Barbecue Road Trip: The Smoke Road
A father-son search for pork and wisdom on Tennessee’s barbecue byways
> See bonus photos from the western Tennessee barbecue trail
Jess shook his head, tapped his nose, and mouthed the words No smoke. But I insisted. How often do we get to Covington, Tennessee? I thought, as we pondered our third barbecue pit stop of the day. We might as well give their sandwich a shot.
My boy remained dubious. He stepped to the counter and asked the gentleman in charge how they cook their pigs. “With charcoal,” the fellow said. “Gets it tender, and the sauce does the rest.” Jess looked up at me with all the world-weariness a ten-year-old with a shock of blond hair and a snaggletoothed grin can muster. He didn’t have to say a word.
As we drove away, bound for the last stop on our semiannual road trip through rural western Tennessee—a region I’ve come to think of as a Land of the Lost for hickory-cooked pork barbecue believers, where roadside purveyors still fuel masonry pits with hickory and oak logs and undiscovered treasures always seem to lurk around the bend—I caught his eye in the rearview mirror. Jess smiled, shook his head, and tapped his nose again.
Jess knows barbecue. He ate his first solid food, a shoulder sandwich with slaw and sweet red sauce, in the parking lot of Spruce’s Bar-B-Q in Griffin, Georgia. Through the years, on family trips to Alabama, where my wife grew up, and Georgia, where I was born and raised, he’s learned to case a joint. In addition to working his nose, he knows how to survey the woodpile, ferret out freezer case menu conceits, and spot steam table pork at twenty paces.
A couple of years back, Jess and I began to take just-the-guys jaunts north, from our home in Oxford, Mississippi, through the small Tennessee towns that sprawl between Jackson and Memphis. Jess discovered how to scan for armadas of martin houses, made from whitewashed gourds. He wondered, rightly, what really goes on inside tanning salons, twirling academies, and taxidermy studios. And he learned to eat, with discernment, intelligence, and gusto.
On one of those trips, I tried to get Jess to read the text of a historical marker, erected in tribute to some long-forgotten graybeard statesman. He feigned interest, as any dutiful son would. Five minutes later, he recovered his gumption. “What if I could play laser tag and you could get a really good barbecue sandwich in one place?” he asked. “That’s what we really want, right?”
Over time, Jess and I have learned each other’s palates. I’m a thin vinegar sauce guy. Jess likes molasses and ketchup-thickened concoctions. I prefer whole hog, pulled into long strands. Jess likes shoulder meat, hacked into shards and piled high on a white-bread bun.
More important, we have developed a shared love of western Tennessee barbecue and the people who cook it. As he grows from a goofball boy, who sings in the shower and hugs me good night, to a querulous teenager, who questions my authority and demands the keys to the family sedan, I hope we’re also honing an enduring friendship that won’t depend solely on blood and genes.