My essay Neither the Season, Nor the Time was nominated recently for the Pushcart Prize in Nonfiction by Belle Reve Literary Journal. I have other essays published in Sport Literate, Compose, and Full Grown People. I live in Greenville, SC, with my family.
Over the Hot Coals
In Memphis once for a meeting of the Southern Jewish Historical Society, I joined my other faithful Hebrew attendees for an evening on Beale Street. Seated at BB King’s Blues Joint for supper, the twenty of us were given the choice of a barbecue pork plate with slaw and beans, or the fried catfish platter.
It was a funny moment, and you might imagine that the Rogoffs and Cohens and Weiners and Barrs at the adjoining tables felt out of place. Given the menu options, you might also imagine that our individual and collective faces wore looks ranging from dismay to disgust. But actually, only one of the diners asked for a vegetarian plate. The others, including the daughter of a well-known Birmingham rabbi, made their choices lustfully, the only real instant of distress being how to choose between two such scrumptious Memphis-Southern delicacies.
The rabbi’s daughter ordered the pork plate and I chose the catfish. The catfish tasted mighty fine, fried crispy golden-brown, the crust insuring that the sweet moisture of that bottom feeder exploded in my mouth. As good as the fish was, though, I looked at the barbecue pork with total longing and envy. I wasn’t eating red meat then; neither at that time was I gluten-free. Times change, however, and we learn to adapt.
I now fry catfish after I’ve rolled it in gluten-free breading.
More importantly, though I feel politically incorrect and ask for mercy from my liberal-Jewish gods, I once again eat pork. Pork cooked over hickory wood fires. Pork smothered in fiery red sauce. And since I’m really only half-Jewish, but all Southern, I no longer feel alien in the region I call home. In fact, my newfound, or rather newly rediscovered love of barbecue helps me recall a past when barbecue pits and hickory wood coals were as much a part of our sacred home ground as our fertile pecan trees and earthy red clay.
A time when “Let’s have a Barbecue” didn’t mean switching on a gas grill and burning a few burgers. For in my time, a “Barbecue” meant an all-day celebration with a community. A homogenized community with its own flair and flavor and amenable quirks.
My mother never needed a reason to barbecue. As she tells it, from the time she was a girl, the grocery stores in Bessemer, our Alabama hometown, all closed on Wednesday afternoons. So most of the neighbors on Fairfax Avenue—my mother’s family, the Colquitts, the Staubs, and the Battons who all lived across the street—would barbecue together on those summer Wednesday evenings. Barbecues aided and tended by the various maids in the neighborhood’s employ. It was at one of these Wednesday rib suppers that the Batton’s daughter Margaret met a young man who had just bought a house on the next street over—a guy who had served his country in World War II, losing his twin brother during that conflict, and who was now trying to live out his American Dream back home: Joe Terry. Eventually Joe and Margaret married, and then bought and moved into the Staub’s house right next to Margaret’s parents. Over the ensuing years, those Wednesday feasts became reduced and ritualized into only Fourth of July and Labor Day barbecues. The attendees shrank as well, so that by the mid-1950’s, just the Terrys, Battons, and my mother’s family, which after 1952 included my father, celebrated these occasions with basted pork.
In my memory, when my family hosted the event, the Terry family actually invaded. There were nine of them at least, and only five of us at most. We’d set up picnic tables in the back yard, just a few feet away from our grill, which, even though it stood four feet tall, we always referred to as the “barbecue pit.” To call it either a grill or a pit doesn’t do it justice though, or maybe I should say that our contraption could not do justice to the terms “grill” or “pit.” For what we had was a black and round and not very deep metal contraption that no doubt one of my parents bought at the local Rexall Drugs. I can still see the burning and later completely white-ash Chuck Wagon charcoal briquettes, in the shape of wagon wheels. When they finally cooled, I always hoped I could pick one up whole and keep in intact. Obviously I couldn’t, but in that hope lay something deeper, though of course it would take me decades to appreciate this yearning.
