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The heart and soul of Atlanta barbecue

At Fat Matt’s Rib Shack on Piedmont Avenue in Atlanta, live blues is as much a draw as the smoked meat. LIGAYA FIGUERAS / LFIGUERAS@AJC.COM

At Fat Matt’s Rib Shack on Piedmont Avenue in Atlanta, live blues is as much a draw as the smoked meat. LIGAYA FIGUERAS / LFIGUERAS@AJC.COM

Atlanta is not the place for textbook barbecue. You can find components of the classic Kansas City style (a sweeter, thicker sauce; burnt ends!) at 4 Rivers Smokehouse. Texas-style brisket is offered at Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q, DAS BBQ and others, yet each one brings nuances to the table. Many local places show influences from North and South Carolina, but name me one barbecue spot in the metro area that claims to serve solely a style from either state.

Today’s Atlanta barbecue scene doesn’t fit into a nice, tidy box. If reductive definitions are what you’re after, Google “barbecue styles,” or watch a humorous, twangy YouTube video titled “The BBQ Song — Rhett & Link” by a barbecue-loving North Carolina band.

What is important is how far barbecue has come from its restrictive, segregated past.

Community is as much an element of barbecue as smoking, spicing and saucing the meat, but who is invited to the table?

If you head to the "Barbecue Nation" exhibition at the Atlanta History Center, you'll find a striking black and white photo circa 1930 of blacks and whites at a plantation barbecue in Eufaula, Alabama. A wall separates the groups, even as they eat the same food.

In 2019, barbecue is not a divider in Atlanta. In this food-appreciative city of natives and transplants, barbecue brings us together.

Every meal at Jim ’N Nick’s Bar-B-Q starts with cheese biscuits. LIGAYA FIGUERAS / LFIGUERAS@AJC.COM

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In many ways, barbecue has become the great equalizer of eating experiences. You sit down at a picnic table. Your hands get sticky and messy, and the table piles up with dirty napkins, crumpled paper towels or wet wipes. You talk with your mouth full as you gnaw on ribs, finger-pick brisket and squirt sauce on pulled pork. Maybe it’s not the manners your mama taught you, but everyone else is doing it, too. You’re in good company.

Atlanta Barbecue: Meet the pitmasters of Heirloom Market BBQ

It’s what happened when I ordered a spread at DAS BBQ for Atlanta Journal-Constitution Editor Kevin Riley, politics reporter Greg Bluestein and Alex Taylor, president and chief executive officer of Cox Enterprises, parent company of the AJC. That’s a power lineup, yet, here we were, swallowing barbecue as we sat on wooden benches. Greg was dressed in a suit and tie. I wore jeans.

Heavy’s Bar-B-Q in Crawfordville was one of the filming locations for “Sweet Home Alabama.” The family-owned barbecue restaurant has been in operation for 40 years. CONTRIBUTED BY PAULA PONTES

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I also recently stood around an outdoor table at Heirloom Market BBQ in Smyrna with Sgt. Cortez Stafford of the Atlanta Fire Department, first responders to the blaze that closed B’s Cracklin BBQ a month ago. Stafford and I were two shades amid a cross section of skin colors, sharing Korean-inflected barbecue and sides.

To Stafford, eating barbecue is universal. “No matter who you are, or where you come from, it embraces all cultures, all people, and brings them together,” he said.

Barbecue brought me together with local Kansas City Barbecue Society-certified judge Bob Herndon. At Sam's BBQ-1 in Marietta, he broke down for me the breakup saga of former pitmaster partners Sam Huff and Dave Poe (Get over it, people!). That was before my time. Right now, I appreciate the ziti in Sam's mac and cheese, and the cinnamon in the sweet tater tots.

At Jim ’n Nick’s Bar-B-Q, our conversation was about cleanliness, consistency and those hot rounds of cheese biscuits they give you as soon as you plant your butt at any of the chain’s locations.

AJC dining editor Ligaya Figueras visits Williamson Bros. Bar-B-Q in Marietta with local barbecue aficionado and Kansas City Barbecue Society-certified judge Bob Herndon. CONTRIBUTED BY LIGAYA FIGUERAS

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As I gnawed on a plate of ribs at Fat Matt’s with Bob and barbecue authority Jim Auchmutey, we talked about the roadside barbecue shacks that people still romanticize, and which I experienced firsthand during a road trip to Augusta. Sconyers Bar-B-Que was the end-goal, but my friends were just as curious as I was to see Heavy’s Bar-B-Q in Crawfordville, a place stuck in time since “Sweet Home Alabama” was filmed there.

While barbecue brings eaters together, there’s also camaraderie among the people who man the pits.

“We’re not in competition with each other,” said Jonathan Fox of Fox Bros., talking about the local barbecue community that he became a part of when he moved to Atlanta in the late 1990s. “We help each other out.”

"I'm honored. I'm blessed," said B's Cracklin owner Bryan Furman of the support he has felt since the March fire put things on pause at his restaurant in the Riverside area. Support has come in the form of words of encouragement as well as fundraising efforts by pitmasters throughout the country.

Furman recently was among the crop of best new chefs anointed by Food & Wine magazine. He doesn't consider himself a chef. He could talk about his South Carolina roots. Or, that he's black. But, mainly, it's this: "I'm the first pitmaster to win. In 31 years, nobody in barbecue won that award," Furman said.

It’s about time.

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