by Paul Ross
Alabama Barbecue, c. 1890s
Almost Dreamland’s BBQ Sauce
Big Bob Gibson’s Hickory-Smoked
Almost Mrs. Bishop’s Chess Pie
Way down ‘bama way, barbecue is serious “bi’ness,” second only to sports as ecumenical communion. Each town of more than a handful of hungry people proudly boasts its own “world-famous” purveyor of homemade sauces and smoke-cooked pork. (In the South, BBQ means pigmeat. Texas lays claim to beef. Both sneak in some fish and fowl. But, if you want bbqed veggies, y’ gotta go to…like…California, which is where Texas and even the nouvelle South draw the line.)
I write this in the dark days when carnivores are living in the shadows of twin plagues that are stalking the ranching world: bovine spongiform encephalopathy (“mad cow” disease) and hoof-and-mouth disease. Trade barriers to Britain were wrung down months ago and now the EU has been barred as well from access to the American meat market, where even domestic critters are suspect. While this is actually a boon to far-flung farmers of “exotics” (ostrich and even kangaroo comestibles), ranching is reeling and girding. With livestock and stock market downturns, there doesn’t seem to be any bottom for pork bellies. So home-grown “hawgs” are more then just a regional delicacy; they are endangered folk treasures. In Alabama, I visited bastions of traditional meat eating, dedicated to holding the frontlines in these trying times.
Interior of the Original Dreamland
Outside Tuscaloosa is a modest shack on Jug Factory Road that humbly houses a local legend: Dreamland. Begun by “Big Daddy” John Bishop and now maintained by his kin, this BBQ shrine attracts pilgrimages by faithful foodies. A long list of celebrities–from sports heroes to movie stars and local city officials to Washington power-brokers–have tasted the succulent ribs bathed in Dreamland’s patented sauce. Their motto, emblazoned under a logo of pipe-chompin’ “Big Daddy’s” challenging gaze, is “Ain’t nothing like ’em nowhere.”
Like most earnest ‘cue in the state, the emphasis at Dreamland is on the quality of the meat and slow and thorough cooking, which both tenderizes and infuses the food with a smoky, sweet tang. Sauce is added late in the game and as an accompaniment, an accent. Not as a bath. One proud cook thought most commercial ‘cue “up north ..insults the meat” with over-spicing, chemical aftertastes, and–worst of all-sugar-laden coatings.
From their oversized parking lot, you’d have to conclude that Dreamland is anything but a sleepy fantasy.
L.O. Bishop (no relation to John) is another local legend–from Cherokee, between Florence and Waterloo. Professing to “never say bad about another’s barbecue,” he openly sneers at “Kansas City style.” L.O. is–to hear him tell it–a farmer first. (His business card proudly announces “Hawgs, Dawgs, Grains, and Gran Chillen,” in that order.) But folks for miles around will attest that no wedding, 4th of July picnic, or political rally is complete without his catering. In fact, local parties are how he honed his cooking skills. After a decade of experimentation, L.O. felt he was finally ready. He’d secured a state okay and was waitin’ on federal approval when a fire burnt the fledgling venture down. He rebuilt “using my children’s inheritance.” That was more than a dozen years ago, and both his children and the successful business have never had to look back since.
Mr. Bishop has no secrets about what goes into his barbecue because he is confident that skill, the high cost of good ingredients, and time-intensive preparation will put off most wannabe competitors. It’s not unusual for his pork to simmer/smoke over hand-hewn hickory wood for ten hours–at core temperatures reaching 200 degrees–down to 45% of its initial weight. (Government regulations allow 65% ..which is then sometimes pumped-up with water by major agribusiness concerns to 130%!) L.O.’s “3-n-1 stuff” sauce is a light and spicy mixture of vinegar, lemon, and spices…especially red chile pepper. There’s no tomato but it’s not a fiery Tabasco either.
I had the pleasure of sampling wares served-up by the hand of the master himself during a pouring rainstorm under a tin roof in the middle of the Coon Dog Cemetery. Surrounded by tender sentiments immortalized in stone, the lean, melt-in-your-mouth meat tingled with the addition of sauce. “Go-alongs” included a non-mayo-drenched cole slaw, green beans, and white bread right out of the plastic wrapper. Dessert was Mrs. Bishop’s “Chess Pie” (sometimes called “Vinegar Pie” for the touch of the liquid folded into the butter, sugar, cream, and spices). It’s a delicious cross between a custard and pecan pie…”without the pecans.” If you’re licking your lips now, you’re a potential customer. L.O. runs a mail-order business, too. In fact, he doesn’t even own a restaurant.
