Tag Archives: Alabama barbecue

That Lingering Burn

The preponderance of good and great barbecue joints in Birmingham is reaching overload. Every time I discover one, it seems that two or three more that I haven’t tried are recommended. A few years ago, I wrote an essay about Alabama barbecue. Despite my effort to be as diplomatic as possible, a reader took me to task for having the audacity to make a less than glowing comment about Morgan County white sauce. She took the opportunity to challenge my taste and attack some of the places I had complimented.

If she had read the essay closely, she would have caught my point that taste in barbecue is personal and that there is no right or wrong opinion; taste is a factor, but also place and family and tradition. Here’s an example: I lived in Texas for two years and never found any of its much-vaunted barbecue satisfactory. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t good (I know some of it was very good indeed); it simply means that I prefer pork and Texas brisket just did not meet my very personal taste standards.

With that said, I have to share my excitement – the whole city’s excitement, it seems — about Rodney Scott’s (Whole Hog) Bar-B-Que, which just opened in the Avondale neighborhood east of downtown Birmingham (www.rodneyscottsbbq.com).

Rodney Scott has become a star among pit masters in a relatively short period of time. He learned from his father in the Scott family’s general store in Hemingway, South Carolina. Every Thursday, Scott’s offered whole hog barbecue cooked over hardwood on a pit behind the store. Over the years, the reputation spread and demand grew, the family expanded to offering whole hog four days a week, and Rodney, the son, began to build a reputation in the national press and other media. John T. Edge’s New York Times piece about the Scott family barbecue was a seminal moment in the ascendance of Rodney.

That’s when I first noticed Rodney Scott. After a 2013 fire destroyed the Hemingway pits, Rodney’s signal was strong on the foodways radar as he toured the region, doing pop-up whole hog barbecue along the way.

Rodney Scott and Zachariah Chanin; Florence, Alabama; 2016

I finally sampled Rodney’s barbecue at a memorable Friends of the Café dinner at Alabama Chanin’s Florence, Alabama, factory in 2016. The evening’s imaginative concept was to merge Scott’s whole hog with sides and desserts from Birmingham fine dining chef Frank Stitt. My strongest memory of that evening is the moment when Rodney Scott and Chef Zachariah Chanin entered the factory showroom with a whole hog splayed across chain-link fencing. The gathering crowd turned into paparazzi with phone cameras spinning into overload.

The meat-centric homage that followed was an expert display of culinary expertise, harmony, and tact, culminating in one of the memorable meals of my life. I will remember forever the night that I dined at an event featuring the offerings of James Beard Award-winning chef Frank Stitt (2001) of James Beard Award-winning Outstanding Restaurant, Highlands Bar and Grill (2018), with a meat course from James Beard Award-winning chef Rodney Scott (2018), and dessert from James Beard Award-winning pastry chef Dolester Miles (2018). And, most memorable of all, this singular dinner occurred less than ninety miles from my house.

Rodney Scott has subsequently teamed up with Nick Pihakis – co-founder with his father, Jim, of Birmingham pacesetter and stalwart Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q – to open Rodney Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Charleston in 2016. Rodney’s son, Dominic Scott, has taken over the pit master duties at the original Scott’s Bar-B-Q in Hemingway. Dominic still relies on the advice of his Scott grandparents, Ella and Roosevelt. Roosevelt Scott is the original pit master of the family’s whole hog tradition.

Avondale is one of Birmingham’s neighborhoods that was in a decades-long decline but is now having a renaissance. The new business ventures by and large seem to exalt the authentic spirit of the old neighborhood, revitalizing what were once desolate or deserted spots.  Rodney Scott’s Bar-B-Que joins SAW’s Soul Kitchen BBQ to make Avondale a mecca for barbecue aficionados. I hope that the neighborhood will continue to adapt to its growing popularity while avoiding the over-gentrification that might threaten its charm and character.

Rodney Scott’s Avondale location is fresh and minimalist with a cinder block smokehouse added to the former location of the Saigon Noodle House. It’s typically crowded, but the line moves fast, the service is good, and the parking – though tight – is plentiful. On the Saturday that I visited, an iron-clad smoker occupied one of the handicapped parking spaces at the front door. The hood was open and succulent, fragrant spare ribs were sending out an aroma that was far more effective than any advertising one might conjure.

