Over the last two days, we drove 720 miles to have ten very quick visits at some very good restaurants, every last one of them better and more satisfying to me than anything we found within a lunch drive locally. I wanted to get out and recharge my batteries again, so we left Chattanooga a little after eight on Friday morning and started the day with lunch at Sprayberry’s BBQ in Newnan, which opened 95 years ago, in 1926.
Sprayberry’s is on the southern edge of the Atlanta metro and is one of the last classic Atlanta-style barbecue places still going. Chopped pork, stew, and slaw are the go-to orders, plus this place does amazing onion rings, among the best in Atlanta.
I’ll tell you what I miss most in Tennessee as far as food: stew. You have to come a long way for stew anywhere as thick or delicious as this. More about stew in a moment.
Atlanta’s barbecue world is changing radically every year, as old places close and transplants – who, in all fairness, often smoke a superior meal – open. I’m delighted that Bryan Furman will reopen next year, and can’t wait for Rodney Scott. I love Sam, Dave, the Fox Brothers, Heirloom Market, and so on, but we’ve lost so many Atlanta-area classics in the last 10 years: Harold’s, Dean’s, Melear’s, more. So celebrate Sprayberry’s, Speedi-Pig, the “Olds” (Brick Pit, Hickory House, South) as keeping a fading flame going.
One sad discovery of this trip: Hodges BBQ on Candler Rd is gone, shuttered after almost 60 years without a peep in media. Atlanta’s old Black-owned barbecue restaurants almost never got press during the blog age and I’m very, very guilty of not doing the legwork when I lived here. When I went to Hodges, I had no idea it had such history because nobody with blogs left their comfort zone before me, and it closed (again, after SIXTY years, people!) without a peep. I hope that Atlanta’s food writers do better; the owners of Mustard Seed, Wyatt’s, and many other Black-owned businesses have stories to share!
So what really got us out of the house for this indulgence? Well, the impetus for our trip was a Georgia barbecue story at @EaterAtlanta back in November. I thought it was a pretty good story and had some good interviews, but I felt that it didn’t scratch the surface of Georgia’s barbecue traditions. In fairness, I don’t know that I’d necessarily be in the mood to risk driving around during the pandemic in the days leading up to its publication, and the writer spent a lot more time on the phone nailing down quotes than an untrained, opinionated loudmouth hobbyist like I would have.
But I feel it did have some omissions. I still can’t believe anybody in Atlanta would write about barbecue and not go visit Wallace or Hudson’s. There’s a whole school of prep and sauce at these restaurants, and the many in their shadow, that writers keep ignoring. One day a writer with an audience that dwarfs mine at its 2015 peak will finally introduce the planet to what’s been going on in Douglasville and Austell since the sixties and I will breathe such a sigh of relief.
And another omission: it didn’t mention mustard! I honestly don’t believe you can address Georgia barbecue fairly without mentioning mustard, since massive great regions of the state embrace mustard as their sauce of choice decades ago, and did so without press or notoriety or half the PR power of South Carolina’s mustard sauces. So we drove down to Smokey Pig in Columbus, which is where one of Georgia’s four distinctive mustard sauce styles was born.
This is a brown-orange mustard, seen all over Muscogee County and into southeast Alabama, through Auburn, Eufaula, and maybe as far as Dothan.
And this is the restaurant’s take on Chicken Comer mustard sauce, also known here and there as cayenne mustard or (by me) as crazy hot lava death mustard. Its range stretches north through Carrollton, Atlanta’s western suburbs, and up to Kennesaw. This is *amazingly* hot. Typically, Chicken Comer mustard is a little yellower than this.
In Columbus, there are often two ways to order pork. Chopped, or bite-sized, looks like this:
And chipped pork looks like this. It’s very finely shredded and the brown-orange sauce is poured over the top. Add mustard slaw and pickles for a fine meal.
We skedaddled out of town and found US-80 to go check out a different mustard tradition. Across middle Georgia, with Macon at the heart, the dominant style is to cook the chopped pork in the mustard sauce. We stopped at Fincher’s, which has been making barbecue this way since 1936. I’m less familiar with some of Macon’s older barbecue joints, like Satterfield’s and Tucker’s, which dates to the 1940s, than I am Fincher’s, but sadly they also close too early for our visit. In fact, I’ve somehow never made it to Satterfield’s at all, though Marie has, and wish we could have driven twice as fast so we could have made it to the restaurant by two.
Sauce in this region is often a mustard-vinegar with tomato paste, thinner than what you’ll find around Columbus. That said, there are tomato-vinegar sauces in the region as well, most notably at Fresh Air and Old Clinton, but the typical middle Georgia style, which you can see in a swath from Lagrange all the way to Cochran, is to cook the pork in the mustard sauce. I brought home a bottle of Fincher’s; a very popular brand you might like to order yourself to see what I’m talking about is Miss Griffin’s Original, which claims a 1935 origin.
