Barbecue Road Trip: The Smoke Road
On our most recent expedition, Jess and I hit two stellar spots before that misstep in Covington. (We also did a drive-by of the Mindfield, a skyscraping folk art environment on the edge of downtown Brownsville, and made a quick tour of the Alex Haley Museum, an homage to the author of Roots tucked in a modest neighborhood in nearby Henning.)
Helen’s Bar-B-Q in Brownsville came first. Set in a metal hutch, on a hard curve north of the courthouse square, the six-seat café sits next to a retailer of discount jewelry and hair extensions. Across the street is a derelict tourist-court-style motel. Inside, Helen Turner, one of the few female pit masters in the South, stokes the fire and works the sandwich board. She’s a dervish. Behind the café, in a screened pit room, she burns hickory and oak down into coals between two sheets of corrugated tin. With a long-handled shovel, she slides those coals into a concrete block berth. After they spend ten to twelve hours in a swirl of smoke, she pulls pork shoulders from that pit, chops them with a cleaver, piles the meat high on buns, and douses all with a red sauce that straddles the line between ketchup and vinegar, between sweet and hot.
Jess ate his sandwich in four greedy bites. He moaned as he ate. Literally. But he also kept glancing up at Ms. Turner, who was wearing a blue floral-print hairnet and pink hospital scrubs. As she loped about the pit room, Jess watched. As he chewed through smoke-blackened hunks of pork flesh, his eyes tracked her movements. And his mind engaged.
When we drove away, Jess was cradling a pickle jar of Helen’s sauce and plotting the many ways he could employ it when we got back home. His eyes were wide. And so was his smile. He got it, I told myself. I didn’t have to make some fatherly point about how women can do anything men can do. About how women work as hard as men. Ms. Turner had made those points for me. And she had dished a stupendously great sandwich, too.
Sam’s Bar-B-Q in Humboldt was next. When Jess spied the woodpile, just south of downtown, he yelled for me to brake. A jumble of hickory trunks and oak stumps—delivered by friends and neighbors as they cleaned up from last spring’s tornadoes—that wood served as a kind of free-form art installation and a de facto advertisement that announced HONEST BARBECUE COOKED OVER WOOD HERE.
The building is made of white block, patined with soot. The pit, set in an adjacent building, is an iron-lung-shaped double-decker, with wood burning down to coals on the bottom and shoulders smoking on racks up top. It’s a feat of country-boy engineering, designed by the founder, Sam Donald, and now manned by his son-in-law John Ivory. The efficacy of that design gets proved every time customers heft a sandwich to their maw.
And that’s just what Jess and I did. We hefted two beautiful sandwiches and a slice of chocolate chess pie, still hot from the oven. And we listened as locals came streaming in. “Now, you’re the baby girl, aren’t you?” Mr. Ivory asked a woman who ordered a barbecue bologna sandwich. “Give me a sandwich with fatty meat and slaw,” said a fireman with soot on his hands.