With this month’s print issue, Southern Living celebrates its Golden Anniversary, and I contributed a piece on barbecue joints that have been around 50 years or more—that is, places that were in business the day the first issue of Southern Living hit the newsstands. We had to trim the introduction a little for the print issue, so here’s the full version.
Much has changed in the world of barbecue since Southern Living’s first issue appeared. In 1966, barbecue was riding high as the leading restaurant food not just in the South but all across the country. On city street corners, barbecue stands offered a convenient lunch for hungry office workers, and out in the countryside the highways were dotted with roadside joints where motorists could stop in for a bite. The car hops at drive-ins even slung pit-cooked barbecue sandwiches alongside the burgers and hotdogs.
But 1966 also marked the first television appearance of a red-haired clown named Ronald McDonald. In the decades that followed, barbecue entered a long, slow decline as many Southerners turned their backs on pulled pork and ribs in favor of fast-food. The completion of the Federal Interstate Highway System siphoned off much of the auto traffic that had once sustained roadside barbecue businesses. Wood and labor got more expensive, and many cooks made the practical decision to replace their wood-fired open pits with gas-fired, thermostat-controlled cookers.
Not surprisingly, many of the sons and daughters of barbecue restaurateurs decided to pursue less arduous but more lucrative lines of work . Some of the old joints were sold to operators outside the family, but many more closed their doors for good.
Fortunately, a small number of the South’s original barbecue restaurants managed to weather the down years, and it was often because a new generation stepped up to continue the operation.
“When I was really young I wanted to be a lawyer,” says John Foreman, the sixth-generation owner of Old Hickory Barbecue in Owensboro, Kentucky. “But as I grew up—you watch your dad work and you want to be like your dad. I like the flow. I like working with people. I guess you say it’s kind of in your blood.”
“My grandfather actually didn’t want us doing this,” says George Barber, who along with his brother David is the 3rd generation of his family to operate the legendary Fresh Air Barbecue in Jackson, Georgia. “He thought it was too hard of work. But I have a friend who’s the local dentist, and he didn’t encourage his two girls to be dentists. He thought they could find something that’s easier to do.”
The power of a family business has a way of drawing children back, too. “It’s never been far away because we would always eat there at least once a week,” says Julie Donaldson Lowenthal, whose grandfather, Red Donaldson, purchased Savannah’s Johnny Harris Barbecue in the 1940s. Lowenthal initially pursued a career in nursing, but over time became more involved in the restaurant’s operations.
“What brought me back into the restaurant was noticing the need for some updating,” she says. “So I started with some renovations to the building and grounds . . . I guess you get a very sentimental attachment to something like that.”
Operating a half-century-old restaurant brings plenty of challenges, forcing owners to balance tradition with evolving consumer demands. “It is a very historic place,” says Lowenthal of Johnny Harris Barbecue. “There have been so many of the older customers who feel like it’s almost a home away from home, and if you change a single thing they don’t like it. You’re in between them and the younger people who like the fresh looks and updates.”
Most operators have broadened their menu over the decades to appeal to changing tastes. For some, that’s been as simple as adding coleslaw or replacing glass-bottled Cokes with a fountain drink machine. For others it’s meant creating a full menu of fried catfish, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and—more than anything—salads. But the core barbecue offering—chicken, beef, and pork cooked low and slow over hardwood coals—is still the main draw.
Over the past fifteen years, Southern barbecue has enjoyed a remarkable revival, but it’s a much different scene today than it was a half-century ago. 21st century media has burnished and buffed it with endless cable TV specials, and a booming competition circuit has drawn in a new generation of barbecue fans. Eager diners now queue up for hours to sample prime-grade brisket, and classically-trained chefs are trading their saucepans for custom-made pits. In the process, the old regional distinctions in sauce styles and cooking technique have become increasingly blurred. You can now dine on Texas-style brisket in Charleston, South Carolina, and squirt north Alabama-style white sauce on chicken in Dallas.
Amid all this novelty, the classic joints that managed to navigate through the dark years provide a delicious link to older culinary traditions. Some of the South’s venerable restaurants have become outright media stars, profiled in countless magazine articles, television segments, and online Top 10 lists. Many others have just plugged along steadily in the background.
For this survey we’re getting a little off the beaten path to highlight those that haven’t received quite as much of the spotlight. Some have changed greatly over the past half a century as their owners have adapted to the changing market; others are virtually untouched by time, operating under the principle that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
They all have at least two things in common, though. Each was in operation the year Southern Living was founded, and you can go to any one of them today and get a delicious taste of traditional Southern barbecue the way it used to be made.