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FOOD AND MEMORY: A Barbecue Homecoming

The Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River in Selma. 

Somewhere along the way, I fell in love with a New Orleans girl. When that happens, you’re required to move to New Orleans. Not a bad requirement. Best food city in the world, right? The one critical exception, to my palate, is barbecue. Perhaps it gets lost in the Creole mélange. Anytime a new joint opens up, I anticipate the first chance I’ll have to try it, drooling like Pavlov’s dog at the smell of smoke in the parking lot, but the meat’s always a pale ghost of the barbecue that lives in my memory from back home.

“Home.” In the summer of 1978, my family moved to Selma, Alabama. I had just turned six. That decade’s recession was wearing off, and we were moving up from a two-bedroom apartment in Thomasville to a three-bedroom house on the west side of the “big” town of Selma, just a block from the city swimming pool. Of course, the Selma of my memory is about more than just barbecue. It is also bound up in race and division. Even the barbecue from my childhood seemed divvied up by the town’s racial boundaries. The two poles of the Selma barbecue world as I knew it were Hancock’s Bar-B-Que on the edge of predominantly white West Selma, and Lannie’s Bar-B-Q Spot in the heart of predominantly black East Selma.

As I looked forward to my return visit, Selma—Hancock’s and Lannie’s—would be the backdrop for the perfect “Food and …” installment, a “Food and Race” exploration of the continuing divisions in a town separated even by the compass: East Selma from West Selma, black from white. And if I planned it right, in one day I’d get to eat good barbecue twice. Of course, every one of these expectations would collapse by the time I was done. This visit would be less about race than about memory, and unreliable memory at that.

My planned journey home and the column I expected to write from that visit started to slide out from under me before I ever crossed back into Alabama. I prefaced my journey with a reading of Andrew Warnes’s Savage Barbecue: Race, Culture, and the Invention of America’s First Food. From the title, I figured Warnes had already blazed a trail through the reflection of the white-black racial divide in “white” and “black” barbecue traditions. From the get-go, however, the English academic’s preconceptions showed through, supposing that barbecue connotes a violent, backwards, racist, and exclusively white tradition. For example, after Warnes discusses the background of the first episode of the second season of The West Wing, which opens in a hospital wing where fictional President Jed Bartlet is recovering from an assassination attempt and has just been told that the intended target was Bartlet’s African-American assistant, Warnes writes:

Soon we receive more privileged information. Our TV screens go black, then break this darkness open to reveal a neon sign: Bar B Q. No other information is necessary. Neither the swastika tattooed on the lone diner’s hand nor his skinhead haircut adds much to the signal that Bar B Q alone emits. Neither adds much to our knowledge that this diner is America’s Most Wanted, and that the country’s greatest threat is thus no Muslim nor alien but his opposite: the white bigot filled to the brim with pork, beer, and racist bile. Writer Aaron Sorkin, in other words, is quite right. He is right to surmise that anyone acquainted with modern U.S. culture will know straightaway that this particular sign, placed into this particular context, will call the unreconstructed South to mind. He is right that anyone so acquainted will intuit that this food contains a suggestion of savagery appropriate to the modern Ku Klux Klan.

As I prepared to go back to Selma, my first thought on reading this was that the folks at Lannie’s—as well as black proprietors of other venerable barbecue shops across the South—might have some quibbles with Warnes’s presumptions. More troubling, though, was my next thought. Was I doing the same disservice to Lannie’s and to Hancock’s by thinking that their geographic positioning in Selma’s neighborhoods said anything about race, should taint the restaurants with the town’s own divisions? There was an even greater implication to this flawed thinking, though, that wouldn’t occur to me until my day in Selma was almost done.

