- An Irresistible History of Alabama Barbecue: From Wood Pit to White Sauce by Mark A. Johnson
In the 1820s, some citizens of Madison County, Alabama, grew concerned about the bad effects of public barbecues on manners, morals, and the quality of political candidates. A writer who called himself "Barbecuensis" claimed that they were scenes of "unbounded license" where even "slavery forgot its chain, and the tawny sons of Africa danced, sung, and balloeed [sic]." The reformers called on Alabamians to "turn at last from shote and grog" and "act the man, and not the hog" (31-34).
Their efforts were unavailing. Despite an anti-barbecue petition signed by more than a thousand people, candidates continued to woo voters with "fiddling, feasting, dancing, drinking, masquing / [End Page 274] And other things which may be had for asking" (32) until the 1840s, when the Whigs began to encourage women to attend. Eventually the presence of ladies had a calming effect, and in time barbecues became respectable, even genteel. By 1897 the Barbour County United Daughters of the Confederacy were holding them to raise funds for a Confederate monument.
This is just one of many stories that Mark A. Johnson shares with us in this history of Alabama barbecue. (Since there is no one style that defines the state, perhaps one should say "barbecue in Alabama," but let's not get picky.)
The first section of his book brings the story up to the end of the nineteenth century. Until then barbecue was a matter of cooking whole animals over live coals, outside, to feed large groups. With the coming of the automobile, however, came the rise of local barbecue restaurants. Johnson discusses the origins and proliferation of that institution and looks closely at more than a dozen of the 300 or so in the state---places like Brenda's in Montgomery, Lannie's in Selma, Archibald's in Northport, Whitt's in Athens, Golden Rule in Irondale, and the Green Top in Dora—often as interesting for their histories as for their food.
This is not a guidebook, but it sounds as if all at least "mérite un détour," as the Michelin guide used to say of its two-star establishments. In fact, this sometime barbecue pilgrim from out-of-state thinks two of them deserve three stars ("vaut le voyage"). One is Dreamland (the original in Tuscaloosa, not the anodyne branches elsewhere), where it's all about the ribs, served with the sauce that the Lord gave to John "Big Daddy" Bishop in a dream sixty years ago, white bread that doubles as a napkin—and nothing else. The other is Big Bob Gibson's in Decatur (the 6th Avenue location, with the dancing neon pig). In 1925 Big Bob started dunking his barbecued chicken in the mayonnaise-based "white sauce" of Johnson's subtitle, the sauce caught on, and the Tennessee River Valley is now a widely recognized barbecue micro-region.
There is much, ah, food for thought here. It's striking, for instance, that local barbecue joints have played a role both in the effort to [End Page 275] preserve segregation (Ollie's in Birmingham figured in the 1964 Katzenback v. McClung decision) and in the effort to end it (Lannie's in Selma fed Civil Rights workers at the height of the movement). Johnson's examples also illustrate the importance of Greek-American restaurateurs in the world of barbecue, a connection not unique to Alabama, but perhaps more obvious there than elsewhere.
The book is copiously illustrated with marvelous photographs, historical and contemporary (many of the latter in color). The earlier ones are mostly of buildings and people, both often on the funky side, while the recent ones are mostly of food. It seems that barbecue places aren't as picturesque they once were, and there's a reason for that. Since the golden age of vernacular barbecue restaurants in the mid-twentieth century, Johnson shows, the...