Alabama barbecue transcends race, class, and generational boundaries; relies on a multi-racial restaurant-based scene emphasizing pork, open pits, and hickory wood; and serves as a source of state and regional pride. These defining elements have evolved over the past 150 years and have roots in three major events: the Madison County anti-barbecue campaign of the 1820s and 1830s, the end of the Civil War and the emergence of the Lost Cause, and the Civil Rights movement, specifically in Birmingham in the 1950s and 1960s. In each phase of development, Alabama barbecue has attained its defining traits, set itself apart from other forms of barbecue in the region, and become increasingly inclusive.
Throughout the colonial period in the Caribbean and North America, African Americans, Europeans, and Native Americans influenced the development of barbecue with their recipes and methods.1 On Christopher Columbus’s second voyage, crew physician Diego Álvarez Chanca observed the Arawak people smoking meat, specifically fish and serpents, over coals. By the seventeenth century, Europeans, who had traditionally roasted meat, were smoking meat over wood or coals.2 Contemporary barbecue owes its origins to these first encounters in the New World.
In 1607 the first pigs arrived in Virginia along with the original settlers to the Jamestown site. Pigs soon outpaced other livestock in the colony because they were easy to raise and yielded large amounts of meat. Smoking or roasting a whole hog became a popular way to feed a crowd at community and family gatherings.3 The practice spread from the Virginia colony to the Carolinas and Georgia. Such barbecues were typically all-day affairs, with plenty of alcohol to accompany the meat. Eventually, upper-class politicians who aspired to political office, including George Washington, began to host barbecues as a demonstration of generosity and a method of wooing constituents.
After the American Revolution, political barbecues became events where candidates nurtured constituents. Such events also provided common people the opportunity to gather and embrace their freedom through eating and drinking.4 Supporters of Andrew Jackson, for example, turned to the barbecue to rally grassroots support. The political barbecue proliferated across the South at the same time Jackson won election to the presidency in 1828.5 By the Jacksonian era, barbecue had become an important symbol of democracy in the fledgling United States.6
African-American slaves were generally the cooks at these events. They prepared barbecue for themselves, as well. There is evidence that white masters sometimes gave their slaves a hog or other meat to barbecue on holidays. In an enslaved community, starches and sweets often accompanied barbecue. Enslaved communities adapted some of these dishes from the Native American larder, including cobbler, sweet potato pies, and cornbread, as well as European cakes, pies, and custards.7
After the American Revolution and the War of 1812, barbecue spread westward from the Eastern Seaboard. Settlers migrated to the Deep South and along the Gulf Coast, bringing barbecue with them to places like Alabama. In the first half of the nineteenth century, Alabamians came to love politics and barbecue in equal measure. According to Bishop Nicholas Cobbs, politics was a major pastime and means of entertainment in the state. In small towns, “folk would come from far and wide to enjoy [politicians’] feats and flights of oratory, in the intervals of which a band would play, while refreshment was provided by a monster barbecue.”8
In the earliest years of statehood, the volunteers of Alabama’s numerous local militias mustered together once a year for a day of drilling and fanfare, and “barbecue was often the temptation to make a full muster.” Politicians appeared at these events and at other similar occasions.9 Throughout the state, civic and social leaders hosted barbecues and invited local people to attend them with the promise of appearances by political candidates.10
In the eighteenth century, Alabama barbecue was not yet dominated by pork. Instead, hosts of these political barbecues could serve a variety of meats gathered from nearby farmers. At an 1840 barbecue in Autauga County, “the people sent fat mutton, beef, pork, poultry, to the barbecue pits.”11 According to a reporter from the town of Elyton, cooks prepared the meats for another barbecue on “poles stretched across shallow pits, under the shade of the trees, in which very hot red coals are kept…Constant turning and seasoning them with vinegar and condiments during the baking result in giving them a delicious flavor in no other manner obtainable.”12
The political barbecue tradition became especially important in Alabama, which lacked an established, wealthy planter class. In that way, the state was more democratic and liberal than some of its regional counterparts. Political candidates worked harder to solicit votes from a working-class populace energized by the democratic process. Entertaining and feeding constituents were successful strategies.13
In July 1827, a Huntsville reformer writing under the pseudonym of “Barbacuensis” observed, “For now it is only necessary for any of nature’s noblemen who can buy, beg or borrow a shoat and a keg of whiskey, to cry barbacue, barbacue, and the candidates are all obliged…to post off and attend it.”14 The hosts advertised these barbecues in the newspapers to attract a wide audience to meet the candidates.15 Barbacuensis asked, “what candidate can be elected unless he goes to the barbacues?”16
