Well, now that we’re just a few days away from moving to Tennessee, I’d like to look back at the barbecue in Georgia for a little bit. I don’t imagine this will be anything like a last word on the subject – we will still be visiting Saint Simons Island a couple of times a year and there are pah-lenty of places off I-16 and I-95 that I want to try – but, after many years of doing Marie, Let’s Eat!, where I have written about 391 barbecue restaurants around the south (many chapters still to post), I do not claim – at all – any level of expertise. However, I do believe that I have the experience under my belt, having written about 219 different barbecue restaurants in this state since February 2010 (plus around ten about which we didn’t care to create a story, plus another twenty or so before the blog), to make a few informed statements.
The first of them is this: yes, brisket can be barbecue, Chris.
The second of them is this, and it’s simple: there is no sense in thinking about “Georgia barbecue” as if it were one thing. People only do that to dismiss it. It makes it easy, while barbecue is actually, of course, a very fluid and very complex topic, and so if you want to dismiss something big in order to get to the subject you really wish to discuss, like all those hours you spent in line at Franklin, you dump what you don’t want to tackle into one easily managed and easily disposable bucket.
After all, we don’t generalize “Tennessee barbecue” when we want to talk about Memphis. We certainly don’t do that with North Carolina; you’d spark a fistfight among people in the east mad about that ketchup that people in the Piedmont add to their sauce. Texans sometimes talk about the greatness of their barbecue – and one or two of them are very prone to belittle restaurants they have never tried – but I don’t see even Texas’s loudest defenders ready to tell me how great the brisket in El Paso is. So why the devil do you do that with Georgia?
A lot of it is time. I get that. Whether you’re on an expense account or you’re just fulfilling a bucket list desire, or you’re Robb Walsh, I figure that writers don’t want to do the legwork across Georgia, because this state is enormous, it’s completely full of barbecue joints, and the techniques and styles vary radically all over the state, and they’re constantly evolving. The flavors that you will find at many of the restaurants in Atlanta that have opened since the early 2000s are not like the flavors of the restaurants that they replaced. What I call “classic Atlanta barbecue” is dying; that dry and smoky, finely-chopped pork is only available at a handful of places around the city. At the same time, the quality of brisket has improved a hundredfold. Nobody who ordered brisket in an Atlanta barbecue joint in 1996 would be in a hurry to do so again. Today, it’s often the best thing on the menu, and completely delicious.
So, let’s talk regions. Northwest Georgia isn’t much like Atlanta today, though there are plenty of places, such as Dub’s in Calhoun, that retain the flavors that Atlanta used to offer. Northeast Georgia, centered around Athens, evokes Lowcountry South Carolina and eastern North Carolina to me. Eastern Georgia, around Augusta, has some strong echoes of the South Carolina midlands. The other side of the state, near Columbus, is nothing like anyplace else. Between them, around Macon, you have an entirely different set of traditions. In Atlanta’s western suburbs, you have the Hudson’s/Wallace footprint, with a specific dark vinegar/Worcestershire sauce that nobody else on the planet seems to make. And there are others.
In other words, it gets a little discouraging when somebody spends ages in Kansas City, does the requisite time in Lockhart and Austin, hits up seven places in Memphis, then at least has the decency to land at Dreamland, Big Bob Gibson and probably Saw’s before sighing and realizing that they’ve got this big, stupid state in the way of the Carolinas, which is where they really want to eat. So they maybe hit Fox Brothers and keep moving one direction or the other, it doesn’t matter, and Georgia gets a very short shrift, because Payne’s is that way and Skylight Inn is the other way.
(Incidentally, I’m a champion, but I’m not insane. Payne’s and Skylight Inn are each astonishing, and I like them better than any barbecue restaurant in Georgia. But the flip side of that is there are many, many restaurants in Tennessee and North Carolina that are not a patch on Southern Soul.)
Another problem is that Georgia’s department of tourism was too busy trying to brag about peaches to notice what North and South Carolina did years and years ago, and that’s sell the hell out of their states’ barbecue. And you certainly don’t see South Carolina resting on its laurels and letting anybody think that “South Carolina barbecue” is one thing. If you know anything at all about this hobby, you know that map, the one that shows the four sauce belts in that state – light tomato, heavy tomato/ketchup, mustard, vinegar and pepper – and you absorb it and you believe it and that sounds like something exciting to spend a few days trying. What does Georgia do again? Does Georgia have a specialty?
Let me sidetrack for a few paragraphs before getting back to Macon. After a couple of years of writing our blog, we developed a little credo that goes like this: “Keep an open mind and a kind heart.” What this means is that we try very, very hard to visit a place without preconceived notions and accept that what the restaurant does is what works for the owners and the community. What we might want is utterly irrelevant. That’s why I am completely unimpressed by barbecue competition judges. The number of big Memphis in May trophies held by the likes of Myron Mixon, Melissa Cookston, and Chris Lilly is certainly very interesting, and that’s great for all of them that they rack up these wins, which is made possible by cooking barbecue that caters to the specific whims of people who don’t actually live in the competitors’ home communities and eat in their restaurants.