In Decatur, it’s Big Bob Gibson’s, winner of local and intragalactic cooking contests. (In one competition, he actually garnered the title “Best Sauce on the Planet.”) His clan has staked-out territory with four outlets in Huntsville. And there’s even a distanced cousin trading on the name. At all Gibson’s locations, you have a choice of three sauces: the traditional thick tomato-based, the vinegar/red pepper, and a uniquely Alabaman white sauce consisting of mayonnaise, vinegar, garlic powder and black pepper. Although the latter is bland and heavy, locals love it on chicken where it’s an industrial-strength, instant “saladizer.”
Even at the smallest of the Gibson’s, on- premises, slow-cooking is the order of the day. Kettle-simmered beans are a hearty side and the desserts that you save room for are most often topped with an architecturally-challenging three inches of meringue. This mountainous cloud floats over a dense, rich, pudding base of chocolate, lemon, or coconut.
Almost anywhere you go in the state, you’ll find some interesting ‘cue and, who knows?–you might even discover the next hot find. For now, here are some recommended eats around Alabama: Full Moon Barbecue of Birmingham. Miss Myra’s Pit in Cahaba Heights. Hog Heaven, Calera. Let’s Eat Smoked Meat, Hueytown. Have Mercy, Hoover. Greenbriar in Madison. The Shack in Talladega. Boar’s Butt, Winfield. Or, this being an electronic age, just ask the good folks down at the ol’ website, tourism.state.al.us
‘Bamacue–it’s what everybody likes about the South!
Almost Dreamland’s BBQ Sauce
Here is my approximation of Dreamland’s dreamy sauce.
1 can (28 oz.) tomato puree
1/3 cup yellow mustard
3 cups water
1 1/2 cups cider vinegar
1/4 cup dark corn syrup
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons packed brown sugar
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon dry mustard
1 tablespoon paprika
2 teaspoons ground red pepper
2 teaspoons onion powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
In large saucepan, whisk together the tomato puree and mustard until smooth. Stir in remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Serve warm.
Yield: About 6-7 cups
Heat Scale: Medium
Big Bob Gibson’s Hickory-Smoked Chicken with White Sauce
Here it is, Big Bob Gibson’s recipe for his infamous White Barbeque Sauce. This recipe has been published for years on the Internet, but I trust that this one is the real thing. This is the version as published by Mike Mills in the fantastic book, Peace, Love and Barbeque. Enjoy.
1 cup mayonnaise
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 1/2 tablespoons cracked black pepper
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, finely ground
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1 whole chicken, cut in half
Finely ground kosher salt and ground black pepper
1/2 cup vegetable oil
To prepare the sauce: Combine all the first six ingredients in a large bowl and mix thoroughly. Place in an airtight container or bottle and refrigerate until you’re ready to use. Keeps up to 4 days.
To prepare the chicken: Wash the chicken and season it liberally with salt and pepper. Smoke over hot coals and hickory wood at 300 to 350 degrees for 3 to 4 hours or until the internal temperature reaches 170 degrees. Halfway through the smoking process, baste the chicken with oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper once more.
After you take the chicken off the pit, immediately place it in the bowl of white sauce, turning the chicken to coat evenly. Place the chicken on a cake rack and allow it to rest for a few minutes prior to serving. Discard any sauce that you’ve used for coating chicken.
Yield: 4 servings
Heat Scale: Mild
Almost Mrs. Bishop’s Chess Pie
I’m no baker, but even I can make this!
3 eggs, beaten
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
3 tablespoons melted butter
1 tablespoon white cornmeal
1/3 cup buttermilk
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1 unbaked 9-inch pie crust
In a bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar, melted butter, cornmeal, buttermilk, salt, vanilla, and vinegar. Blend well and pour into an unbaked 9-inch pastry shell. Bake in at 375° on the bottom rack of the oven for 15 minutes; reduce heat to 350° and bake 20 minutes longer.
Yield: 6 servings