Let’s pause a moment and address Brunswick stew. Stew at most places in middle GA is similarly thick, rich, and delicious. If you look at these photos, you’ll see a common look to stew. I would argue that in northwest Georgia and down by the coast, as well as many of the newer Atlanta-area places, you’ll find that Brunswick stew is typically much thinner, and with the individual ingredients more obvious. It’s possible that these thin stews are more like Kentucky burgoo, but I know almost nothing about that, unfortunately. A traditional Georgia stew should be very thick, meaty, and have a strong taste of tomatoes and corn. Sometimes one out-balances the other. As we sped toward Augusta, I realized that a short detour would get us to the east Georgia town of Louisville, so I could finally try Purvis Barbecue, which opened in 1964 and serves a traditional plate of pork, stew, and slaw. Their stew is very heavy on the corn.
By now, we’d gone north and east enough to leave behind the middle Georgia mustard belt. The sauce in this part of Georgia is typically a tomato-vinegar-pepper mix, which gets hotter the more you shake it. Purvis is a no-frills, small menu experience in an old steel-walled building with concrete floors, mainly doing takeout chopped pork and chicken by the pound. Took us about ten years to get here, but I’m glad I finally stopped by.
The last stop on Friday was in Thomson, on the west side of the Augusta metro. Neal’s does the east Georgia pork and slaw as you’d expect, but around here they serve hash over rice instead of stew. So what’s the difference between the stew we’ve seen before today and hash? Not a great deal; they’re all cooked way down, and around Augusta (and across South Carolina), hash is typically served over rice, made with pork, tomatoes, corn, sometimes other meats. When you get into South Carolina, you can probably find places with really fascinating and very different styles of hash, some of which have beef as the main ingredient, but we never ran into anything that radical in Georgia.
The sauce is what I expected here, thin tomato-vinegar-pepper. I think in some Augusta joints, you may find thicker tomato-based sauces, and a few places will serve a Midlands-style mustard, different traditions seem to overlap there. Augusta is absolutely fascinating for all that overlap; we never had the time or the resources to do it justice, but I would strongly recommend anybody writing about Georgia barbecue should definitely spend time here.
Not visited on our trip: Georgia’s coast. I mentioned that Georgia has four mustard sauce regions; one point that many people want to argue is that what I see as the Statesboro-Savannah-Brunswick “belt” might be better considered as an extension of midlands South Carolina-style “gold” mustard. Eh, maybe, maybe not. Regions don’t care much for state lines, which is why you’ll find the Smokey Pig’s brown mustard “topping” sauce over a much broader range in Alabama than in Georgia. Then again, many of the very old mustard sauces from this region are every bit as brown as Smokey Pig’s because they start with mustard but have tomatoes or tomato paste as well. Johnny Harris sauce claims a 1924 date; Vandy’s in Statesboro started in 1929, and those are pretty brown. Southern Soul, the behemoth on Saint Simons Island, has a sauce that looks like them as well; all have tomatoes as a second or third ingredient. But then there’s a place – I think it was in Glenville – a friend visited and sent me a snap of the label. No tomatoes, but grape jelly. We live in an age of wonders.
We stopped for the night in Greensboro, in one of Hilton’s new Tru hotels. This is right outside what I used to call the Athens barbecue triangle, with Lexington and Watkinsville at its southern points. Sadly, the amazing barbecue restaurants in those towns closed in the last five years. Since Paul’s and Hot Thomas have shuttered, Athens simply, and sadly, just isn’t the under-the-radar barbecue mecca that it used to be, which I’m sure warms the hearts of some goons who got uppity and dismissive with me for championing Athens as one of the country’s great barbecue cities some years back, but there are still some absolutely great meals to be found in the area, as we saw after a good night’s sleep.
Holcomb’s Bar-B-Q has two locations, in White Plains and Greensboro. They’re not doing dine-in right now, so my very early lunch was a balancing act in my lap. They didn’t give me sauce and it was pouring rain, and I was too lazy and wet to go back to the window, but that’s fine, the meat was incredibly moist and flavorful without it. The sauce is a thin tomato/pepper/vinegar, like you often see around Athens.
When I lived here, I used to go to Paul’s every other Saturday and venture to nearby towns like this in between. The styles around Athens were all broadly similar, and delicious, so when I learned about other techniques, sauces, meats, in other places, I was like a kid in a candy store. Still am. This is why I’ll never understand people who think barbecue should be made “their” way. I may have my preferences, but there’s nothing like the thrill of experiencing something brand new to you in a restaurant in a town you’ve never been.