In April 1828, the editors of Huntsville’s Southern Advocate explained that civic leaders had “to cry shote, shote, whiskey, whiskey” to compel “the poor candidates…to obey the summons, or abandon all hopes of their election.” The editors continued, “the law givers of modern days not only minister to these virtuous appetites of their constituents, but they must… evince a hearty fellowship by partaking with them—and that too in no stinted measure.”17 Barbecues had become elemental to democratic politics. Barbacuensis facetiously associated barbecue with republican virtue while noting the particular significance of both the food and democracy in the South. He wrote: “Let all the children of men be gathered within (barbecue’s) ample embrace, except, perhaps, Jews, who, infidel like, will not eat pork at all, and Yankees who want molasses on their pork; a luxury wholly incompatible with the republican simplicity of the barbacue.”18
Men and women, blacks and whites—all attended barbecues in nineteenth-century Alabama, but their roles were distinct. By and large, black pitmasters—who, because of their race and enslaved status, did not have the right to vote—made possible the barbecues that energized democracy in the state. At the typical barbecue, a white male supervised the pits, while black slaves did the cooking for the white guests. As pitmasters, they played a prominent role in the success of these events, applying proprietary techniques and recipes.19 Some observers believed that the pitmasters themselves felt energized by the events’ democratic symbolism. At a Madison County barbecue in August 1827, Barbacuensis noted, “the joy of the occasion was not confined to the voters exclusively…In such an outpouring of liberty and unbounded license, slavery forgot its chain, and the tawny sons of Africa danced, sung, and balloeed [sic] in sympathetic freedom.”20
Though women would not earn suffrage for another century, their presence at barbecues became increasingly political over the years. The Whig party specifically targeted women to attend their barbecues because they looked to women to exert an influence over their voting husbands. The presence of women at political barbecues could also serve as a deterrent to violence and excess alcohol consumption.21
Nonetheless, as public gatherings with political stakes, where guests tended to indulge in drink as well as food, Alabama barbecues often became the sites of violence. This became a point of contention for critics of the practice. Rather than focusing on the mental capabilities of the candidates, Barbacuensis remarked that Madison County barbecue guests preferred to judge a candidate on “the dimensions of his stomach.”22 He continued, “we had seen at the barbacues…some happy sovereign who had been reveling in all the ecstasies of gratuitous whiskey and enjoying freedom which knew no restraint” and had “fallen asleep in paradise of perfect unconsciousness.”23 At barbecues, “the sun went down, nor ceased the drinking there” while “tumultuous shouting shook the midnight air.”
By the end of the 1820s, concern among some elites about the dangers posed to both political and religious virtue by barbecues converged with a spirit of moralistic reform on the rise throughout antebellum America. A flurry of anti-barbecue sentiment arose in Alabama, particularly in the heavily populated northern portion of the state. Barbacuensis lamented, “a vast majority of barbecue candidates have as much brains in their stomachs as in their skulls, so that in judging of their merits, there can be nothing lost in making a direct and exclusive appeal to the abdomen.”24 In the new political game, candidates and voters often did not have a personal relationship. According to Madison County reformers, candidates often picked out a single voter to “entertain him with some very affectionate inquiries about his subliminary affairs” but instead revealed total disinterest in voters’ lives.25 Focusing on moral rather than political debasement, other reformers worried about the generally licentious and irresponsible spirit of the affairs that spilled beyond their boundaries. “In some instances,” critics argued, “the whole community feels the pang and writhes in sympathetic agony” as a result of the abandon displayed at political barbecues.26
But reformers’ attempts to sever the connection between politics and barbecues in Alabama came to naught. The barbecues themselves proved more popular than the candidates who opposed them. The anti-barbecue campaign reached its apogee in 1829, when reformers in Madison County called on candidates for public office to pledge not to attend any barbecues in the months leading up to Election Day. The only candidate who took the pledge, Josef Leftwich, finished seventh out of nine candidates in a race for county tax collector.27
By the mid-nineteenth century, Alabama barbecue had already assumed many of its defining characteristics. Smoked meat had the power to gather people—if not always on equal footing—across generational, class, race, and gender lines, with significant political implications.
In July 1860, secessionist politician William Lowndes Yancey spoke at a barbecue staged at Bethel Church near Montgomery, Alabama. He argued the South should “throw off the shackles, both of party and of the Government” and “assert their independence in a Southern Confederacy.” A week later in Benton, Alabama, he advocated the creation of a States League and a Central Southern Congress of the Leagues at a barbecue.28 The Civil War commenced in 1861 and continued until 1865. By this time, barbecue had already become a cultural icon of the American South. After the Civil War, it evolved to serve white southerners who would remember the Old South—and for various groups, including African Americans, to realize their separate visions for the New South.