In my family besides my mother and father were my mother’s mother, “Nanny,” and my little brother Mike. The Terry family consisted of the parents, Joe and Margaret, Margaret’s parents, the Battons, whom the grandkids referred to as “Mom” and “Pop,” and the five kids: Jon, Joe, Mary Jane, Margaret Lou, and Jack. In my earliest memories, Jack hadn’t been born; in fact, when Margaret became pregnant with him, everyone was surprised, not least of whom Margaret and her husband Joe themselves. For Jack was born some six years after the former youngest child Margaret Lou, and whether he was actually planned or not, he still received a name beginning with a “J” to match his brothers and father, the girls’ names starting with an “M” to honor their mother. I don’t know if that naming habit seems strange now or not. What I do know is that I knew no other family then, and certainly none now, quite like these Terrys.
What I mean by that is that in our household there was an obsessive-compulsive sense of order. Our mealtimes, bedtimes, waking up times were all rigid and regulated. My father had a routine he followed every day of his life from his morning calisthenics to his driving route to work, favorite push-button-programmed radio station, and nightly TV viewing schedule. On weekends he cut the grass whether it needed it or not, raked leaves systematically and completely, and then hollered the next day when more leaves, just to frustrate him, decided to rain down on his pristine yard. He took us to see his mother every Sunday, same time, same take out deli food, and if I asked to take a different route, say through downtown Birmingham, I did so at the risk of being scolded or even shouted at for causing trouble. Some evenings he relented and humored me, and I like to think that when he saw the lights of the theater marquees in downtown Birmingham, he enjoyed the spectacle as much as I did.
My mother or our maid Dissie vacuumed the house always on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Grocery store shopping was a regular Friday morning affair. She had her “Sprig and Twig” Garden club and Alethian Club on alternating Thursdays, her Bridge Club on Tuesdays. Each weeknight supper was also set and recorded: Monday, leftover roast beef from Sunday lunch made into hash, or leftover leg of lamb covered in barbecue sauce; Tuesday, veal cutlets with a side dish of Franco-American spaghetti; Wednesday, fried chicken; Thursday, grilled steak and baked potatoes; Friday, vegetable soup or chili. In the grocery store, she traveled the same patterned aisles, and each night she always had my brother and me in the bathtub by 7:30, and in bed by 8:30.
So maybe we were a peculiar family too, but at least you could count on us to be where we were supposed to be: at clubs, at work, at the table, or in bed.
Not so the Terrys.
Their children did have regular after-school activities: ballet, boy scouts, piano and speech lessons; Girls’ auxiliary at the church. Mary Jane was my age, a mere two months older, and as little kids, we played together all the time, making mud pies and playing hop scotch and rock school. But when she turned six, her after-school afternoons were booked solid, and it felt like I hardly saw her at all, which was too bad because in those years, she was my favorite friend. We became boy and girl-friend in fifth grade, a “relationship” that lasted exactly one year, though the most we ever did to consummate that affair was square dance as partners and ride our bikes under the same oak tree full of mistletoe.
But while the Terry children had outside activities, which did wield some sense of order, at home, in all the odd hours between activities, you could see and hear the chaos unfolding. The two houses—the Terry’s and next to it the Batton’s—functioned as one. When I’d be playing in the front yard, the traffic between the houses always caught my eye. Sometimes I envied them, having two places to use as command posts for various war games, but then I’d hear, and I’d see the trouble.
Margaret Terry would appear on the front steps or in between houses and start screaming for one of the kids. But if she started out yelling for Jon, she always and forever included them all, rattling off their names in one synchronized wail: JONJOEMARYJANEMARGARETLOUJACK. Even before Jack was born, it seems to me now, she included his name in the yelling. From my yard I could see several Terry kids hiding around corners, in boxwood bushes, up trees, anywhere to escape their mother’s fury. It wouldn’t matter what they had done or were supposed to do, either. The longer she yelled, the LOUDER she screamed, the worse things ended up being. When they approached near enough, never really anxious but usually like a stray dog who wants some attention but isn’t quite sure he’ll like the kind he’s about to get, she’d start chasing them, slapping old clothes at them, trying to grab their collars or necks, so as to “switch” their butts till they promised to behave which, if they ever did promise, they broke just as soon as they got back out of doors again the next day or even, as they got older, that very night.