Under the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

My wife, Nicole, and I, along with our baby girl, Lucie, arrived in Selma a little ahead of schedule on the day of my barbecue homecoming. We planned to meet a lawyer friend of mine, Vaughan Russell, for lunch at Lannie’s at one o’clock, but it was just after noon when we crossed into town. I parked next to the Edmund Pettus Bridge to take some pictures. It was on this bridge on Sunday, March 7, 1965, that between five and six hundred civil rights marchers on their way from Selma to Montgomery were beaten and gassed by a cadre of state troopers, sheriff’s deputies, and a mounted posse. Images of the Bloody Sunday march are forever linked with Selma. I walked down under the bridge and remembered hanging out with friends on weekend nights, talking to the percussive beat of tires on the expansion joints above us. Then I got back into the car with Nicole and Lucie and we drove by the old school board building, which appeared abandoned; next we drove by the high school, to find the old building gone and a new one in the final stages of construction. A new school board building was standing directly in front of it.

 


 

By the time I entered Selma High School in the fall of 1986, I had grown into myself enough to admit to being “from” Selma. The public schools seemed almost harmoniously integrated, particularly at the high school on Broad Street, the thoroughfare that bisects the town. At the beginning of my sophomore year, the school board hired its first black superintendent, Norward Roussell, a serious man from New Orleans. It was around that time, too, that I discovered Lannie’s, to supplement my Hancock’s habits.

During the next three years, high school was what high school can be, even in small Southern towns. Lots of angst over grades and girls and poetry and Alabama football. Plenty of smoked pork. Then, during the Christmas break halfway through my senior year, the six white school board members voted against the five black school board members not to renew Dr. Roussell’s contract.

After I wrote a letter to the editor questioning whether there were racist motives in the race-split vote by the white board members to terminate Dr. Roussell’s contract, I received this anonymous letter decrying the “African bush tribal behavior” of the town and telling me I needed electroshock therapy.

As the new semester began in January, a group of students started a series of protests. I was the only white kid among the student leaders planning and carrying out the protests. In addition to the anonymous letter recommending electroshock therapy, there were the phone calls, quick spurts of venom. “Watch yourself,” said one. Another call came on a rain-soaked day, dark clouds promising a tornado would touch down somewhere close. “You might find yourself dead,” said the voice when I picked up. When I didn’t respond, he hissed “Race-traitor,” and hung up.

Following a march from the high school to the school board building in January 1990, we took the steps of the school board building to rally the students: (left to right) Grady Broadnax, Jr., Fatima Salaam, Tad Bartlett, Jacinta Lake Thomas, Malika Fortier. Photo by Patricia Cavanaugh McCarter.

The last months of my senior year were a shifting drama, played on a divided stage. When forty students started a sit-in in the high school cafeteria, the six white school board members voted to shut the entire school system down. When the sit-in and the school shut-down ended after five days, the city reopened the high school with metal detectors and fully armed national guardsmen patrolling the grounds. Unmarked sedans prowled the parking lots every morning and afternoon, men in suits pointing video cameras. A black kid was expelled for punching some white kid he didn’t know. Two white kids were suspended for waving a Confederate battle flag from their car window while driving past the parking lot where the black band members hung out before school. Jesse Jackson visited and addressed a student assembly with a futile plea for peace and unity.

I didn’t realize it, too wound up in the self-centeredness of being seventeen, but the most telling moments then—the moments that would have a more long-term effect on defining the town and, in turn, defining me—were the moments of respite. Often these moments were the barbecue dinners with friends or family, sometimes at Lannie’s, sometimes at Hancock’s. At those times, it was just kind talk, sweet tea, smoked meat, and glorious sauce.

 


 

 

Lannie’s Bar-B-Q Spot at 2115 Minter Avenue.

Leaving the new high school and school board building, we drove over to Lannie’s. I appreciated that, where I used to turn to drive into East Selma on Jeff Davis Avenue, the street had been renamed J.L. Chestnut, Jr. Boulevard, after the city’s first black lawyer and a behind-the-scenes pillar of the Civil Rights Movement. (Of course, the street renaming was not lauded by everyone.)  At Lannie’s, we met up with Vaughan. Vaughan had showed up to check me out of school the day the schools were shut down, worried that I would be targeted, and he defended me against an attempt by two white vice principals to expel me from the high school during the protests.