Alabamians continued to use barbecues to celebrate national holidays. On July 4, 1896, the Democrats in Alabama hosted a Fourth of July barbecue in Montgomery that included speeches by gubernatorial candidates.29 In August 1899, two prospective gubernatorial candidates, Judge Jessie Stallings and State Senator Russell Cunningham, spoke at a barbecue in Courtland to an audience of nearly 3,000, unofficially kicking off the gubernatorial campaign.30 The food sometimes upstaged the candidates. In the 1870s, for example, U.S. Senate hopeful John T. Morgan, a Democrat, debated Republican Napoleon Mardis in front of ten thousand people at a barbecue in Shelby Springs, Alabama. The crowd, standing under a glaring sun, “stirred restlessly as the odor of the cooking meat reached their nostrils.” Understanding where the eyes and minds of his audience were fixated, Morgan abandoned the podium mid-speech once “the master of ceremonies poised himself to strike the dinner gong.” The candidate “jumped down and joined wholeheartedly in the rush for the food,” finishing his address later in the evening.31
Still possessing political significance, Alabamians’ postbellum barbecues had much in common with their antebellum events. They tended to entail a variety of meats. But the post-Civil War era also brought changes to the barbecue landscape. This was particularly so with regard to the place of African Americans in Alabama society. Given the significance of barbecues in Alabama, it is no surprise that the political and economic roles of black people in the postwar state were negotiated and navigated in part at such events. In the immediate aftermath of the war, white Democrats sought above all things to continue exploiting African Americans economically and disenfranchising them politically. These priorities might play out in any number of forums, and barbecues were no exception. Despite their efforts, the Democratic Party had little success winning black votes with barbecues, in Alabama or anywhere else in the South.32
In late 1865, a white con-artist told a black audience gathered at a barbecue in Sumter County that he had sets of black and blue pegs with which attendees could demarcate the forty acres of land the federal government had supposedly promised them. The man informed the crowd “all he wanted was to have the expenses paid to him, which was about a dollar a peg.” Within two hours, the con-man made $300.33
Whites treating black Alabamians as dupes could take more explicitly political forms as well. In 1867, members of the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama held a barbecue and invited African American guests. The black community hesitated to attend based on rumors that the Klan intended to poison them, but arrived after reassurances from the hosts. Though the meat was not poisoned, the rhetoric was. The largely black audience heard speaker after speaker blast incoming Republican Senator Willard Warner for “running the negro machine and electioneering with the negroes.”34
White Democrats also used barbecue to court African American voters rather than berate them. By the middle of the 1870s, white Democrats had retaken control of Alabama politics and held a relatively firm grip on the levers of power in the state. They could afford to be generous, especially to those black voters willing to consider voting against the Republicans they associated with their collective emancipation. After the 1876 presidential election, Democratic Party leaders in one Alabama county rewarded eighty African Americans who had voted for the Democratic ticket with an impromptu barbecue. Reversing the custom of inviting candidates for office as their guests, party leaders here used barbecue to reward voters for their deference and loyalty.35
This switch may have signaled a subtle but important shift of power from the people toward politicians in late-nineteenth century Alabama, but it hardly marked a salient political trend in the politics of black Alabamians. Despite their best efforts, white Democrats in Alabama and throughout the South had little success winning large numbers of black votes with barbecue or anything else. In the decades that followed, barbecues among white Alabamians became forums for celebrating white supremacy, cultivating rosy memories of the antebellum South, and expressing devotion to a new but no less white-dominated political order.36
Elements of the intertwining of barbecue with an emerging postwar southern nationalism could be seen from the early years of Reconstruction. Former Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest and other former leaders of the Confederacy gathered on behalf of Alabama Democrats at a barbecue in 1868.37 As the decades passed, the association between smoked meat and white politics became tighter still. At a barbecue in 1880, for example, white Alabamians gathered for a debate between candidates from the Democratic and Greenback Labor parties. The Democratic speaker easily struck the most resonant chord when he proclaimed, “the Confederacy still exists, my friends.” After explaining that the members of his audience ought to continue to recognize Jefferson Davis as their president, he insisted more broadly that they “must stand by the great Democratic Party, for a solid South will now give us entire control of the General Government and we can redress all our wrongs.”38
In Alabama, barbecues became a major feature of the various reunions of Confederate veterans, who associated the events with their nostalgia for the antebellum South and Confederate nation. In Eufala, Stella Guide, who served as the president of the Barbour County chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, helped erect a Confederate monument. To accomplish this goal, she raised $3,000 by hosting barbecues at her family’s plantation on the Chattahoochee River.39 In September 1899, Confederate veterans from Alabama gathered in Opelika at a “gigantic reunion,” where more than 2,000 people enjoyed a free barbecue meal and listened to local civic leaders.40
