Inspired by the Southern Foodways Alliance's"BBQ Oral Histories" of rural Tennessee (a must read if you are at all interested in regional BBQ and its differing approaches) and being told about the region's whole hog climate by John T Edge, I was extremely motivated to check it out on the heels of my recent excursion to the Skylight Inn in North Carolina.
Rural middle Tennessee is more loyal to the Eastern Carolina tradition of barbeque than I've seen anywhere else in the country. Besides these loyalties to traditional Carolina methods, I am unaware of any other area in this country that has as many whole hog producing operations as western Tennessee. Even within North Carolina, no general region has as many. In fact, I believe it isn’t a stretch to say that this small area of Tennessee has more whole hog operators in existence than all of Eastern North Carolina.
Most places here who cook whole hog BBQ use a Carolina style barbeque pit (like JeffB's) and will undoubtedly use hickory and/or oak which is burned down to coals. Also in the Carolina tradition, low and slow is an absolute given, with some places cooking at temperatures as low as 150 degrees for 12-14 hours and as long as 24.
Like Eastern Carolina, a vinegar-based chili sauce is usually provided. Some, however, also serve up some sweeter style vinegar-based sauces.
Since visiting, I can't help but wonder what linkage exists between this area's long settled residents to those of Eastern Carolina and its barbeque heritage in a historical context.
I am happy to report that the whole hog barbeque tradition in western Tennessee, for now, is alive and well.
Papa Kayjoe’s BBQ (Centerville, TN)
Papa Kayjoe's - Oral History from Southern Foodways Alliance
Just after Mike “Parnelli Jones” Sula (M’Th’Su) nearly took out a bobcat on a highly wooded road leading to Centerville, we pulled up to Papa Kayjoe’s and were warmly greeted by the owner, Devin Pickard. Although Devin cooks up only shoulders, a virtual sin around these parts, I guess one can say that every so often the sum of the parts (shoulders) is more than the whole (hog): Kayjoe’s had some of the tastiest pork of the day being very moist and of the shredded variety. Like all other places we would visit throughout the day, only burned down wood to coals would be used.
What made Papa Kayjoe’s special, though, was their pulled pork on a fried-in-lard corncake (hoecake) sandwich. This sandwich was a real crowd pleaser and a great way to start our barbeque day.
This is my mental vision of what a country BBQ smokehouse should look like. Note the torched roof from either a grease fire or from the nearby burn down pit directly under the eave. Grease fires are virtually unavoidable over time at country barbeque places like this where wood is constantly being burned down to coals and pits are fired continuously. For this reason as well as others (sanitation, cost, labor,etc.), true wood burning barbeque country operations such as this might quickly become a thing of the past due to local fire regulations. Since barbeque has historically had an almost spiritual importance to most southern communities (often times with local churches having a “church barbeque” to raise funds for various community causes), fire and health regulations are rarely enforced.
Pork with Hoecake Sandwich
JD’s BBQ barn (formerly Foster’s BBQ) - Reagan,TN
There’s something special about a place that, like days of yore, is still willing and able to fire up one whole hog at a time. One such gem is JD’s BBQ. Located at a rural crossroads and adjacent to a gas station, this matchbox of a BBQ joint has only one table and an order counter. Most of its functioning space is the attached pork pit out back.
JD’s pork sandwich was of the coarsely chopped variety and though it was a bit on the dry side, the pork’s natural flavors and subtle smokiness showed that this was no casual effort. Their sauce was probably the best of the day.
On Friday’s, Jeff Dill serves up a marinated pork chop sandwich which I found quite delectable. After proudly showing me his whole hog, he escorted me to the other side of his pit where he offered up the gratis pork chop. So glad he did.
One whole hog at a time. Note the easily accessible fire extinguisher.
Scott's BBQ (Lexington, TN)
Scott's BBQ oral history - Southern Foodways Alliance
It’s not too often one stumbles onto a relatively unknown place that makes you feel as though you’re literally in the aorta of the BBQ world. B.E Scott in Lexington, Tennessee is just such a place. All one has to do is see their pork pits, the large pickup truck loaded with wood next to their burn down pit, and eat in their modest yet well-seasoned dining room, to figure out that many other loyal patrons would wholeheartedly agree. With a steady stream of locals lining up to place their precious barbeque orders, you can see that this is a hugely important neighborhood eatery. Its diners are civil and silent, in the usual southern etiquette sort of way (composed, really) but for those eating this delicious barbeque, I swear from a distance, I could hear their internal grunts and groans of delight.
Unlike the other places we visited, Scott’s barbeque came sliced, something you’re more apt to find in places like the North Carolina Piedmont region (Western) than the pulled or chopped variety from the Eastern part of the state. Like most quality pork made in the Carolina style, its smokiness sat in the background of its flavor profile and its porky goodness at the forefront. This is quality BBQ.
Their baked beans are made with pig jowls, giving it unctuousness and flavor I've never experienced anywhere. We all agreed that this was a very special side.
We also procured some ribs upon special request. Unlike ribs that you’d find in slab fashion in many other BBQ areas, ribs from a whole hog take on a stewed-like consistency. Though visually unappealing (when done right, like in the case of Scott’s), they are transcendental.
Because Scott’s is off the well-beaten BBQ path, people may never make the extra effort to seek it out. But I can assure you that if you do, you won’t regret it. In my mind, it ranks up there as one of great BBQ places anywhere.