It was my intent to sample as many of the items as possible on a first visit. I was ordering for myself and my mother. Since Mother has pretty extensive dietary restrictions, I observed the menu closely to be sure there was something to please both of us.

Mother can no longer handle spicy heat and is not a fan of smoky meats, so we opted for the chicken tenders as her meat. It was a wise choice since the fried tenders were generous, nicely breaded, and mild. The Carolina-style mustard sauce set the chicken flavor off with a distinctive flair.

Her side choices were “greens” and baked beans. Mother is not a fan of collard greens and was disappointed that the greens seemed to be entirely collards. I like any greens and thought the collards were splendidly prepared and generously seasoned with chunks of pork. I was happy to eat any leftovers. Her baked beans, seasoned with meat also, had a rich and smoky taste. Once again, there were more leftovers for me.

For myself, I ordered a two-meat combo with spare ribs and pulled pork from the whole hog. My ribs were lush and meaty with a rich burgundy hue. The succulent pulled pork included bark and skin pieces and was finely shredded. The cole slaw was spare and simple, seasoned perfectly, crunchy and cool. The potato salad, which had come highly recommended, was chunky and delicious.

I should state that everything I have described to this point (except the chicken tenders) has a rich, spicy heat to it. The throat remembered the meal long after it was digested. From me, that is an enthusiastic compliment; for more sensitive palates and stomachs, that is a warning.

Rodney Scott’s barbecue did not need a bit of sauce for my palate. There was plenty of taste going on without any augmentation.  However, I did use his two barbecue sauces for occasional dipping and was very pleased with both. The original sauce, the “Rodney Sauce,” is very thin (which has caused some debate in some circles). It consists of a white vinegar with cayenne and black pepper. On the side, as I ordered it, the peppers sink to the bottom and the sauce needs to be shaken or stirred to re-combine the basic ingredients.

The second sauce, “The Other Sauce,” is thicker and, thus, more traditional, with a base of apple cider vinegar mixed with ketchup and black pepper. Slices of white bread were included with each order to sop up the juices and the sauce. My Alabama-bred barbecue tastes have always favored vinegar-based sauces; I am not ashamed to say that after I had finished my meal, I had no hesitation about slurping down the remaining portions of each of the amazing vinegar-based Scott sauces.

For my money, that lingering burn in the back of the throat after tasting a great vinegar-based red southern barbecue sauce is one of life’s special pleasures.

A generous helping of banana pudding is the perfect dessert for any substantial barbecue meal. Scott’s uses Ella Scott’s banana pudding recipe; the happy result has hearty helpings of banana with a creamy pudding and vanilla wafer crumbles. The cool pudding is a lovely balance to the heat of the rest of the meal.

In my travels around the country, I made it a point to ask locals about the best barbecue in any given location. I have had people take me off the beaten path to share the barbecue that they have declared as “the best anywhere,” or, at least, “the best around here.”

These days, my travel is more restricted, but with the recent additions of Rodney Scott’s in Birmingham’s Avondale, and of Martin’s (another whole hog joint) in Birmingham’s Cahaba Heights, it seems that Birmingham is still my one-stop shop for superior barbecue.

Once upon a time, the quest for the best local barbecue was an ongoing part of my travels. Nowadays, maybe, there’s no place like home.

Rusty’s Bar-B-Q in Leeds, USA

The small town of Leeds is an eastern suburb of Birmingham. When I was a boy, we would sometimes travel with Dad on business trips to the Anniston area and I remember a big billboard on the highway that said “LEEDS, USA.” To this day I still refer to it as “Leeds, USA.”

These days, Leeds is probably best known along I-20 for its proximity to an outlet mall and the Barber Motorsports Museum and as Charles Barkley’s home town. Earlier generations might have known it as the home town of baseball pitching great Dixie Walker. It is credited as the origin point for the legend of John Henry, a “steel-drivin’ man.”

Let me add Rusty’s Bar-B-Q (www.rustysbarbq.com) to that list of notable Leeds trivia.