As wounds healed, Alabamians reconciled with the nation and with their former enemies over barbecues. Barbecues also became sites of revived hostilities. On July 4, 1879, five thousand former Confederates gathered in Montgomery for a celebration and an “old-fashioned barbecue.” A minister paid tribute to the “wisdom and patriots of the men of 1776” yet emphasized that southerners should forever “cherish the principles for which their forefathers contended.” The event featured speakers from the South, but northerners had a presence. On behalf of Union generals Winfield Scott Hancock and George McClellan, speakers read letters aloud, which they had penned for the occasion.41
During Reconstruction, the nation continued to struggle over the reunification of the country. In July 1890, an Alabama barbecue featuring both Democratic and Republican candidates devolved into a brawl complete with gunfire after a dispute over the division of speaking time, leaving Democratic state legislative candidate T.L. Long with a head wound from a baseball bat and prompting Republicans to withdraw from the event altogether.42 As the political campaign season opened that same month in Eufaula, hosts of a barbecue hoped to create a spectacular day “memorable in the history of Caucasian and democratic supremacy.”43 When an African American man supposedly jumped ahead in the line for food, invited guests responded with violence. “They had quite a time locking him up, as he fought hard,” wrote a local reporter. “It took four officers and several citizens to lock him up. They used clubs freely, but that seemed to have little effect on him. He was finally knocked senseless and dragged into the jail.”44
African Americans in Alabama were not merely passive observers and victims of white predations amidst the changing landscape of postwar Alabama. Given the hostility they often faced in the public sphere and their near-total lack of formal political power, black Alabamians were distinctively and purposefully disadvantaged in the state despite their freedom. But they were not without resources or ideas for improving their lot. Barbecue, which was part of the culture of black Alabamians no less than of whites, played a part in their attempts at self-determination. It was common in the late nineteenth century for African Americans to host their own barbecues as fundraising endeavors to help form and support mutual-aid associations and other institutions. George M. Newstelle, who worked with Booker T. Washington in the Negro Business League of Montgomery, recalled how in the League’s early days “we took it upon ourselves to give a barbecue with the two-fold object of increasing our funds and at the same time making an effort to increase our membership…During the day of the barbecue we not only netted a nice little sum of money, but we also secured quite an addition to the membership of the league.”45 Barbecue, then, was one of the means by which black Alabamians tried to better their lives and realize their own vision for the future. By the twentieth century, barbecue would become a significant component of a steadily growing culture of black entrepreneurship in the state.46
In the early twentieth century, barbecue moved from public picnics to restaurant tables. The proliferation of barbecue restaurants across the South significantly sharpened regional and state definitions. All over the country, Americans moved from the countryside into the city to pursue job opportunities. Immigrants arrived in the United States and settled in growing cities. By 1920, the majority of Americans lived in urban areas. This demographic shift had significant implications for foodways. Urban travelers generated a concentrated and consistent demand for food they could purchase. Factory hands and other urban workers, removed from the fields and far from the family dining table during the day, needed places to eat their lunches. With hindsight it seems almost inevitable that barbecue restaurants would proliferate in the South. Barbecues historically may have taken the form of public festivals designed to bring people together on special occasions from sparsely populated rural areas. The popularity of the cuisine and the possibilities it provided for feeding large numbers of people made barbecue restaurants promising business opportunities for dozens and dozens of prospective Alabama businesspeople.
As the number of barbecue restaurants increased, regional and state distinctions of style became more pronounced. Barbecue restaurateurs chose the meat for their product based on a combination of local preference, availability, and affordability. A person would likely find different kinds of barbecue depending on where in the southeast he or she was eating. From the lamb shoulders of western Kentucky to the chicken-based Brunswick stew of Virginia to the beef brisket of Texas, styles of barbecue and types of sauces became more clearly identified with sub-regions of the southeast in the early decades of the twentieth century. Alabama was no exception. The pigs that dominated the rural landscape of the state provided the meat. Readily available hickory wood served as the fuel source for smoking it. Open-pit cooking, developed and passed down by pitmasters over more than a century, was the method. And a variety of vinegary sauces, based in mustard or tomato or mayonnaise, offered the foundation for ferocious arguments that serve as their own rewards.47
Many of Alabama’s best-known barbecue restaurants began as roadside stands near high-traffic areas, attracting motorists and urban workers alike. Kenneth and Alton Cook, for example, opened Green Top Bar-B-Q in 1951 in Dora, in a prime location for serving hungry travelers and commuting workers alongside what was then a new highway connecting Birmingham to Memphis.48 Popular for its barbecue and just as well known for its beer, the Green Top was an oasis in a desert of dry counties. In 1973 Leo and Susie Headrick purchased the Green Top from the Cooks, seeing restaurant ownership as an escape from manual wage labor. Susie Headrick had worked in a pharmacy and resented toiling for a wealthier boss. She recalled that her husband, Leo, “ was looking forward to when he’d become fifty-five [and] he could retire from the coal mines, and he just thought he’d like a restaurant better than he did working in the mines.”49
The restaurant was, at times, raucous, said Susie Headrick, sketching a portrait of labor divisions typical of family-owned businesses.