Inside Lannie’s, a cross-section of Selmians were eating or waiting on their orders. We ordered three small “bar-b-q plates.” At Lannie’s, as at many barbecue places in Alabama, there is no choice of pork or brisket or what-have-you, just “bar-b-q,” which almost always means pulled or chopped pork. Corresponding to its geographic (and gastronomic) middle-ground between the Carolinas and Memphis, Alabama barbecue is an amalgam of Carolina vinegar aggressiveness and Memphis smoky tomato sweetness, bound together by a deeper-South, bayou-infected heat. The Lannie’s pork plate is a prime example.

The “small” plate at Lannie’s.

Forget about the side dishes and the obligatory slices of white bread, and focus on the pork, two ways. First, on top, a perfect cracklin’, the fried pig skin, not too salty or too greasy or too long out of the fryer, the pig’s natural unctuousness unmatched by the trendiest restaurant’s pork belly du jour. The main event is the meat below the cracklin’. The pork at Lannie’s is pulled, not sliced or chopped, with the fibers assembling and dissembling in the way God and pig intended. Little crusty bits tie in with meat that is fork-tender while retaining firmness often obliterated when pork is chopped. The smoke on Lannie’s meat is light, though you never lose taste of it. The sauce is where Lannie’s really hits its mark, as complex as a good molé, balancing vinegar and tomato and piquante heat in a blend that tastes as if the flavors were allowed to develop and meld over many hours.

While we ate, my conversation with Vaughan—constantly interrupted by patrons coming over to tell Vaughan hello and to make smiles at my baby girl—was far-ranging. We talked about the protests twenty years ago. We talked about where Vaughan’s kids are living now, and about how most kids don’t come back to town to live, only to visit. I told Vaughan I had often struggled with returning, even just to visit, when the town seemed to have made it clear that it wanted nothing to do with me.

A year and a half after I graduated from Selma High and drove as fast as I could down to college in Mobile, I visited Selma with my girlfriend, herself a Selmian. She convinced me it would be okay if we went to a kegger in some white kid’s garage. We only stayed long enough for her to say a few hellos, but I felt the evil eye all around. Back in Mobile, I ran into a guy who was at that party. He told me he had to convince a large pack of kids not to tear out after us to kick my ass. The next year, I was showing my then-new girlfriend, Nicole, around Selma. We were walking out of the Selma Mall when I heard steps behind us. I thought it would be a greeting from an old friend and started to smile, when instead I felt a hard-fisted hit on the back of my head. I turned and saw two black kids, maybe teenagers, looking back at me. “Why’d you do that?” I asked, still half-smiling. The taller of the two puffed out his chest, “Because we’re black. And you’re white.” And then they ran back into the mall.

When I told Vaughan I wasn’t sure I could ever really return to Selma, he stopped his fork in mid-air and said, matter-of-factly, “I think you’ll return. Maybe not physically, for good, but emotionally you’re back here already. That’s why you’re sitting here today.” I picked up the last of Nicole’s cracklin’ and popped it in my mouth.

 


 

 

Sturdivant Hall, Selma, Alabama.

The afternoon passed, languid. We drove aimlessly around town, switching from one neighborhood to the next: me amazed at how small it was, Nicole polite at my meandering reminiscence, the baby sleeping in the back seat. We bought a basket of Chilton County peaches from Cleckler’s produce stand, where the proprietress took time to assemble a basket of slightly firmer fruits when she heard how far a drive we had ahead of us back to New Orleans. I took some pictures of Sturdivant Hall, the haunted antebellum mansion featured in Kathryn Tucker Wyndham’s Thirteen Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey. We visited another family friend and marveled at how hot this summer had been. I tried and failed to find the grave of one of my best friends from high school, criss-crossing the rutted dirt paths of the old cemetery multiple times in the 105 degree heat. Finally, we were un-full enough from our lunch at Lannie’s to head to Hancock’s for an early supper.

 


 

Hancock’s Bar-B-Que, New Orrville Highway.

During my family’s first hot summer in Selma, in 1978, robed Klansmen picketed the city pool on the west side of town, just up from our house, “to protect our children” from having to swim in integrated waters. The city closed the pool and later paved it over with concrete. In the meantime, we were kids, exploring the creek bottom that ran through our neighborhood, riding bikes all over town, and on Friday or Saturday evenings eating barbecue with our families. My family ate at Hancock’s on the edge of town. Hancock’s was a wide-eyed child’s delight, walls covered with deer heads and mounted fish, a stuffed rattlesnake, and an old traffic light hanging in the corner.

