In living and traveling this great country of ours, I’ve had the pleasure of eating many things called BBQ and/or experiencing many events called a BBQ.
From the now-defunct Melear’s in Fairburn, GA to a buffet in Rocky Mount, N.C. that had the pig on the buffet, to a Samoan BBQ in Albuquerque, where the pig was cooked underground, to San Antonio and beef brisket BBQ to Corky’s Restaurant in Memphis and their scrumptious ribs to Kansas City BBQ to 12 Bones in Asheville and those melt-in-your-mouth Blueberry-Chipotle ribs, it’s all delicious and I wouldn’t tell any of the people that cooked the meals, “that ain’t BBQ.”
There is a saying that people in the South “eat” BBQ, while folks elsewhere “do” a BBQ. I suppose in my travels that’s true, but I’d venture to say that people in the south also “do” BBQ. But not in the same way as a person in California lighting a grill.
I thought about this when I happened upon Smitty’s BBQ in Carnesville, GA, located on GA HWY 59 in NE Georgia. You see, in Georgia or North or South Carolina, to me there are certain hints as to whether or not a place is going to have good BBQ – the pulled pork stuff, I’m talking about here, or even the Brunswick Stew. My first look at a place will help me decide if a BBQ restaurant is worth trying.
Now, I mean no disrespect to Sonny’s or Dickey’s or any other chain places. I mean no ill will to the fancy wine-and-dine places in the big cities that I’ve had the pleasure to eat at. It’s BBQ, but it AIN’T BBQ.
See, to me, a place like Smitty’s, I knew it was going to be good before I walked in. Why? The parking lot was full. I’m in the middle of “NOWHERE” and people flocked to this place. But there were other clues.
The place is situated across the 2-lane highway from a cow pasture, bordered by a barbed-wired fence. When you arrive at Smitty’s there’s a gravel driveway, with muddy, Georgia red clay along the sides. It’s a wood-framed house and before you walk in, you smell the fire upon which the remains of the pig has encountered.
I walk in and, man, this brought me back to my childhood. I sat in an area of a now-enclosed porch. Around the walls were a collection of items that certainly had no interior decorator’s touch: A deer’s head, a calendar from 1967, a local newspaper front page from 1953, a potato sack, framed pictures of Georgia Bulldog football players, American flags, scripture verses. At the cash register are York peppermint patties for sale.
This, my friends, is the final telltale sign.
Since I was eating light that day for lunch, I went with just a plain bowl of stew. What kind of stew, you ask? If it’s a BBQ restaurant, it’s the one-and-only Brunswick Stew.
Before it comes, I see others with pork sandwiches and pulled pork on a plate, baked beans, cole slaw (That I can do without)… and as my mouth waters, I know.
I text my wife to tell her what I’m having. She responds, “Is it going to be good?” From what I see and smell… oh yes.
First, I get a small tub of sweet tea in a plastic red cup. I think it was about 87 ounces. On the table, bagged by twos in Ziploc bags, is white bread. And then… here it comes.
It’s not fancy. The bowl looks like something you would’ve eaten out of in grade school. Contained therein, a thick, tomato-based stew with chicken and pork and corn and beans and who knows what else – it’s Brunswick stew. I add the obligatory anointing of BBQ sauce and 65 crushed Saltines and… The taste. I can’t describe it other than to say, it tastes like home. It tastes like New Year’s Day at my Papa’s house, when he’d make it for the occasion. It tastes like a run-down Melear’s restaurant, my first memory of eating BBQ, complete with white bread. Add in the pickle spear and the bag of Lay’s potato chips and I am 7 years-old again. And all this cost $6.84. Cheap at half the price.
You see, yes, BBQ is a food for us here in the South, but it’s more. If you do BBQ in the South, it’s what you ARE. Smitty’s, like so many small BBQ joints in the South, are family-run operations. It’s what they do and are. Their reputations are on the line. You can’t fake this stuff.
Folks, I can’t stress this enough. If you are in the South, and at meal time you see a full parking lot at a BBQ place… stop in and await the heaven-come-down-to-earth that is on hand.