“Sometimes I’d have to straighten people out. On Thursday nights we’d have a big crowd from Jasper, and they’d sing and dance. My husband, he always sang a lot, especially when he had him several drinks. We had a jukebox and after we’d close the grill up, there’d be some people in there that would still be drinking, and a lot of times we’d dance. Sometimes I’d sing with him, but most of the time I was too busy trying to keep everything going.” 50
During the post–World War Two era, when the labor market was comparatively fluid, people like Leo Headrick changed occupations. Headrick shifted from coal miner to pitmaster. Bob Sykes, who founded Bob Sykes Bar-B-Q in 1957 in Bessemer, moved from the bread business to the barbecue business. Wilber Petit of Top Hat in Blount Springs also became familiar with the restaurant business while working as a bread salesman. Top Hat Barbecue, thirty miles north of Birmingham, rose to prominence in the late 1960s after Petit, who grew up in a Blount County sharecropping family, moved from farm work to restaurant work. His son, Dale Petit, started working there in 1971, the day after he got home from a stint in the Navy. His daughter, Heather Phillips, has followed in his wake.
Bob Gibson was a railroad worker who began selling barbecue from his Decatur backyard as a weekend side business during the early 1920s. Six-foot-four and more than three hundred pounds, the man popularly known by his nickname “Big Bob” Gibson would purchase pigs from local farmers. His grandson Don McLemore remembered that he would “cut [them] up himself and use all the parts of the hog.” Gibson worked simultaneously for himself and for the railroad for a while but, McLemore recalled that, “people seemed to like his food so well he decided to quit the railroad business.” Partnering with his brother-in-law Sam Woodall, Gibson first opened a restaurant named Gib-All’s on Moulton Road in Decatur. After Woodall left the partnership Gibson continued the operation under the name Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q.51
Gibson relocated his restaurant numerous times in the 1920s and 1930s. Early versions were spots where “you might stand up and place an order and might have a few chairs or stools or something.” As the business grew, it became a family endeavor. The restaurant soon became regionally and even nationally renowned for its unique white barbecue sauce. As Gibson branched out from a business that solely served pork to one that prepared smoked chickens, he crafted a concoction of mayonnaise, vinegar, and black pepper into which he would dunk the birds. Customers soon began pouring it on everything. “They will try it on pork, or some even try it on ribs,” current proprietor Don McLemore explained. “It’s very good on potato chips. A lot of kids do that. I’m not a kid, but I still do it once in a while myself.”52
Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q exemplified the evolution of the barbecue restaurant in Alabama from makeshift shack to permanent institution. In 1952 Gibson settled into a location on Sixth Avenue in Decatur, and while he originally smoked in an “old-fashioned concrete block pit,” his family has since modernized their methods for the sake of safety and commercial feasibility. “We still have the old-fashioned brick pits—not concrete blocks but brick and firebrick,” McLemore says. “We have a flat grate and we have a big fire up in the front of the pit, and we cook with indirect heat and smoke.”
From the pork shoulders, chickens, coleslaw, and potato chips that were the sole menu items during Gibson’s lifetime, offerings have expanded since his 1972 death. Beef brisket, turkey, barbecue-topped salads, and barbecue-stuffed potatoes can be had at Big Bob Gibson today. Such options may not cleave to Alabama traditions, but they have proven immensely popular. Big Bob Gibson was “the first barbecue restaurant in Alabama, to my knowledge, that started selling the barbecue potato,” McLemore claims. But “now you can’t hardly go to a restaurant in Alabama and not get a barbecue potato.”53
In the 1960s and 1970s, Alabama barbecue restaurant owners began to adopt some of the methods and strategies of national franchise restaurants, expanding to multiple locations and, sometimes adopting streamlined methods. Osmond “Ossie” Boutwell, opened an eponymous barbecue restaurant in 1955 in Mobile. He won a reputation for pit-cooked pork barbecue, smothered in vinegar-based sauce. Of equal import, he won a reputation for being the place for high school students to cruise in their cars, the locus for first dates and first kisses. Eventually, Boutwell expanded to three locations, before closing all in the mid-1980s. (His son, Rudy Boutwell, opened an updated version of Ossie’s in January of 2012.)54 In a similar pattern, Bob Sykes in Bessemer established a sterling reputation in its hometown before expanding to other locations nearby and then retrenching in Bessemer.
