Elegantly simple. Yet even that simple recipe opens to a world of endless and tasty variations to please one's palate and temper. Because it's summertime, the search for the right barbecue can be a lazy but determined weekend passion supported by a full tank of gas and a good hunger, and even writers have been known to swear off the joys of the jug for half-an-hour of heaven at the right barbecue stand -- no liquor allowed.
The erstwhile Jonathan Williams -- provocateur, raconteur, epicure, and a cure-all for most of what ails popular literature these days -- knew a thing or two about the endless variety of barbecue and its preparation. Mr. Williams, who passed away in 2008, was the eminent force of the Jargon Society and its varied delights, not necessarily limited to the literary: Jargon was the original publisher of White Trash Cooking, Enest Mickler's my-t-fine compendium of pork, sugar, and lard.
.. Some like it lean, some fat. “Gimme a fat sa’mich, honey,” yells an old farmer. That’s it, just bread and fat. Some insist on shoulder or ham, some want to use the whole pig. Some chop it, some slice it, some pull it and shred it. In eastern NC the sauce is vinegar based. In western NC, it’s got ketchup, salt, sugar, red and black pepper added to the vinegar. Lexington is considered mecca to many, and my favorite place is “Lexington Barbecue #1,” off Highway 29-70, operated by Mr. D. Wayne Monk and his brother Tom. ...
There is one place about which Roger and I are in complete agreement. We are not the only ones. In their book, Roadfood, Jane and Michael Stern say: “We have found perfection, and its name is the Ridgewood Restaurant.” The sad thing is that the Ridgewood is tucked away in the wilds of eastern Tennessee and that means a long journey from almost anywhere. I try to combine a visit with Georgia Blizzard, the potter, in Glade Spring, Virginia, with a stop at Grace Proffitt’s wonderful eatery.
The Ridgewood is north of Elizabethton, Tennessee, at the crest of a low gap in the hills, on Highway 19-E. A few miles to the north is Bluff City. And further north, the city of Bristol. It’s about 11 miles on back roads, south from Interstate-81 at Bristol, using Exit 69. ...
Grace has been presiding at her restaurant since 1948 and everything seems about as good as it can get. Making the trip to the Ridgewood whets the appetite and puts one in reverential mood, like a first visit to Chartres, or the anticipation of a meal with Louis Outhier or the Brothers Haeberlin at the Auberge de l’Ill in Alsace.
Our last visit to the Ridgewood, two local businessman were entertaining two Japanese visitors. They were properly entranced. Such tastes required no translation. A hand-written testimonial from General William Westmoreland on a wall of the restaurant assured us all that it was the best barbecue anywhere on earth. If Jesse Helms can be right about barbecue, so can the General.
Because I love the accuracy of his writing, let me quote John Egerton from his book, Southern Food (Knopf, NYC, 1987), on how it’s done at the Ridgewood. Grace Proffitt’s way is not for traditional purists: “They start with fresh hams, not shoulders. The meat cooks and smokes for about ten hours over hickory coals. Then it is chilled in a cooler, sliced cold, and reheated on a hamburger grill at high temperature. While it sizzles, it is doused generously with a spicy-sweet and mildly hot tomato-based sauce. The mound of moist and piping-hot meat is then troweled onto a toasted bun and served with slaw and French fries, both freshly made and of the highest quality.”
Another side dish to order is a little crock of Mrs. Proffitt’s barbecued beans. C’est sublime, as they’d say in France if they had barbecue this good. Sweetened iced tea tends to be the beverage of choice. Beer is seldom to be found in barbecue restaurants, for whatever sociological reasons. Classic Coke suits me.
Neither Roger nor I has ever been able to eat more than one of the ample sandwiches (think it was all of $2.75 in 1988) at the Ridgewood, so we don’t know about the pies and cakes. We observed most customers picking up a little wrapped confection (made in Nashville) known as a “Goo-Goo Cluster,” as they paid their bill at the counter. One wonders.
When we paid Mrs. Proffitt and thanked her sincerely for such culinary art, I bought three pints of her secret-formula barbecue sauce, of which she makes about 15 gallons early every morning. Said Grace: “Boys, I hope you like that sauce. Hit’s got a whang to it!”
(Photo of Grace Proffitt from The Jargon Society.)