And so what’s developed over time is this peculiar, awful homogenization of barbecue culture, with road warriors looking for a smoke ring of particular color, and the properly-textured bark, and the “right” sauce, which seems more and more like people claiming that they know what Italian food is supposed to taste like because they managed an Olive Garden in Poughkeepsie for fifteen years. Doesn’t it make more sense to just sample the food served in a community and try to enjoy it on its own merits? I’ve been to many places in Georgia where I was not wild at all about the food (Pippins in Conyers and Scott’s in Cochran rocket to mind), but these are places that have been there for decades and, when we visited, we were lost among dozens of very, very happy guests enjoying the heck out of their meals.
The Brunswick stew at Scott’s includes peas and spaghetti noodles. Maybe six or seven other places have peas in the stew. Nobody else has noodles. What kind of bonehead “judge” is going to tell Scott’s they’re wrong for doing that, when they serve hundreds of gallons of the stuff a year to people who love it? You see, I’ve heard a lot of sentences start with “I’m from Memphis, and I know barbecue, and…” or “I’m a KCBS-certified judge, and…” and not one of those sentences has been worth remembering. What matters is what happens in the kitchens and the dining rooms of the restaurants for the regular customers who love the food.
My own allegedly open mind and kind heart stumble awfully in the middle of Georgia, around Macon, in Bibb and Houston Counties. This is one of Georgia’s four mustard sauce regions. Yes, South Carolina, your mustard sauce belt is just lovely, all one of it. I’ve stepped a little lightly on this subject in earlier chapters, because I’d really rather not stick a knife into a place I didn’t really enjoy, but the Macon region is the part of the state whose barbecue I generally don’t like much at all. Historically, it appears to be the third of the four to develop, with Douglas Fincher Sr’s mustard sauce – by some measure the best in town – showing up at his restaurant around 1936.
If I were to judge “Georgia barbecue” on the flavors of any one of the many places around these parts in Fincher’s shadow, many of which date to the forties, I’d probably have a bad opinion about it as well. But both this style of the mustard and the way the meat is prepared is utterly unlike the Johnny Harris/Vandy’s “seminole” mustard about 130 miles east, which is more than a decade older, and also utterly unlike the cayenne-laced Chicken Comer lava-hot-death-mustard which first showed up in Phenix City AL in the late twenties and made its way to the area west of Atlanta by the 1950s, where it’s still served at more than a dozen places. And none of these three are like the mustard sauce that was developed by the Gunters of Columbus later on, and which spreads into eastern Alabama and south down US-431.
And if you don’t understand this very basic fact about our mustards, you really have no business talking trash about the barbecue in Georgia. None. I’m not saying that to be confrontational; I’m saying that because I want you to come here and to dig in.
But I want you to understand that this isn’t like getting a hotel room in Owensboro and trying all the mutton you can find in three days, because you can actually do that. You can eat at all the restaurants that serve mutton in that town very, very quickly indeed, stop at a couple around Henderson, do Peak Brothers – definitely, definitely do Peak Brothers – and finish up in Paducah, and you’re done, as far as I can tell. Georgia is not like that.
What you might want to do is start in Athens, because some of the best barbecue in the country can be found here. Not too many people pish-poshed this notion, but a couple did, so let me be very clear: I think that Memphis is one of this country’s best barbecue cities. It’s home to Payne’s, Leonard’s, and the Bar-B-Q Shop, and they’re all amazing, and there are at least a dozen other darn good places there. I agree that Lexington NC is certainly one as well. I have only been here three very short times, but I’ve had four downright excellent meals and would love to return for a very long trip. I’m perfectly prepared to accept that Lockhart TX is one. It is unlikely that I will visit anytime soon, but I can believe the hype I hear. Its advocates are reliable correspondents. Kansas City, quite probably. Calvin Trillin believes in Arthur Bryant’s, and if you haven’t figured out how much debt I owe Trillin, you’re not paying attention.
So I’m not dismissing any other city when I say that the Athens area deserves to be given the same accolades. There’s room for it as well. I’ll say that the triangle formed by Zeb’s in Danielsville, Paul’s in Lexington, and Hot Thomas in Watkinsville is the region that I mean, and those three remarkably good restaurants are all in my top twenty somewhere. (They’re actually not in my top ten, about which more in a moment.) The photos accompanying this story come from our last weekend in Georgia before the move. We revisited Paul’s and Hot Thomas, along with Bill’s, which is just across the Clarke County line, outside of Hull, and Scott’s & BJ’s, the only one of these four with an actual Athens address.
Very, very broadly, vinegar/pepper sauces are the order of the day here, although some have a little tomato in them as well. The Athens area is sort of a dividing line between stew, which you find in most of Georgia, and hash, which you find in the Augusta area and in western South Carolina. Hash is almost never served over rice in Athens, however. I cannot name any place currently in business that does it that way. A handful offer chicken mull, a downright terrific side that’s made with shredded chicken and milk. Once upon a time, stew in Georgia was made from squirrels, and mull was made from turtles. The only thing in Robb Walsh’s petty little five page Georgia chapter about which I’d agree is that it would be interesting to see squirrel stew on somebody’s menu.