Greek immigrants played significant roles in the development of Alabama barbecue restaurants. Costas Restaurant of Birmingham, which now has three locations, was founded by Gus Kanellis, a man of Greek ancestry. Aleck Choraitis, owner of the now-closed Andrew’s Bar-B-Q, came to Birmingham from Greece via Venezuela in 1957. He got into the restaurant business the first day he arrived in town, when he began work at his father-in-law Bill DeMoes’s restaurant, La Paree. Andrew Morris and Jimmy Morris, also Greek, opened Andrew’s Bar-B-Q in the 1940s. Choraitis bought it from them in 1969.
Golden Rule Bar-B-Q was founded in Irondale in 1891 by the Williams family. Like Green Top, the restaurant began as a roadhouse peddler of barbecue and beer on what was then a main thoroughfare. For the next seventy-plus years the Williams and later the Stone family ran the business. In 1969 Michael Matsos, a businessman of Greek ancestry with a track record of owning and operating Birmingham restaurants like Michael’s Sirloin Room, bought the Golden Rule. In the intervening years, Matsos, who moved from his native Brooklyn to study commerce at the University of Alabama, brought a businessman’s rigor to market expansion and service systems.55 Since the death of Matsos in 2012, Golden Rule has continued to expand, growing through franchise locations in Alabama and neighboring states.56
In the 1960s barbecue became enmeshed in the civil rights struggle over equal access to public accommodations that played out in Alabama and across the South. One of the most significant battlegrounds of the civil rights era was Ollie’s Barbecue. Established in 1926 by James “Ollie” McClung as a makeshift stand on Green Springs Highway on Birmingham’s south side, Ollie’s moved to a permanent location on Seventh Avenue the following year. Offering a simple menu featuring pork, beef, and homemade pies, Ollie’s had become a Birmingham institution by the 1960s. Like many white-owned businesses in segregated Alabama, it offered notably unequal access to its white and black customers. While Ollie’s had a dining room where whites might sit and be served, it allowed African Americans only to take their orders to go. Ollie’s employed a staff that was roughly two-thirds black, and the restaurant sat in a predominantly black neighborhood. But McClung steadfastly refused to provide black diners with the same treatment as whites.57
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed segregation in places of public accommodation. While many business owners in Alabama capitulated to the new federal realities and opened their businesses to all comers, others insisted that the law was unconstitutional and wished to challenge it in court. On behalf of the Birmingham Restaurant Association, Ollie’s took up the challenge. McClung claimed that his business operations did not engage in interstate commerce and thus ought to be exempt from the law. The Supreme Court disagreed, ruling in December 1964 in Katzenbach v. McClung that discrimination in restaurants undoubtedly hindered interstate commerce because it restricted black mobility. They also pointed out that Ollie’s in particular purchased almost half its food from suppliers outside Alabama while unmistakably pursuing “a policy against serving Negroes.”58 Within days of the decision, Ollie’s began serving black customers in its dining room. It continued to serve an integrated clientele until a suburban version of the restaurant closed its doors in 2001. Ollie W. McClung Jr. continues to bottle the sauce and distribute it in Birmingham-area grocery stores.59
Though shut out of many opportunities by the systematic discrimination of Jim Crow, black Alabamians did manage to carve out spaces for themselves to escape racial oppression and socialize free of white oversight and harassment. Black-owned barbecue restaurants were among those spaces, and they also served as one of the narrow avenues for black Alabamians to achieve some measure of economic independence in an environment that allowed it only begrudgingly.60 John “Big Daddy” Bishop, for example, grew up in Jim Crow Alabama and worked for years as a cement finisher but long aspired to own his own business. As he would later recall, one night he had a dream in which he ran a café and saw himself waiting on customers, and he found he could not shake the dream out of his head. Bishop opened a café he called Dreamland in Tuscaloosa in 1958. He began mostly by selling hamburgers, cheeseburgers, and other grilled items, but soon discovered that the barbecue he offered was the runaway best seller. “All the other stuff, I couldn’t sell it,” Bishop remembered. “Wouldn’t do nothin’ but throw it out. But people wasn’t buying nothing but my barbecue, that’s all they were buyin’.” Soon, Bishop scrapped the other menu items and began offering selling only hickory-smoked ribs served with white bread. Though the restaurant began as a black establishment, the ribs garnered a following that cut across color lines, and were especially popular with students at the University of Alabama. Begun as a small shack constructed around a cinderblock pit, Dreamland has since expanded to multiple locations across the state.61
Not every barbecue restaurateur in Alabama has gone the expansive route of Dreamland, of course. Other establishments have earned national acclaim with just one modest location, as in the case of Archibald’s Bar-B-Q in Northport, a small town just across the Black Warrior River from Tuscaloosa. Founded in 1962 by the African American husband-and-wife team of George and Betty Archibald, the restaurant began, as it did for so many Alabama entrepreneurs, as a way for its proprietors to realize the economic independence that working-class jobs might never provide. George left his job at the Central Foundry steel mill in Holt. Betty quit her job at a paper mill. Their son, George Archibald, Jr., worked in the restaurant as a child. “My first job was mopping the floor,” he remembered. “I started behind the counter when I got about thirteen or fourteen.” Eventually, he began cooking ribs in the restaurant himself, following the advice of his parents to “just take your time with it.” He and his sister Paulette Washington took over the restaurant after their parents passed away. When asked about the restaurant, George Archibald Jr. explained, “well, it’s just a small little place. Just build a fire and keep the fire low, yes—and cook it slow.”62
First-time customers often need help locating Archibald’s. But following the scent of hickory smoke, the determined will find the white-cinderblock, crimson-trimmed restaurant among lumberyards and cozy houses at the base of a hill. Inside, Archibald’s seats three diners at the counter and six more at yellow circular tables in a tiny adjacent room. Customers can also sit outside at one of the half-dozen picnic tables or simply park their vehicle in the gravel parking lot and get their orders to go.
