Twenty-five years ago, as Atlanta prepared for its first Super Bowl, my editors at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked me to write a guide to the area’s best barbecue. Company was coming, and we wanted to put our best hoof forward. Tough assignment, huh?
I went to Dean’s in Jonesboro, Aleck’s Barbecue Heaven in West End, Harold’s near the penitentiary, Anderson’s in southwest Atlanta and several other places. Some of it was good. But, I remember finishing my research with a hint of indigestion, not from the pork, but from the realization that Atlanta, at least when it came to barbecue, was living on memories. Some of the best-known barbecue names in the city seemed past their prime in 1994.
A quarter of a century later, none of the restaurants I just mentioned remains. Owners died, families lost interest, business dwindled. I cherish those old spots, but I love what has happened in their wake. I believe that barbecue in Atlanta now is better than it ever has been — and I’m not alone in that opinion.
“Atlanta in the past 10 years has emerged as a serious barbecue town,” said Robert Moss, Southern Living magazine’s barbecue editor. “A generation of barbecue places has gone away, but they’ve been replaced by a new generation of very good places. That’s happened in a lot of cities, but it seems to be particularly pronounced in Atlanta.”
In his last listing of the 50 best barbecue restaurants in the region, Moss named four Atlanta-area places — as many as in Kansas City, and more than Memphis. Only Austin, Texas, which is in a barbecue orbit of its own, appeared more often.
Atlanta’s rising barbecue reputation carries a certain irony. While every acclaimed newer place still offers chopped pork in the Georgia custom, many of their star dishes are rooted in other locales.
The Fox Brothers, who run the most popular barbecue joint in town, come from Texas, and proudly showcase their brisket. Bryan Furman of B.’s Cracklin’, who vows to rebound from the fire that destroyed his restaurant last month, comes from South Carolina, by way of Savannah, and features whole hogs. The most celebrated item at Heirloom Market BBQ is the pork sandwich with kimchi coleslaw, a nod to chef Jiyeon Lee’s Korean heritage.
“Atlanta has embraced a lot of different barbecue styles, and that’s made us a much better barbecue town,” said Stephen Franklin of DAS BBQ, an Atlanta native who serves Texas brisket and smoked sausage in addition to good old Georgia pigmeat. “The fact that you find brisket in multiple places now shows how things have changed.”
What has happened to barbecue in Atlanta mirrors what has happened to the area itself. As Atlanta has grown from a good-size Southern city to a metropolis of almost 6 million, it has become infinitely more interesting and eclectic, but that growth also has made it difficult to see the bedrock identity of the place.
What, then, is our barbecue identity? Do Atlanta and Georgia even have one?
I thought a lot about this question as I researched my forthcoming book, “Smokelore: A Short History of Barbecue in America,” and served as a curator for the “Barbecue Nation” exhibition at the Atlanta History Center that inspired it.
When you read about barbecue these days, writers usually point to four regional styles: Texas, North Carolina, Memphis and Kansas City. Those places have wonderful traditions, but, reducing the world of American barbecue to a handful of settings grossly oversimplifies things, and ignores many barbecue hotbeds, like Chicago, St. Louis, Kentucky and the Santa Maria valley of California.
Most significantly, this shorthand overlooks the great barbecue belt of the Deep South, the pig-crazy crescent that runs from South Carolina to Arkansas and includes two of the best barbecue states in America, Alabama and Georgia.
Georgia wasn’t always overshadowed. Until recent decades, it figured prominently in any discussion of barbecue. In 1954, the Saturday Evening Post ran an article titled “Dixie’s Most Disputed Dish,” set entirely here, in which the writer declared Georgia the undisputed home of barbecue. Barbecue means something different now — restaurants or backyard cooking, mostly — but, back then, it usually referred to large public gatherings, like political rallies, or the plantation barbecue at the beginning of “Gone With the Wind,” things Georgia was identified with.
Not that we don’t have a long history of commercial barbecue as well. The earliest barbecue restaurants appeared in the 1890s in several states, including Georgia, where two of the pioneers opened in Downtown Atlanta: Verner’s on Broad Street and Willims’ on Marietta Street.
As Americans took to the highway during the 1920s, roadside barbecue stands began popping up, including, on the outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia’s two oldest barbecue places: Sprayberry’s in Newnan (1926) and Fresh Air in Jackson (1929).
Those decades also saw the rise of barbecue drive-ins, two of which figured in music lore. At Tidwell’s in Buckhead, a talent scout discovered Robert Hicks, an employee and blues singer, and rechristened him Barbecue Bob, posing him for a publicity photo in a butcher’s smock. At the Pig ’n Whistle on Ponce de Leon, Blind Willie McTell played for tips in the parking lot, and billed himself for a while as Pig ’n Whistle Red.
Many of the restaurants that defined Atlanta barbecue opened during the post-World War II boom: Harold’s and Dean’s on the Southside, Old South in Smyrna, the Auburn Avenue Rib Shack and Aleck’s Barbecue Heaven intown.
I’m especially fond of the Aleck’s story. Ernest Alexander ran six barbecue places, building the pits himself and fashioning part of his flagship location, on what’s now Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, with stones that once had paved the street. I remember going there and seeing the MLK booth, where they displayed a memorial portrait of King, who had lived nearby and liked to stop in for ribs, even though his wife, Coretta, warned him against eating so much pork. Gnawing ribs at Aleck’s and paying respects to a great native son felt like one of the most Atlanta things a barbecue lover could do.
Of all the barbecue places I remember from my youth, the biggest name undoubtedly was the Old Hickory House, a family-run chain that grew from a single restaurant in 1953 to more than a dozen by the 1980s. I still can hear their radio spots, a drawling male voice inviting listeners to “put some South in your mouth.”
There’s only one left now, in Tucker. I visited recently, and felt a rush of deja vu as I beheld the familiar knotty-pine paneling and the fireplace-in-the-wall pit behind the counter. George Jackson, the proprietor, who still comes in every day at 92, was watching the scene from a rocking chair. I asked him and his wife, Diane, what came to mind when they thought of Georgia barbecue. “Pork, of course,” she said. “But the specialty of the house has always been Brunswick stew. That’s what our customers talk about.”
There it is: If you’re looking for the most characteristic thing about barbecue in Georgia and Atlanta, it’s probably Brunswick stew, that strange concoction of meat and vegetables that some people never have heard of until they move here. Other places do chopped pork with a red sauce, as you find here, but nowhere else is Brunswick stew so prevalent.
“To me, that’s Georgia barbecue,” said Nate Newman of Lovies in Buckhead. “A chopped pork plate with a bowl of stew.”
Something like you find at the Old Brick Pit on Peachtree Road, which opened in a converted Dairy Queen in 1976 with an L-shaped floor pit and a menu that both were inspired by Fresh Air in Jackson. In terms of Georgia barbecue, that’s like being descended from General Oglethorpe.
Few Atlanta barbecue places can get by serving nothing but pork and stew these days, just playing the Georgia card — not in a time when diners expect to find everything everywhere.
Newman has experienced this delicious blurring of identities firsthand at Lovies. “We had no intention of cooking brisket when we opened,” he said. “I mean, we’re from Georgia. But customers came in and said they wanted brisket, so we started cooking it, and now we sell as much brisket as pork. But I’m not going to smoke tofu. You have to draw the line somewhere.”
I wouldn’t be so sure about that line. Barbecue may be one of the most traditional American foods, but tastes evolve, especially in an ever-changing place like Atlanta.
Jim Auchmutey, a former staff writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is author of “Smokelore: A Short History of Barbecue in America,” coming in May from the University of Georgia Press.
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