Thursday, May 30, 2013

Start your BBQ odyssey with Barbecue Crossroads

James Beard Award-winning author Robb Walsh and acclaimed documentary photographer O. Rufus Lovett plunged into an epic road trip from East Texas to the Carolinas to produce Barbecue Crossroads: Notes and Recipes from a Southern Odyssey. Armchair travelers will enjoy the enlightening journey as well as experience their discoveries through gorgeous photographs and mouth-watering recipes picked up along the way. True barbecue pilgrims, however, can also retrace their steps and find their own barbecue revelations with the Google map below.

This first leg of the journey covers barbecue locales in Texas and Arkansas, hitting legendary joints that have already received national attention and spotlighting some unsung heroes of the rapidly disappearing traditional wood-fired pit.

Disclaimer: The route linked below maps the odyssey Robb and Rufus traveled in the process of writing Barbecue Crossroads. To get the most out of this journey, we recommend buying and reading the book in full before embarking. Enjoy!
Access the Google map here:

From the book:

Our smoky pilgrimage began on a Tuesday morning in August. At our rendezvous point and first stop, my wife dropped me off and I loaded my luggage into Rufus’s Honda Element. In anticipation of the mess I would make while eating barbecue in his car, Rufus had draped a beach towel over the passenger seat. The rear of the vehicle was packed with photo equipment and lighting apparatus. After squeezing in my suitcase and laptop, I kissed my wife good-bye and the work began.

Rufus and I introduced ourselves to Jeremiah “Baby J” McKenzie, the proprietor and pitmaster of Baby J’s Bar B Que and Fish, in Palestine, Texas. But our trip got off to a strange start when he told us, “We’re out of brisket, pork, and ribs. All we got is fried catfish.”

Baby J’s had been written up in a Dallas newspaper over the weekend, and the meat had sold out. When the restaurant reopened on Tuesday morning, all they had left to serve for lunch was crispy fried catfish. I rationalized that we were going to be eating plenty of meat on our travels, so a little catfish might be a pleasant prelude.

“Believe it or not, fried catfish is pretty common in African American barbecue joints,” I told Rufus. We placed our order for fish and then went outside to visit with Baby J and look at his various cooking rigs. Baby J’s started out at a small location in Elkhart and moved to its current site on the edge of Palestine a few years ago. The restaurant building is located on a vacant lot under a water tower on the unpopulated outskirts of town. Its only neighbor, besides the giant steel ball full of water, is a fireworks stand.

A large, baby-faced black man of thirty-nine, Baby J spoke quietly, and his words conveyed a sense of wonder. I was surprised to discover that Baby J recently celebrated his tenth year as pastor at the One Way Apostolic Church of Palestine.

“I started cooking for our church suppers. Everybody at the church loved my barbecue, and they kept saying, ‘You should open a restaurant.’ So I did. I started with those catering trailers,” he said, pointing at several big barbecue trailers spread around the grass like wrecks in a junkyard. “That one caught fire, and I have to sandblast it out and start over,” he said, pointing at one giant rig with three steel doors cut into the vertical steel cylinder that constituted the pit.

He climbed the stairs to enter a larger, enclosed trailer and invited me to join him. Baby J opened the steel door of the rig and cut off a few slivers of the brisket that was cooking so I could taste his spicy seasoning. When we reemerged, a friend of his pointed out that the wooden deck on the front of the trailer was on fire. Baby J asked him to take care of it, so the man fetched a plastic bucket and nonchalantly poured water over the burning deck.


After our catfish lunch at Baby J’s, Rufus and I got out the map and talked about where we were heading. Rufus worried that not getting any barbecue at our first stop was a bad omen. I figured it was more a reality check. Although we had made only one stop, I could already see that it was going to be impossible to squeeze the complicated story of barbecue into the chronological account of a single road trip. There were going to be some return trips. And the narrative would require a lot of detours and flashbacks. We would follow the route traced on the map, but our explorations of barbecue culture and mythology would end up being part road trip and part mind trip.
From Barbecue Crossroads: Notes and Recipes from a Southern Odyssey by Robb Walsh with photographs by O. Rufus Lovett (Copyright © 2013).

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