I know the Terrys ate supper. I just don’t know when or how or who ate together. I wonder if they ever ate together. I’d be invited for lunch on occasion, maybe for a bologna or tuna sandwich. But in the chaos dreams of these memories, mainly I see Mary Jane and Margaret Lou and Joe at our house, enjoying my mother’s cooking and only departing reluctantly from our order to their anarchy.
And yet, when our house caught on fire during the middle of a frigid January night, it was to the Terrys we turned. They provided for us willingly, warmly. I remember bedding down on their living room couch that fiery night. I was only five, not sure really what had happened, what it all meant, how my world would ever be the same, but in the morning, waking up in a safe place, a place I knew, with the assurance that all would be OK. After all, Mr. Terry, or “Big Joe,” was our Safeco insurance agent, taking care of both our refurbished home and all of our cars.
Throughout my public school life, our families carpooled together to school, our parents trading off the days or weeks of chauffeuring. And through my college years, we barbecued on those two summer holidays faithfully, though the meals and those attending them finally grew old and much too thin.
In my earliest memories what the elders barbecued most and best were ribs. I didn’t know then how long and intricate and tiresome the process of cooking ribs is. That is, if you do it right. All I knew was how good they tasted. You couldn’t get me to eat potato salad or baked beans, so as a five or six-year old, I’d receive three or four ribs, separated for me by one of my parents, and I’d grab a few chips and maybe some slaw. This was Alabama, so of course the rib sauce was homemade and ketchup-based. I learned the sauce recipe when I went off on my own, but what I really learned about it is that the recipe is instinctual, meaning that my mother—or any other proper chef—can tell you the ingredients, but the amounts, you have to figure more or less on your own, understanding the distinction between “a little bit” and “some,” or “ a teaspoon” from “several drops.” And of course, the amount varies with the number of slabs of ribs you’re cooking. Back then, with fourteen-plus people, six slabs would be about right. And back then, the ribs were the big kind, spare ribs, though today my mother gets incensed if you, or any barbecue establishment, use anything but St. Louis style or Baby Back ribs.
“They’re more tender, just better,” she insists.
Stupidly--for over these decades if I’ve learned anything it should be not to question her culinary skills and experience--I cooked some spare ribs last summer. Everyone ate them, but I didn’t get the rave reviews I usually do. My daughters, my biggest fans, were particularly silent, and I noticed uneaten ribs on their plate and too many leftovers. So a month or so later, I bought some Baby Backs. Two slabs for five people. Those ribs didn’t “make it through the night,” making me proud and making the echoes of Kris Kristofferson even more woebegone.
So for years, the Terry-Batton-Barr Labor Day/Fourth of July barbecues were rib-based. Then, and I’m sure this depends entirely on who you ask, which family group that is, Miz Batton, “Goldie” to her dearest friends, decided to barbecue a Boston Butt. Not that there’s anything wrong with a Butt; it makes a fine sandwich when slow-cooked to its most tender, moist best. But the bread interferes and it doesn’t have the chewy, gnaw-the-bone immediacy. Somehow with ribs, the flavor and the hickory smoke resonate longer and you want to eat more and more. And of course, you can even when you’re five or six because elders love to see a growing boy eat.
So for a few years, the Batton-Terrys would serve Butt and we would serve ribs, and it might have been the seeming price inequity or just the tiresomeness of cooking and basting and turning those ribs every half-hour on such a small BBQ pit, but one year we served a Butt too.
And one year, after Miz Batton grew too old to administer the cooking, Big Joe took over, and once, when he carved his Butt, blood sort of oozed out, and my mother said to us, “We’re not eating any of that.” I don’t remember what we did then except fill our plates with beans and slaw and potato salad, which, by then, I was eating with relish.
