing company for awhile, Joe went to work as a barber in Demopolis. During that time, he could see the writing on the wall in the mid-‘60’s when the Beatles came to the United States and the trend towards long hair made barbering as a career less inviting.
With the help of a barbershop customer, Joe went to work for Alabama Power Company and became certified as both a nuclear and a fossil fuel mechanic. In that job Joe fortunately met James Fuller, a bulldozer operator. Joe married Evie, James’ daughter, in 1979. After many years of backyard barbecuing for friends and family and thirty years with Alabama Power, Joe explained, “After I retired, this thing just stayed in my heart all the time…cooking, cooking, cooking.” So the lifelong dream of his heart grew into The Rib Cage which was open for several years and then closed.
In October 2009, with a renewed commitment from Evie and their four young adult daughters, this family got back in the barbecue business with Joe Mo’s BBQ located at Five Points. Joe is happiest just tending to his smoker, which he built, starting no later than 7:30 on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday mornings. When questioned about the secret to his moist, wonderfully flavored barbecue, Joe smiled as if to say, “Are you crazy, I’m not giving away my secrets.” But after a minute he thoughtfully replied, “My seasonings.” He explained that you must know what to season with and how to use the seasoning. “I kept trying this and I would try that- ‘til I came up with the seasoning I liked.”
Evie is responsible for the sauce and the sides- baked beans, cole slaw, and potato salad. Customers can special order peach cobbler and cakes for dessert. Her baked beans, loaded with ground meat, are a tasty meal in themselves, but the key to their unique flavor will remain her secret.
Explaining that she encouraged Joe to get back in the business, Evie is particularly proud of the fact that this is a family business where they can work together and share the experience. In the midst of full-time jobs, pursuing higher education degrees, and raising their own children, plus three of them living out of town, their daughters unselfishly and graciously step in and do whatever work needs to be done as often as they can be there.
MIKE WILSON’S OPPORTUNITY
Mike Wilson, the owner of Saw’s BBQ in the Edgewood neighborhood of Homewood, has an enthusiasm for barbecue equal to Joe Moore’s. He was raised in Charlotte, North Carolina, but claims strong roots in Walker County as his maternal grandparents, Ida and Dewey Michael, owned the R.C. Cola plant here in Jasper. His paternal grandparents, Toots and Carl Wilson, owned a grocery store in Parrish.
The call to cook simmered in Mike from a young age as he started preparing food as a teenager while working for a deli and then a restaurant. After graduating from the University of Alabama with a degree in restaurant and hospitality management, he went to culinary school in Vail, Colorado, and then returned to North Carolina to work as a sous chef for Dean & Deluca. Mike ultimately found his way to Birmingham and the test kitchen for Cooking Light magazine where he remained for about ten years.
During this time, Mike started cooking barbecue for coworkers and several years ago developed and began selling his own Saw’s Sauce, a peppery- sweet, thin, vinegar-based sauce. His plan was to buy a truck and sell his beautifully sauced barbecue from it. One Thursday a friend told him about a barbecue place for sale in Edgewood that had a pit built in 1961. The next Tuesday he bought it expecting to take two weeks vacation from his job at Cooking Light, get the restaurant on its feet, then go back to his test kitchen job. However, the restaurant had a plan of its own and was so busy “right off the bat,” “it kind of swallowed me whole.” So Mike became a full-time barbecue restaurant owner last spring and has never had time to look back.
Mike believes the key to his success with barbecuing meat is “low temps and patience.” He cooks the Boston butts for twenty four hours. A customer summed up Saw’s incredible meat best when he explained that it is so good, it does not need any sauce at all.
Saw’s BBQ menu offers “original pulled pork,” “smoked chicken with white bbq sauce,” ribs and a “Carolina dog (chili & slaw).” The “stuffed taters” are huge and are available with as many as eight toppings. Sides include deviled eggs, cole slaw, potato salad, and macaroni and cheese. Vegetables fresh from the farmer’s market are on the daily specials menu. On a recent weekday these specials boasted silver queen corn, lady peas, and cucumber\Vidalia onion salad. Veteran restaurant cook and former nursing home kitchen manager Anatasia Nealey creates Saw’s sweet potato pie, banana pudding, and sour cream pound cake with a kind of pride and care that add to the flavor of her delightful desserts. These mama\grandmama-like specialties are undeniably to-give-up-diets-for.
DREW THORNLEY’S IDEA
Drew Thornley was born and raised in Jasper, leaving for the call of college at the University of Alabama and law school at Harvard University. He is an independent policy analyst and teaches business law at the University of Texas and several courses at other schools.
Living in Austin since August 2007, Drew quickly became inundated with the almost cultish sense of state pride among Texans where the overwhelming opinion is that everything is better in Texas. So he turned to his love of barbecue and set off on a mission to find out the truth behind the legend. He is the only non-Texan among a group of friends who get together and travel the state searching for and rating the barbecue as well as the establishments.
Having been a blogger since college days, creating a blog to share the results of the search was a natural step for Drew. The group goes out on weekends, discovers and tastes, and Drew compiles their findings and shares them along with photographs on manuptexasbbq.blogspot.com. This energetic group has already visited at least 27 locations in 2010.
This blog has become a part-time job for Drew and it is constantly expanding. In June he introduced The Q Card which usually sells for $10 and is good for one year. It is promoted as “BBQ savings as big as Texas” and offers discounts much like similar cards sold by schools in this area. The blog sports t-shirts and koozies and sponsored “Getting’ Sauced,” a free sauce tasting competition event complete with music.
Drew’s blog has become so popular that it was brought to the attention of the host committee for the 2011 Super Bowl. On behalf of Man Up BBQ, Drew will be selecting different types of Texas barbecue to be served at a super bowl event for about 2,500 people.
Joe Moore always dreamed of having his own barbecue place. Mike Wilson had a career home in the test kitchen world and never dreamed he would go back in the restaurant business until one Thursday when a friend mentioned a place for sale. Drew Thornley started with a basic blog about a subject near and dear to his heart, eager to see how Texas barbecue ranked, and is now seeing the blog grow into a business. Joe Moore had a dream. Mike Wilson had an opportunity. Drew Thornley had an idea. Barbecue, the cherished symbol of the South, had the ingrained appeal and the steadfast power to make it all happen.
Margaret Dabbs is a freelance columnist who resides in Jasper. Her column appears every other Wednesday in the Lifestyles section. Comments and suggestions are welcomed by contacting Dabbs at 387-2890.