I won’t have to eat again for a week. We are back from a post-Christmas visit to family, my husband’s side in West Tennessee. My mom-in-law is the queen of home cooked Southern meals. When not eating cornbread dressing, super-candied sweet potatoes, corn pudding casserole, and incredibly moist coconut cake, I worked to finish up a mini lifestory book of her memories growing up in the country and of recipes of her most famous dishes. I’ll have to print the book in color, to capture the full glory of the photos of food and the beauty of the family’s land, old barns and closeups of purple-hull pea plants included. I will let you know how that goes—the full-color books may be expensive, but the contents will be priceless.
Hard to say what I like best about visiting the Tennessee countryside. Uncle Harold called it “God’s Country,” and it is. Not of the remote God of majestic vistas or stunning landforms or sharp peaks piercing the sky, but of a reachable God of forested rolling hills and swampy bottomlands, of the morning songs of yellow-breasted meadowlarks. There’s the landscape that speaks of nostalgia, there’s the comfort food born from hard-working farm life, there’s the warmth of family ties. Then there is the barbecue.
Tennessee barbecue is unlike any other. I’m not talking about Memphis barbecue (I’ve been to the famed Rendevous restaurant), but Tennessee hill country barbecue, hickory-smoked at small, often roadside joints that are like little diners, if there is seating at all. Earl Russell, who grew up on a Tennessee farm, wrote about it in a recent blog post, “Soul Food—Tennessee Pulled Pork,” which made me hungry and wistful. My family only visits our Tennessee side once or twice a year, and a long time has passed since we last ate barbecue there. Despite all the glorious home-cooked leftovers in the fridge, my sister-in-law took me to the Pig House of Jackson, Tennessee, to indulge my memories.
Was this moist, shredded pork better than any other I’ve tasted, or was I just basking in nostalgia? Comparing it to St. Louis barbecue, the country barbecue had a milder smoked flavor, not the almost too-rich flavor I find here. The sauce is not the sweet, ketchup-looking stuff we have here and everywhere else I’ve been either. Tennessee country barbecue has a thin, vinegary red sauce flecked with dots of red pepper. It has a bite to it. The taste of the pork is more delicate, and the sauce enhances, not overwhelms. I’ll have to compare notes with Earl, for whom this barbecue is a long-distance treat now, too, but the pork was good and we brought some home with us along with a tub of that sauce. (The Pig House chicken was excellent, too, and I see the business will ship.) Paul Latham’s Meat Co. is also known for its barbecue.
I would definitely recommend stopping by one of the little barbecue places if you’re traveling through the Tennessee countryside. I know northern Alabama has them, too—I highly recommend the Old Greenbriar Restaurant if you’re ever in the area of Huntsville/Madison. Greenbriar has an outstanding white sauce for its barbecue chicken that I have never seen elsewhere, not even in Tennessee. Hmm, I wonder if they do mail order.