I became aware of Rusty’s Bar-B-Q in Norton Dill’s lip-smacking documentary, Q: Alabama’s Barbecue Legends (2015).  There, among the state’s legendary barbecue joints and pit masters, were culinary school grads Rusty and Beth Tucker, who decided to open a barbecue place in Leeds after culinary school and stints in fine dining. Rusty was the pit master and Beth was taking care of the sweets – pies and other desserts.

Theirs were among the most charming of the many interviews in the documentary and I promised myself I would seek out Rusty’s whenever I found myself near Leeds.

Fast forward to February 2018 and my reporter friend Bob introduces me to Rusty at the Southern Foodways Alliance winter symposium. The three of us share a table during the event and I find Rusty’s commentary insightful and entertaining. I decide I need to make a trip to Leeds sooner rather than later.

At the symposium, I told Rusty that I don’t get to Leeds very often. “Nobody does,” he deadpanned. But on the Saturday night when I drove over, the place was packed and people were lined up to place and pick up orders.

To get a good sampling of the barbecue, I ordered a sampler platter which includes two ribs, a quarter chicken, and pulled pork. For sides I ordered marinated coleslaw and fried onion rings. Mother ordered a barbecue sandwich with a side of the traditional mayonnaise-based slaw. 

Rusty’s serves really good barbecue, slow smoked over hickory on an open brick pit and based on family recipes.  Here’s the deal: I am a lover of Birmingham / Tuscaloosa-style regional barbecue and I have tasted most of the standouts and contenders; Rusty’s holds its own with the best of them. It is authentic, heart-felt, and distinctly Alabama barbecue.

The sauce was served on the side and I chose the house sauce — a good, thin vinegar and tomato-based red sauce. I don’t over-sauce good ‘cue and this sauce, based on Rusty’s grandfather’s recipe, was a nice complement to beautifully smoked meat. It reminded me a bit of a cocktail sauce with some citrus notes and I swear I caught just a hint of horseradish. I look forward to sampling the other red and mustard sauces; I’ll leave the white sauce to be savored by those who are so inclined.

Unfortunately, I can’t comment on the desserts. We ordered two – coconut cream pie and banana pudding – and I didn’t realize it was my responsibility to retrieve them from the cooler. After we got home, I realized that I stupidly left without the desserts I had ordered.

It’s no big deal. Now that I’ve found Rusty’s, I plan to get back to Leeds, USA again sooner rather than later. 

Food Memory: My Father’s Barbecue

IMG_1760  With Memorial Day weekend comes the traditional kick-off to cooking out and barbecue season. Although it’s always cook-out season in the South, it was a rougher than usual winter and it’s good to know that outdoor activities and barbecue are in full swing.

At some point in the ‘90s, when my job was frequently moving me around the country, I gave away my barbecue grill. Now, two decades later, I still haven’t replaced it.

That was not necessarily the plan. I gave the grill away so I wouldn’t have to move it anymore and I had every intention of replacing and upgrading it when I got settled in a new place. Now, even though I still think about purchasing a new grill (I’m attracted these days to the Big Green Egg) I am in no rush. My standard line is that I can find much better barbecue than I make so why would I want to take the time and trouble to grill my own?

I’m a pretty good cook, it’s true. But I know many people who grill and barbecue better than I. When it comes to barbecue, I prefer to be a connoisseur rather than a master. I once toyed with the idea of pursuing Kansas City BBQ Society judge certification but after exploring the rules I realized I prefer to consume barbecue as an amateur. Over the years, I have found some prize-winning barbecue to be lacking and the barbecue that breaks all of the rules is sometimes among the best.

In other words, I’m not that interested in measuring the smoke ring and analyzing if it “pulls” properly or “falls” off the bone; I’m not interested in quibbling over what’s authentic barbecue and what is just grilled meat. I’m interested in how it tastes and makes me feel.

As I write this, I am still in the afterglow of a quick stop at the original Dreamland location in Jerusalem Heights, Tuscaloosa. Driving away from that storied place, I realized that one of the things I love most about Dreamland is that slight glorious burn from the sauce that lingers in the front of the throat for a good hour or so after the meal is done.

I can give a long and ever-evolving litany of good barbecue joints around the country and I have been to quite a few. But some of the best and most fondly remembered barbecue of my life was cooked in the backyard by my father, Grover Journey.