My family waited patiently for me, and then we drove into Athens for them to eat. The Butt Hutt is the newest restaurant we visited, about twelve years young, and it’s grown into a standard sit-down place with lots of servers, multiple sauces for different tastes, and a liquor license. The pork here is good, a little dry but smoky, but the star is chicken mull, which a few restaurants – not many! – in this region offer as a side. Hot Thomas had been one, unfortunately.
More than a restaurant side, mull shows up at churches and fundraisers in northeast Georgia. The Danielsville volunteer fire department used to have a big mull shindig every February, drew huge mobs. It looks like they skipped it this year for safety concerns. I hope it comes back in 2022.
Then something rotten happened. Happiness at heading back to one of my all-time favorite barbecue joints was tinged by sadness because we drove past the wonderful Bill’s in Hull, turned to wave hello, and saw that they have closed. Goddammit, as I say on Twitter when these things happen, we lost Bill’s Bar-B-Q. That’s three of Athens’ heavyweights, gone in the last five years. There are still some mighty fine barbecue places in the region, but I certainly can’t claim that it’s as essential a barbecue town as it once was.
Anyway, we made it to Zeb’s, which opened in 1947 and serves great chopped pork and a fascinating stew made with creamed corn, they say. I’ve eaten here many, many times. Zeb’s sauce is vinegar-pepper, and the more you shake it, the spicier the pork. It’s very similar to the sauces in restaurants I’ve visited in eastern North Carolina that way. I used to say that the Athens triangle trifecta of Zeb’s, Paul’s, and Hot Thomas was jointly tied for third place as my favorite Georgia barbecue restaurant. Reckon it’s Zeb’s all on its own now.
Our last stop in this neck of the woods: the Bar-B-Q Shack in Toccoa, for another plate of pork, stew, and slaw. This is another vinegar-pepper sauce. The Shack dates back to the 1980s. There is a second location in Athens proper, by the way, but they have been independent of each other, owing to a divorce settlement, for more than thirty years.
Here’s a closer look at the chopped pork, without and with the vinegar-pepper sauce.
Incidentally, you’ll notice we had not yet run into “pulled pork” anywhere. You’ll see it at a few older places, including the next one we visited, but traditionally pork in Georgia is chopped after it is pulled. This strange affectation is one that has long bedeviled my learned friend Robert Moss, who wrote about this weirdness in Southern Living last year. A gaggle of cookbook writers started claiming – slash – blaming North Carolina as having “traditional pulled pork” about thirty years ago, and the stupidity stuck. Now that’s what most of the newer barbecue restaurants in Atlanta, and certainly every place around Chattanooga, offer. But nothing lasts forever. Just as restaurants close their doors – we also learned that Davis, and Walker’s, and the place that replaced Walker’s, all shut their doors recently – menus will change as things take hold. After thirty years, Joe Public thinks that pork is meant to be pulled because of some “tradition” that didn’t exist until cookbooks claimed it did.
The final stop of this trip: Pink Pig in the town of Cherry Log, between Blue Ridge and Ellijay. It opened in 1967 and it’s a bigger place, like Butt Hutt earlier, and has a much bigger menu. But while Butt Hutt goes with lots of different smoked meats, burgers, and gigantic salads as you’d expect in a college town, Pink Pig pleases its clientele with things like hamburger steak and chicken livers. Rather than shoulders only like most barbecue places, Pink Pig’s pork is primarily ham with some shoulder added to keep it from drying out. The sauce is tomato-based with a little vinegar, not as equal a mix as we saw in east Georgia.
And, as I mentioned earlier, the Brunswick stew in this part of the state is generally much thinner than in middle or northeast Georgia, and it’s more like a tomato broth with corn added rather than both vegetables cooked down equally.
So what have we learned? Well, for my money, if you’re asking to define Georgia barbecue, I’d say you’re talking about pork, stew, and slaw. The smallest, most basic, no-frills joint in the smallest town will serve you that, even if they’ve nothing else on the menu. But beyond that, anything can happen. If you’re in a restaurant that’s fifty or more years old, it’s possibly going to have a single sauce, and that’s the sauce of its region. The newer the restaurant, the more sides they might offer. The more sauces they’ll mix up. The more meats they’ll smoke instead of just pork. Eventually you get a situation like Atlanta, where you can get just about anything you want from any number of restaurants, and whatever was once Atlanta barbecue is lost in new, transplanted styles.
But if we’ve learned anything since we first started trying to blog, it’s that nothing lasts forever. If you want to learn what Georgia barbecue is, I’d love for you to drive across this beautiful and wonderful state and find out for yourself while you still can. These places are old and fragile and it has been a very, very tough thirteen months. Come find out what Georgia barbecue is, before you have to rely on loudmouth hobbyists like me to tell you what it was.