A true thing of beauty: multiple whole hogs in traditional style Carolina pits. This photo shows only a portion of one of three pits at Scott’s. On this day, one of these pits was fully loaded and holding up to no less than 10 whole hogs. I’ve never been more pumped up in my BBQ travels as when I laid eyes on Scott’s whole hog smoking operation. I asked the on hand pitman, Parker the younger (son of owner, Ricky Parker), why they use multi-layers of card board moving boxes instead of the usual metal sheet cover. He claimed that they make a far better insulator. At first, all I could think about was the severe fires hazard it would create. But, indeed, they seemed to work like a charm. And they would certainly know.
If you look closely next to the aluminum tray are the pig jowls.
Baked beans made with pig jowls
Since whole hog ribs stew within themselves for hours, they are naturally the fall-off-the-bone variety.
Burn down pits like this one is de rigueur in these parts; a surprising fact considering that I believe there are only five places in the entire Eastern Carolina region that cook their BBQ exclusively from wood coals (Wilbur's in Goldsboro, Skylight Inn in Ayden, Moore's in New Bern, Bubba’s in Cape Hatteras, and Allen & Son at only their Millhouse Rd. location near Chapel Hill). Not one place we went to in Tennessee used anything but...
Curt’s Smoke House (Lexington, TN)
Formerly Hays BBQ. Longtime owner, Dennis Hays, also owned the nearby slaughterhouse which supplies pigs for virtually every BBQ place in the region. Hays owned the only USDA approved slaughterhouse being used specifically by the many local barbeque establishments. He retired about 6 months ago and sold the restaurant portion of his Barbeque empire to Curt Blankenship, a former pitmaster at B.E Scott’s (for only about 9 months).
The old Hays operation must have done some steep business evidenced by the sizable converted underground gas tank which has the capacity to cook several whole hogs at once. I suspect as many as 15 or so.
Curt’s BBQ tasted old to me; like it had been reheated from the day before (or beyond). Even his sides tasted tired. It is possible that since we clearly were from out-of-town and didn’t ask for a specific part of the pig (shoulder, ribs, middling, or ham), they could have given us some unwanted leftovers. The pork had a gasoline element to it, something I believe happens to barbeque when it is overly exposed to smoke.
It was a shame to have had such a sub-par experience (at least for that area!) at Curt’s after witnessing firsthand his true devotion to the whole hog tradition. But the fact was that this was definitely the low point of our barbeque day.
This field of wood used for coals is sourced from a local drumstick manufacturer who sells Curt their defective pieces. I believe JD BBQ in nearby Reagan uses them as well.
This converted gas tank (that's Curt) was also used for years by Dennis Hays. It is a large scale electric rotisserie capable of holding several whole hogs at once. Even though it is electrical, wood coal is its sole fuel source.
My respect for those pork makers who produce whole hog BBQ such as those found in western Tennessee cannot be overemphasized. They toil around the clock to make BBQ in a fashion they've known, loved, and respected their entire lives. Anything less than this way of doing things is taken as a personal insult to their cause. From burning down the wood to coals and repetitively loading the pits, to making sure that the pigs they’re working with are properly cooking hour after hour, in their minds this labor intensive effort is mandatory for producing true quality BBQ. If they didn’t have this strongly held belief, there’s no chance they would be willing to endure the long hours they put into their daily labor. Few people see the beauty of this world coupled with the will to work these long hours. It is for this reason that whole hog barbeque is virtually a thing of the past except for a few, rare places in North Carolina and here in Middle Tennessee.
Even today, where most other areas have completely stopped making whole hog, many customers as well as more than a few producers there still demand this time-tested and wonderful form of barbeque.
My initial and reoccurring question after returning home from Eastern Carolina a few weeks back was about why this area still sustains an active whole hog tradition today while all of the traditionally whole hog producing southern regions are virtually void of it. I theorized that this area must have had a larger percentage of barbeque producing folk who migrated from various parts of Eastern Carolina compared to other similar frontier areas of the times. However, John T Edge wrote me this email saying “Eastern NC and Middle Tennessee are the whole hog capitals. They seem to be remnants of a time when whole hog was the norm. I think that's the key to the mystery: why did they retain something the rest of the entire region almost lost?” For some reason or another, this area’s whole hog tradition still thrives today whereas virtually every other traditional whole hog producing area have streamlined their methods, consequently making average or below forms of barbeque.
The whole hog barbeque region of western Tennessee, centered in and around Jackson is an absolute must road trip for anyone who has the slightest interest in barbeque, especially if the time tested method of whole hog preparation has any allure to you. Fortunately, this rapidly fleeting pig culture is still alive and well there. But like most other southern communities that once took pride in their whole hog culture, sadly someday it will most likely become a thing of the past.
I had the fortune recently of being invited to my childhood second mother, Yolanda “Ma” Garces’ 75th surprise birthday party. While there, I spotted this beautiful photo of her in Old Cuba taken sometime around 1940. The migration of barbeque from places like this in the Caribbean to North Carolina/southern Virginia about 400 hundred years ago and ultimately making its way to such frontier places as Middle Tennessee always seemed to be on my mind throughout this incredible BBQ day.
Papa Kayjoe’s BBQ
119 W Ward St.
JD’s BBQ Barn
10880 Hwy 412 West
Curt’s Smoke House
93 College Dr.
1502 S Lee St.