Dad usually fired up the grill on Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day. He would start gathering his meat – pork ribs, sausage, and chicken – a couple of days in advance. He was picky about his meat choice. Mother would prepare traditional sides in the kitchen and I often made a huge green salad loaded with chopped vegetables.

My dad, who smoked cigarettes for about 50 years, has COPD – emphysema – now and as his breathing problems got worse he eventually stopped cooking at the barbecues. If the family is together for a warm weather holiday, my brother sometimes serves as pitmaster. Other times, we just buy meat and the sides at a local joint.

But when Dad was younger and healthy, he preferred to do the cooking himself. On the few occasions when I asked him to show me how he did it, he was never particularly forthcoming. I think he grilled his meat by instinct and it would have disturbed his mojo to divulge too much. I get that. I am much more comfortable handling my kitchen and my cooking alone; when I have “help,” things begin to go awry.

One thing I do know: Dad’s technique broke the rules. I read and watch what other pitmasters say and I realize that my father’s way didn’t conform with conventional ‘cue wisdom in many aspects.

Having said that, it always had a phenomenal taste so, in this case, rules be damned.

With the approach of Memorial Day, I recently decided to make another effort to pry loose any of my father’s grilling secrets. I chose to make it part of a recent dinner conversation.

“Dad, what did you use to marinate your meat before you’d barbecue?” I asked innocently.

“I didn’t marinate it,” he said.

“I thought I remembered some kind of pre-soak or marinade you used to do,” I responded.


Mother chimed in. “I remember you used to soak it in vinegar.”

He denied it. My mother and I both seem to recall that he would pre-soak the meat in apple cider vinegar but memory is a tricky thing.

This exchange sort of stopped my query cold.

Later that evening, I ventured forth and asked him a little bit more about his technique. I asked him what sauce he used because I remember that he would use store-bought sauce as a base. But in my memory (there’s tricky memory again) he used the bottled sauce as a base only and added his own ingredients to it.

Once again I hit a wall. He told me that he always used Kraft “Original” Barbecue Sauce.

“And what did you add to it?” I asked. I am sure I remember seeing cups of melted butter on the shelf next to the grill, among other things

“Nothing,” he said. “Just Kraft Original.”

“Oh… Okay.” I usually know better than to push on at these moments.

And since I didn’t pursue it, Dad volunteered a good bit of additional information. He said he liked to cook over low heat for several hours. This is the way I remember it, too. He would start early in the day (but did not pull the all-nighters that some pitmasters swear by). The stealthy aroma would waft over the neighborhood until the wait was almost too much to handle and it would seem like the time to sit down and eat would never come.

Dad would sit patiently in a lawn chair, armed with tongs and a spray bottle of water to hit the flames when they flared up. I think the water in the bottle may have been spiked with apple juice but I dared not bring it up in that recent Q and A.

Dad mentioned that he liked to mop some sauce on the meat at the beginning before he put it on the grill. This is one of those areas where many of the “experts” would disagree but I remember it as part of his technique and am a witness that, in my dad’s case, it worked splendidly.

He would continue to mop sauce on throughout the cooking process as he turned the meat over. And he liked to turn the meat a lot (I know, I know – breaking the rules but it worked).

As the various meats were finished, he would pile them on platters, wrap them in aluminum foil, and send them in the house to rest. Huge platters of pork ribs, chicken, and sausages would line the kitchen counter along with Mother’s sides. They always cooked several times more food than was needed for the meal. I counted on it; I liked to be able to carry barbecue leftovers home.

Once, my sister-in-law’s grandparents were visiting from California and joined us for Labor Day barbecue. Spotting the spread, Buster, the grandfather, exclaimed at all of the food. “Do you always eat like this?” he spurted.

“Every single day,” my dad playfully shot back in a dead-pan lie.

All of that sauce slathered on gave the meat a flavorful black char  — the bark. The meat was always moist all the way through and never tasted burned or overdone. Even those who considered themselves wizards at the grill were always impressed by my father’s barbecue.

He broke the rules and did it up right.

I’m pretty sure I’ll never get the low-down on the specifics of his technique.