The oldest of these restaurants is almost certainly Zeb’s, which opened in the late 1940s, but Paul’s and Hot Thomas, while a little younger in actual storefront terms, are also using very old family recipes. Jackson GA’s legendary 1920s-era Fresh Air opened a pair of Athens outposts in the early 1990s; the taste is identical to the big shack in the middle of the state. The main dish at all of these places is chopped pork. Some will offer ribs on various days of the week, and some have some brisket that some people will credit. You often see chicken, but the go-to is chopped pork, and you can get some unbelievably terrific chopped pork in Athens.
If you’re here for just two days – one must be a Saturday, as that’s the only day Paul’s is open – I’d recommend the three on the triangle along with Bill’s, Bar-B-Q Shack, and Butt Hutt. If you absolutely insist on being aggressive and competitive, then I’ll take those six on a team against any six barbecue restaurants from any city in America, and the Classic City’s bench is still incredibly deep: Fresh Air and Scott’s & BJ’s I’ve mentioned, there’s also Pig O’s and Pulaski Heights, among others. I’ll even cheat by naming Dawg Gone Good, as they keep deeply aggravating hours and I’ve never found them open – evenings seem best – but it’s constantly named by enough of our readers for me to risk tossing them a jersey, too.
Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the Athens Triangle as I’ve described it, go north and you’ll start to see things change a little. The somewhat drier pork you see at Zeb’s has influenced other places in the region nearer to I-85 and across it, into Toccoa. As you get into the mountains, you’ll see things shift and change. Tomato becomes more and more common, the sauces typically thicker. Start heading west along US-76 through Blairsville and Blue Ridge and the sauce region has shifted entirely. By Ellijay, where you’re a hundred times more likely to find fried pies on the menu than chicken mull, you might as well be in another state. Take GA-515 south and it will become I-575, and soon you’ll be in Atlanta’s northwestern suburbs. Things start getting radically different here. The brisket is often better than the pork (and it’s still barbecue, Chris), which is more often pulled and not chopped. From Atlanta, you can go west and try the dozen or so places that drown their meat in Hudson’s/Wallace sauce, or go southwest and pick up tomato-based sauces again before finding the mustard of Columbus, or go straight south to Macon and try all that cooked-in-mustard-vinegar mess that I don’t like, and then go east to Savannah, all along visiting individual restaurants that seem to have dropped into their homes from someplace hundreds of miles away because they don’t fit the local style at all (for example, Old Clinton is much more like Athens than Macon, and Andy’s [about which more in a few weeks] is much more like Allen & Son in Chapel Hill NC than you’d believe), and then really, heaven knows what you’ll find below I-16 because as long as I’ve done this, I haven’t scratched the surface. Albany? Tifton? Valdosta? Waycross? I certainly don’t claim to be an expert, not when there are hundreds and hundreds of miles of Georgia I’ve never seen.
But I hope that you will. I really, really do.
If things go according to plan, I’ll evolve into more of a Tennessee barbecue blogger over the next few years, and I see that the region between Chattanooga, Nashville, and Knoxville simply has not been covered very well, and I’m anxious to dig into that, and I also honestly can’t wait to get back up to Henderson and Owensboro and find more of that great mutton. Or maybe I’ll just camp out at Peak Brothers for four days. I just don’t know.
Obviously I haven’t done a very good job spreading the word about Georgia’s barbecue despite all the stories that we’ve posted here, because this stupid stereotype about the state persists, and when I make bold claims about Georgia, many people applaud, but a few respond like I’m a space alien. I would absolutely love to see more of the hobbyists and professional writers from other states come spend more time in Georgia and start dismissing the simple go-to cliches. I’d love for 3rd Degree Berns and The Gentleman to end their long hiatuses and resume spreading the word. I’d love for you all to read my friend Andy’s most excellent Burgers, Barbecue and Everything Else, which also gives honest appraisals to many Georgia joints, and I would REALLY love to see some new blood start digging deeper into all those places that we went only once, and all the places we have never been.
I don’t like all of Georgia’s barbecue. Some of it I dislike pretty intensely. But I like quite a lot of it, and I like some of it more than just about anything, and man, I sure have loved exploring it. I hope you will too.
For the curious, my top ten list is a big ol’ cheat, it’s actually a top two list from five different states, and, these days, it looks like this:
Brick Pit, Mobile AL
Brooks, Muscle Shoals AL
Old Clinton, Gray GA
Southern Soul, Saint Simons Island GA
Bar-B-Q Center, Lexington NC
Skylight Inn, Ayden NC
Little Pigs, Columbia SC
Scott’s, Hemingway SC
Leonard’s, Memphis TN
Payne’s, Memphis TN
So now you know.