The Great Barbecue Quest

My late brother and I had a pact. We would seek out the best barbecue in whatever city we visited, then we’d report to each other on the results.

“You are at a great disadvantage, living in Iowa,” he said, “whereas I, living in Atlanta, have a distinct advantage.” He was lying and he knew it, because the truth is that great barbecue is not found in either place.

I admit that, in recent years, some fair-to-middlin’ barbecue places have been introduced in this area, but what they serve is not what my brother and I would have called barbecue.

A client of mine visited from North Carolina a few weeks ago bringing what he described as a “care package” for me, a pound of cooked barbecue along with a small jar of sauce. He admitted that he was feeling sorry for me, having to live as I do so far away from real barbecue.

Ah, there’s the rub, pun intended, because barbecue aficionados put a good deal of energy into “discussing” the definition of “real barbecue.” My client friend’s definition clearly favors the heavily vinegar-laden variety. On the other hand, my definition of real barbecue requires a tomato-and-hot-pepper sauce.

And did I mention that there are only two kinds of meat in real barbecue, pork and goat?

This definition has seriously threatened my friendships with several folks in Texas who insist on beef. True barbecue, as any serious barbecue aficionado knows, cannot include beef, chicken, brats or any other meat. Oh, it’s true you can smoke-cook beef and then put barbecue sauce of one kind or another on it, but note this, friends: That Texas stuff AIN’T BARBECUE. It’s beef with barbecue sauce on it, just as those other meats are just barbecue-flavored. It would be ungracious of me to call it faux barbecue or imposter barbecue, but there are those aficionados who, with lip curled and eyes rolling, would call it just that.

My North Carolina friend was known to drive for hours to check out a barbecue place. He and a group of his friends had a rating system for barbecue.

The top rate was “Good as I ever ate.” Why not a word like “best,” you ask? Well, by saying a certain barbecue is “best” would be to foreclose the possibility that there was somewhere, perhaps still to be discovered, another barbecue as good as you ever ate.

So is there a secret to finding a good barbecue place? No, but there are certain guidelines. Begin with the phrase “new barbecue place.” If such a place exists, avoid it because I guarantee it won’t have a product that comes anyplace close to “as good as I ever ate.”

Why? Because good barbecue doesn’t come from new or particularly clean places, FDA rules notwithstanding.

In fact, one of my closest friends says to follow these rules when looking for a good place: There should be smoke coming out of a chimney. There should be a stack of hickory wood somewhere.

The air should be filled with the distinctive aroma of barbecue and hickory smoke. And—this is important—there should be an HFF (High Filth Factor).

A few years ago, several of us and our wives sought out a barbecue place called “Duke’s,” reputed to meet all the standards. The place looked and smelled right. We settled at a large round table covered with oil cloth. So far so good. In the center of the table was a large uncovered bowl of barbecue sauce. As we sat, one of us bumped a table leg and spilled the sauce, which spread quickly.

Duke, a large man who was sweating from working in the kitchen, came quickly and, holding the bowl in one hand slightly below the table top, swept his other arm behind the sauce and pushed it back into the bowl. Then he returned the bowl to the center of the table, ready again to serve. That same close friend smiled, nodded and gave the thumbs up. HFF indeed. The wives chose not to have barbecue sauce.

The perfect barbecue place will have all this, plus other good signs such as a framed dollar bill on the wall, it being the first dollar the proprietor ever made. The tabletops should be just a little sticky, and there should be a waitress (not a “waitperson”) who will likely call every customer “Hon” or “Dear.” If she calls your group “guys” or says, “Hi, I’m Caitlyn (or Brittany or Megan) and I’ll be taking care of you,” leave immediately.

The most authentic names of a person to serve real barbecue are Velma or Wanda or Bobbie Jean or Rose. Sometimes a man, who is usually the proprietor, will bring the food directly from the kitchen. His name should be Billy Don or Walt or Lamar or Bubba. He may call you “neighbor” but more likely will just smile slightly and grunt.

Only if those conditions are in place do you order the barbecue. Always start with a sandwich, and if you are from the Memphis area, also known as the Mecca of barbecue, make sure there is slaw on the sandwich with the barbecue.

In conclusion, please understand that I am not saying there is no mildly favorable barbecue around this area. There is, and if you are starved for barbecue, thus willing to compromise a bit, as I regularly am, by all means have some.

But don’t you dare try to call it “as good as I ever ate.”

Mississippi native James A. Autry ( of Des Moines is a well-known author, poet, musician and business consultant who has written 14 books on such topics as gratitude, servant leadership and his Southern boyhood. His new book, “Everyday Virtues: Classic Tales to Read With Kids,” is co-authored by his son Rick Autry.

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