Gas station fare, other varieties thrive in shadow of Memphis
By Jacob Threadgill
USA Today Network – Mississippi
Mississippi does not elicit the same national recognition for its barbecue compared to Memphis’s sweet sauce or dry rub, Alabama’s white gravy, or even Kentucky’s mutton.
Like most things in Mississippi, if you dig deeper, you’ll find that the reality doesn’t fit the national narrative.
Mississippi is home to more competition-winning pitmasters than any other state, and here you’re more likely to find a variety of styles at a gas station or side-of-the-road smokehouse than a tablecloth-lined restaurant.
Jackson native Jim Hatten founded the Mississippi BBQ Trail website (ed. msbbqtrail.com) in 2011 as a way to market the state’s barbecue restaurants. For Hatten, 57, whose mother grew up in Rosedale and can trace his lineage directly to Jefferson Davis, it was time for Mississippians to take pride in their barbecue.
“People are too busy criticizing us to stop and smell the beautiful fragrance of a magnolia,” Hatten said. “If people come to Mississippi for barbecue and have a good experience, they might even move here.”
Hatten’s initial research unearthed more than 270 barbecue restaurants in the state, and only 21 percent of them had their own website. Many of the state’s barbecue establishments are family-owned and take in less than $250,00 per year, which doesn’t exactly leave them much of an advertising budget, Hatten said.
Much of Mississippi’s barbecue tradition is tied to the state’s skilled and unskilled labor working class, who have often operated out of a gas station or a small shack near a factory.
In fact, the state can stake its claim as being the home of gas station barbecue. Hatten’s website lists more than 20 high-quality gas stations dishing out slow-cooked meats, and a Google search of “gas station barbecue” lists his site as the top hit.
“Gas station barbecue is a phenomenon in the South and especially Mississippi,” Hatten said. “It’s servicing a population of the state that otherwise probably wouldn’t have lunch because they have to get back to work . . . a family-run joint is the archetype if the state.”
Such was the case for Leatha Jackson when she opened a small restaurant across from a papermill in Foxworth, just outside of Columbia. Leatha’s Bar-B-Que Inn has since moved into Hattiesburg, but it exists as one of the state’s best places for barbecue in relative anonymity.
“The Rolling Stones have eaten at Leatha’s, presidents have ordered from Leatha’s, but the only advertising they use is by word of mouth,” Hatten said.
In the shadow of Memphis
Just as Memphis claims many Mississippi musicians as its own, it’s the same for pitmasters, Hatten said. If a successful pitmaster in a Mississippi town wanted to ply the trade in a bigger city, Memphis was the most logical place to move.
The state’s variety of styles is one of its strengths. Mississippi barbecue largely resembles sweet Memphis-style sauces, but you can also find brisket, dry rub and even Carolina-inspired vinegar sauce, like at Jackson’s Pig and Pint and Triple A’s Barbecue in Flowood.
“You’re not going to get vinegar-based sauce in Kansas City, but you sure can get it right down the road (in Jackson),” Hatten said.
The specialization of barbecue did not begin until the early 20th century, according to Robert Moss, author of “Barbecue: The History of an American Institution” and barbecue editor for Southern Living Magazine.
Moss said that 19th-century accounts of barbecue from Texas to Virginia were largely the same. Regional specialization began in large city centers where tent vendors evolved into restaurants during the early decades of the 20th century.
“CoMpared to other states, Mississippi doesn’t have as many legendary barbecue places,” Moss said. “I don’t strongly have a sense of what Mississippi barbecue is because it’s an amalgamation of the styles found in the places around it.”
Mississippi longest continuously operating barbecue restaurant, Abe’s Bar-B-Q in Clarksdale, has served customers pecan-smoked pork since 1924.
“Abe’s developed in that way, but it is so sparsely populated (in the Delta) that in never really got beyond that community,” Moss said.
The Tate County community of Gravel Springs hosts an annual Labor Day picnic, started by legendary fife player Otha Turner in the 1950’s, where barbecued whole goat is the star of the feast. The festival is depicted in a short documentary produced by Ava Lowrey for the Southern Foodways Alliance.
It’s an example of nearly 30 barbecue-related community festivals that can be found throughout the state all year long. Hatten hopes to use these festivals as a backdrop for a television show, “The Search for the Next Barbecue World Champion,” for which a pilot is in pre-production with Mississippi Public Broadcasting.
According to Hatten, Mississippi has produced 17 world champion pitmasters, more than any other state. Three Mississippians took home titles in 2016: Melissa Cookston of Memphis Barbecue Company in Horn Lake; Hank Vaiden at Hank’s Barbecue in Columbus; and Brad Orrison at The Shed Barbeque & Blues Joint in Ocean Springs. Orrison’s mother, Linda, is the current president of the National Barbecue & Grilling Association. Cookston and Vaiden have each appeared on the Destination America series “BBQ Pitmasters.”
Notes: Article transcribed from the Clarion-Ledger Daily News.
Click here for the clarionledger.com online article: http://www.clarionledger.com/videos/news/2017/02/27/what-makes-mississippi-bbq-different/98482788/