There was another year, too, when Miz Batton forgot to put sugar in the homemade vanilla ice cream.
“Goldie,” her husband exclaimed, “there isn’t a grain of sugar in this ice cream!”
“Why there most certainly is,” Goldie shot back.
But there wasn’t, though according to my Daddy, that didn’t stop Big Joe from eating a heaping bowl full.
So our backyard barbecue fests weren’t always flawless.
But after those suppers, we kids made them even more special with our nighttime games of “Hide and go seek” and “Ain’t no boogers out tonight.” I kept thinking in the year that Mary Jane was my girlfriend that on one of these holiday nights, I might catch her for a kiss. But that never happened, another in my series of dream-regrets.
As the years passed, the older kids would bring girl and boy friends. And then the time came when one or two quit coming, either being off at school or invited to a boy/girl friend’s house. And one year we went across the street to the Terry’s to find Mary Jane’s boyfriend Bill watching over the grill.
“Check this out,” and by his tone, we knew we were in for something, just not something good.
He opened the grill lid, and it wasn’t ribs and it wasn’t even a Butt.
It was a ham.
And off to the side were some vinegar-basted chicken quarters. Now I know I sound spoiled and picky, but that’s where the biannual neighborhood feasts died for me. I’m sure many there ate the ham. I have come to understand that in certain regions of the South, Jackson, Georgia, for instance, uncured hams are thrown on the pit and then cooked and chopped to the grill-master’s preference [see Robb Walsh’s Barbecue Crossroads for more information on this and other treats]. But the ham on Joe Terry’s pit was a very pink picnic cut. I couldn’t eat it, and I’m not planning on hitting Jackson, Georgia, anytime soon either.
I know it sounds like I’m blaming our good friends and neighbors for changing our practices, and in a way, that is what I’m doing. But I’m not mad, sad, or hurt. I think everyone did their best whether they slaved or just ate, forgot the sugar or ran errands, left the supper much-too-early, or decided that they could spend only so much cash.
It was our community. And our barbecue tradition spanned some forty years while our neighborhood’s “old south” ways remained intact.
At my last barbecue with the families—and by this time, all the grandparents except Miz Batton had passed on—the only “kids” left were me and Mike, Margraet Lou, and Jack. At the end of this Labor Day meal, Big Joe and my Daddy drove me the fifty-mile round trip back to college. They talked the way down about business and Alabama football. They didn’t share old memories of past barbecues because that wasn’t quite their nature, and besides, I’m sure neither thought this would be the end.
But it was.
Today in my home in upstate South Carolina, we still barbecue at our house, often inviting friends and neighbors to join us. But there’s nothing regular about these gatherings and nothing ritualistic either, except how I marinate and baste and barbecue those baby backs or St. Louis ribs, the only meat I ever take the time or care to cook on the old charcoal and hickory grill we’ve used for almost fifteen years, after buying it second-hand from neighbors who were moving away.
This kind of eating probably isn’t so healthy and it certainly isn’t kosher. But it’s a part of me, just like my name: Terry Barr, and while there have always been unanswered questions about whether our branch of the Terrys (my mother’s family name) is kin to their branch, what I can say is that “Little Joe” Terry and I remain in contact through several states and over all these years. He tells me that from time to time he drives through our old neighborhood too. Neither of our families has lived there since the mid-1990’s.
“It’s sad,” he says. “The whole street has just gone down. I wouldn’t advise going back there.”
And mainly I listen to him. But I did drive past our old houses once, even driving through the alley behind our house where I could still see the scenes of those long-ago barbecues. I wish I hadn’t, though, because I saw other things: the reality of what we felt like we had to escape.
For I saw that it wasn’t only my memory that had faded a bit.
But I suppose that’s the price we pay when we give up our old homes out of fear of what is new and different. When we quit barbecuing with our neighbors because they no longer look like us or talk like us, though if we had taken the time to study ourselves more closely, we might have learned that, in the end, we all love our ribs with red sauce cooked over a pit of hickory wood.
For we all are, finally, true products of a culture whose embers will never completely die.