The Sweetest Smoke

When a beloved Tennessee joint burned to the ground, a community rallied to rebuild. As it turns out, the real barbecue experience is only partly about the meat
By: Rien Fertel; Produced by Jennifer V. Cole; Hunter Lewis

It was a perfect Saturday for a barbecue sandwich in Humboldt, Tennessee, late last July: clear blue skies and pleasantly humid temps. But I stood waist-deep in all that remained of the pit at Sam's Bar-B-Q. Like a barbecue archeologist, I set to pickax-hacking through layers of mortar, cemented hardwood ash, and hog fat, attempting to find the foundational brick masonry layer buried beneath the detritus collected from 25 years of smoking pork shoulders.

Just weeks before, Sam's pit room caught fire and, because swine grease explodes like napalm, incinerated the restaurant down to its cinder block walls. Over two days, I joined a couple dozen volunteers from the Southern Foodways Alliance, the Fatback Collective, and Jim 'N Nick's Bar-B-Q to help rebuild this tiny smoke shack in western Tennessee. Barbecue devotees came from across town and as far away as South Carolina, all endeavoring to resurrect a bit of barbecue history.

For the past five years, I have worked as a barbecue documentarian, a culinary-centric oral historian tracking down the stories behind the food. I spin odometers in search of chopped pork sandwiches and butcher paper satchels of brisket. But that weekend in Humboldt, I came closer than I ever had to the heart of barbecue. What is it about this American culinary art form—a transcendent merger of salt and sweet, smoke and spice with flesh—that could make me travel 500 miles, labor in 90-something-degree heat, and not even get a taste of meat or sauce?

For me, it starts with the story. Samuel Donald opened his barbecue joint in 1988 after retiring from a lifetime of factory work and cattle farming. He smoked his shoulders all day and night over hickory and oak coals. His vinegar-and-spice sauce was known throughout West Tennessee. (A customer once offered $200 for a gallon.) But according to his daughter Seresa Ivory, who, with her husband, Jon, has owned the joint since Sam's passing in 2011, Sam's favorite part of the job was the sweat-soaked hours spent working alongside his hand-built barbecue pit, where friends and customers would join him for storytelling and fellowship around the fire.

As I excavated the remnants of Sam's pit, I could not help but flash back to the past years I've spent unearthing barbecue's history. When I started documenting 'cue culture, I accepted anyone and everyone's definition of barbecue. Third-generation pitmasters in the Carolinas insisted that barbecue is whole hog smoked over hickory for 12-plus hours. Texans said barbecue is beef. More heterodox barbecuers cooked everything, every way. Mutton and beef; poultry and pork; on the backyard grill or in the smokehouse; chopped, pulled, shredded, or sliced. As long as fire met meat, I agreed, it was all barbecue.

But as I dug deeper into barbecue's past, I wanted more. My definition felt incomplete.

I climbed out of Sam's pit and handed the pickax to fellow volunteer Rodney Scott, who serves up peerless whole hog at Scott's Bar-B-Que in Hemingway, South Carolina. A month earlier, Rodney had shared with me his philosophy: sauce, smoke, and even meat don't matter. For him, barbecue is a reunion, a party, an opportunity "for everybody to come and join in and enjoy each other's company." Whether you form a team on the competition circuit, gather for family cookouts, or share a slab of ribs with a neighbor, barbecue is rarely, if ever, a solitary activity.

Rodney's comment exemplified what I witnessed at Sam's: a group of folks getting together in the name of barbecue. Many of us, including myself, had never tasted a Sam's pulled pork sandwich, yet we craved being a part of its revival. All that weekend we talked barbecue, shared stories about barbecue, and made plans to visit each other and eat barbecue.

In November, I drove back out to Humboldt to visit the newly reopened Sam's Bar-B-Q. First thing, I made a pilgrimage out to the smokehouse to see the pit that Sam built, and we rebuilt. I stood marveling at the beauty of the restoration, and pondered just how much barbecue I would eat that day.