In my memory, Hancock’s was the best of my childhood barbecue. In my memory, though, it also reflected its location on the white side of town. On both accounts, my memory was faulty. Just as the lunch crowd at Lannie’s was both white and black, Hancock’s customers and employees that evening were equally diverse. It was just a country barbecue joint, folks of all colors coming in and picking up take-out or sitting down to pork dinner on a Thursday evening, no apparent care for my own race hang-ups.

Hancock’s kept tricking and testing my memories. In the dining room all was harmonious, but on the bathroom wall were carved conflicting undercurrents. 

The barbecue itself also didn’t hold true to my memory. While the smell of smoke when we got out of our car was heavy in the air, the taste of smoke on the meat was almost nonexistent. The sauce was less balanced than what we’d eaten at Lannie’s, with more aggressive, unblended hits of vinegar and heat. The pork was chopped rather than pulled, in places a formless mash on the plate. But as we sat beneath a stuffed and mounted hawk, looked at the old license plates and the picture of Hank Williams (Junior) hanging next to the deer heads, and ate good-though-not-great barbecue, I felt a more peaceful sense of home than I had any right to expect. The food transported me, burbling up memories of things other than protests and angry glares—memories of growing up, hanging out on dirt roads under stars, listening to music, writing poetry for girls who didn’t care, laughter, heartbreak, Friday night football games.

 

The glare of a mounted hawk, and some light reading material on the wall above our booth at Hancock’s.

The pork plate at Hancock's.

 


 

By all accounts, that should have been the end of our long day of barbecue. But the family friend I had dropped in on that afternoon asked why we weren’t including Golden Ranch in our tour. Golden Ranch had been around when I was growing up, but for no particular reason I’d never eaten there. It also didn’t fit my theme. It wasn’t really on the black or white side of town, a division I was starting to doubt as I drove around and saw everyone of every color going about their afternoon and evening in all parts of town. Golden Ranch is on the commercial strip on the North side of town, on West Highland Avenue, where the traffic passes by Selma, trucks barreling down U.S. Highway 80, families on vacation to other places.

It seemed unfair not to at least stop by. I’m glad we did. While Golden Ranch is large and clean and somewhat generic-looking, occupying an old Shoney’s, hardly the profile of a barbecue “joint,” when we pulled into the packed lot I spied a large stack of firewood behind the restaurant and smelled the barbecue in the air.

The pork sandwich at Golden Ranch was barbecue perfection. 

I was stuffed. I couldn’t even look at the menu. I asked Nicole to order the smallest barbecue item she could find. She got a pulled pork sandwich. I poked one piece of pork out from the bun and dipped it in the sauce, hoping I wouldn’t explode.

It was the best bite of the day. The smoke was generous on the meat without overpowering the taste of pork. The meat had clearly been allowed to smoke long and slow over the wood. It was pulled in beautiful chunks. The sauce, not quite as complex as Lannie’s, was nevertheless a well-married blend of heat and acidity, with only the slightest sweetness. I wish I could have eaten more, that I had room. Instead, I nursed a beer and looked around.

The huge dining room was full. Like Lannie’s and Hancock’s, there was no hint of social segregation. Everyone looked weary from a long day and a hot week, but happy, stopping by neighboring tables to ask after each other. Maybe it took eating at a place untainted by my own memories, but it was then I knew what the whole day had been about—un-freighting my false memories by eating the food I had, ironically, forgotten. Maybe I had remembered the barbecue’s flavors and textures, more or less, but I had lost sight of its context, of my own history.

Selma is not a perfect place. In many ways, that bridge can divide as much as it can unite. But more and more it may just be a way to cross the river, or a place to hang out underneath when the sun is hot. Selma, I gave up on you, abandoned you, but you rightly don’t care about my memory or the collective picture anyone else has of you. This is me apologizing to you, Selma. I’ve been wrong about you, for a long time. You are moving on, talking to each other, eating together. Working at it. It’s time I did the same. 

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