Archibald’s has long been a celebrated establishment. It was among University of Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s favorite places to eat. It has changed little since Bryant’s time. George Archibald Jr. still purchases his hickory from a local salesman. The only items on the menu are sliced pork shoulder and slabs of ribs served with white bread and the option of Golden Flake potato chips as a side. The pit, tended by Paulette Washington, is seasoned with more than fifty years of smoke and fire.63 Orders of ribs arrive on paper plates lined with parchment paper. The deep caramel-colored meat has just a hint of pink below the surface, and requires a determined chew and pull to pry from the bone. Coating the ribs and pooling at the bottom of the plate is the vinegar-based sauce developed by George and Betty Archibald, which George Archibald Jr. describes as having a tangy taste and “a little more swing to it.” Reddish-gold in color, the sauce also likely contains mustard, a common ingredient for sauces in eastern Alabama.64 Three slices of white bread and a small container of sauce come with the ribs.
If Dreamland demonstrates how a barbecue restaurant might become a state powerhouse and Archibald’s shows how devotion to the very local can attract national renown, Jim ‘N Nicks Bar-B-Q reveals how Alabama barbecue can be exported on a mass scale without losing its regional particularity.
Nick Pihakis and his father, Jim Pihakis, of Greek ancestry, founded the Birmingham-based Jim ‘N Nicks in 1985. Nick had worked in the restaurant industry for eight years, while Jim had retired from the insurance business. The pair first purchased a shuttered pizza restaurant, and they soon began pursuing barbecue. “We chose barbecue because it surrounded us in Birmingham, and we wanted to become part of the Alabama barbecue community,” explained Nick Pihakis.
Jim ‘N Nicks’ very first hire was Phillip Adrey, a former pit worker at Ollie’s. Over the last three decades the restaurant has expanded to more than thirty locations in seven states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Colorado. The menu has grown to embrace a pan-southern sensibility, taking in everything from pulled pork to beef brisket to the hot chicken popular in the Nashville, Tennessee, area. Still, there are obvious nods to the chain’s Alabama roots, including smoked pork ribs and chickens slathered in vinegary white sauce. By the end of the twentieth century, Alabama barbecue restaurants had become a pork-dominated, open-pit, hickory-smoked opportunity for black and white Alabamians to forge a living and for hungry customers to gather across racial lines.
Alabama’s barbecue scene in the twenty-first century is rooted in restaurants, from interstate chains to tiny roadside shacks known only to locals and intrepid travelers. The growing popularity of competition barbecue has made a mark on Alabama barbecue as well, with competitors convening regularly to test their skills against teams from around the state and across the country. If these trends suggest that Alabama barbecue is in danger of becoming more uniform and standardized to appeal either to a mass audience or to a panel of judges, however, the persistence of barbecue clubs in the state testifies to the enduring legacy of the cuisine’s roots in small community gatherings.
Reminiscent of scenes from the antebellum era, clubs of various kinds made barbecues fundamental elements of their meetings throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Dating back to 1872, the Montgomery Gun Club, which included the wealthiest (white) members of the state, held an annual shooting contest. Along with the shooting contest and office elections, the club members provided “an abundant and delicious barbecue” for family and friends.65 In 1897 Alabama’s State Bar Association routinely had “an elegant barbecue dinner” with “an abundance of cooling beverages” as part of its annual meeting and elections. In 1927 Sumter County’s men congregated in a fraternal organization housed in a small shack to play cards and engage in other gambling activities, they often made barbecue as part of their gatherings.66 In time, these sorts of assemblages evolved into clubs specifically geared toward the production and consumption of barbecue.
Sumter County in particular became a hotspot for formal barbecue clubs. Seven communities in the county operate clubs today, each with its own distinctive cooking methods. Members of the Timilichee BBQ Club in Geiger, for example, continue to cook whole hogs in their pit, while members of the Emelle Club prepare pork butts and pork ribs served with a barbecue sauce named for its local creator, Brant Richardson.67 Club recipes and methods are often passed down to younger generations and sometimes even make their way into the restaurant industry. Alabama barbecue clubs contribute to the ongoing regionalization of barbecue and reinforce the distinctiveness of flavors in a local area. At BBQ Club gatherings in Epes, for example, a member known as Mr. Bud prepares a sauce that is “so popular that he makes it for people in and around the Epes community.”68
Barbecue clubs remain significant not simply for their contribution to the culture of Alabama barbecue but also because they foster community development and cohesion in sparsely populated parts of the state. They tend to meet in local community centers such as churches and schools. Of the meals at clubs like the Timilichee Barbecue Club and the Emelle Club, which gather once a month from spring to fall, Laura Axelrod writes, “it’s a sacramental supper that ties together neighbors and generations.” Along the same lines, Gump Ozment of the Sumterville Club considers how members of the community bring side dishes and desserts to club suppers and observes, “in the country, the only time you see folks is when you go to church, go to a funeral, or go to a barbecue club.”69
The dinners hosted by barbecue clubs often double as fundraisers to benefit local community institutions in need of financial support. The Panola BBQ Club, for example, comprises members from the local Methodist Church and uses funds raised at its events to support the church. Founded in 1946, the club began fundraising efforts for the church by cooking two hogs and serving them to church members, with proceeds going toward new Sunday School facilities, and it now cooks a hog six times a year. Other clubs are less sectarian in their membership and goals, but are no less vital for helping sustain their communities. The Sumterville BBQ Club began in 2001 as a forum where people living in the area might come together locally rather than having to travel to be entertained or get a meal beyond their homes.
“We are just a community,” one member commented. “You can’t tell who is Baptist or Presbyterian. We just wanted to have a barbecue club because we wanted to have a community-wide family gathering.”70
Originally, these clubs had strict membership requirements. Like restaurants, they have followed twentieth-century trends toward greater inclusivity. Where applicants to join the Timilichee BBQ Club could once be turned away by a single negative vote from a standing member, now, club member Junior Brown explains, “you’ve got to be one tough bird not to get in.” Most of the clubs still maintain some kind of membership requirement. The Emelle Club, which began in the 1950s, requires members, according to current member Lolita Smith, “to either live in Emelle, have grown up in Emelle or own property here. We wanted to keep it in the community.”71 But other clubs have become even more embracing in their approach, such as the Boyd BBQ Club, which began in 1951 and initially offered membership only to Boyd residents. It has since loosened its requirements to allow non-residents to join.72 Even as membership requirements have changed, however, certain customs within Alabama’s barbecue clubs remain constants. In the Emelle BBQ Club, women ready the Emelle Community Center for the meal while men cook and serve the food. And at Boyd BBQ Club meetings, men serve themselves from the right side of the table while women and children make their way down the line on the left side of the table. As a club member explained, “That is how we have always done it. It’s just our tradition.”73
Today, Alabama barbecue continues to evolve as it blends an appreciation for its historical origins with an understanding that the modern world sometimes calls for change. This combination of customary and contemporary was on full display in 2006, when the marketing team at Dreamland developed a campaign to posthumously elect John “Big Daddy” Bishop as governor of Alabama. Running on behalf of the “Dinner Party,” Bishop, who died in 1997, expressed a desire to move “from the smokehouse to the statehouse” and disseminated the motto: “Keep the Pork in Politics.” For the campaign, Dreamland sold and distributed bumper stickers, banners, yard signs, t-shirts, buttons, and posters. Executives held a political rally on Bishop’s behalf at the restaurant, decorating the interior like “a campaign headquarters on election night.” They treated customers to one free slab of ribs with the intention of proving the quality of their service and food. Advertising executive Rich Sullivan explained, “I’m very optimistic about pulling off an upset” but offered to invite the victor to Dreamland “to mend any sorts of relations that may have become frayed.”74
In these ads, Dreamland’s marketers successfully blended the historical origins of barbecue with its contemporary manifestations. What’s more, the effort testified to the multifaceted identity of Alabama barbecue, with its origins in the democratic festivals of the antebellum period. The presence of barbecue at campaign events made it a symbol of an emerging democratic spirit. After attempts of anti-barbecue reformers in the 1820s and 1830s to eliminate barbecues, the food has become significantly more inclusive over two hundred years. In the aftermath of the Civil War, it became a source of regional and state pride. In the twentieth century, it ascended to national prominence, provided opportunity to people regardless of their racial or ethnic group, and now brings together people from around the world.