Brenda’s Barbecue Pit is about the size of a walk-in closet, only smaller. The nano-building stands on Mobile Road near Washington Park in Montgomery. It’s a working class neighborhood. They do take-out only.
No credit cards.
There is a line of customers four miles long today. Some customers look like they came directly from work. There is a man in custodial blues. A woman in medical scrubs. A guy in a suit.
It’s a sunny afternoon. Birds chirping. A souped-up Cadillac passes by, windows tinted in roofing tar, with a booming stereo loud enough to crack dental fillings. And I am drunk on pecan smoke.
There is an old woman in the car parked beside mine, windows down, smoking a cigar. She smiles her few teeth at me.
I ask her if the food here is good.
“Good ain’t the word, baby.”
I ask how long Brenda’s has been here.
“Long time,” she replies, smoke wafting from her nostrils. “Longer than I am old.”
I’ve eaten barbecue in 44 different states; everywhere except North Dakota, Wyoming, Alaska, Hawaii, and New Hampshire. People tell me Brenda’s is the best of all time.
Bold words. Especially when considering some of the barbecue joints this vast country has to offer. I’ll start with a few unlikely winners.
Cattleack Barbecue in Dallas, located in an ordinary strip mall. The line was out the door. Once inside, a waitress offered me free beer while I waited. I repeat, free beer. The food was spiritual.
Ubon’s barbecue joint. Yazoo City, Mississippi. My booth featured duct tape on the upholstery. The ribs tasted exactly like cherubs singing Handel.
Kaiser’s Barbecue in Salt Lake City. The joint looks like either a former tattoo parlor or a repurposed strip joint. The prime rib was so good my wife slapped me. Twice.
Suzy Q’s, in Buffalo, New York. The staff thought I talked funny. Long ago, you would have termed this place a “dump.” But you can’t use that word anymore. You have to say “cosmetically repulsive.” The bathrooms needed an exorcist. Ever eaten a piggie pie? Neither had I. It was so good I started speaking in tongues and looking for snakes to fondle.
There’s Tin Top Barbecue in Calera, Alabama. Enough said.
New Jersey has no barbecue.
You can tell by looking at Brenda’s that this joint has been here a while. The building’s jagged edges have been worn smooth by time.
You’re looking at one of the oldest barbecue joints in the Twenty-Second State. They’ve been smoking butts since Pearl Harbor was still making headlines.
During the bus boycotts in the 50s, the owner, Miss Jereline, held secret meetings in this place’s back room. She taught adults how to read. How to better themselves.
Miss Jereline has been canonized in these parts. There are stories circulating about her.
The lady with the cigar says, “They say she nicknamed her own grandkids ‘Doctor,’ ‘Professor,’ and ‘Mister President,’ just to remind her children they could be whatever they wanted to be.”
In 81 years, this place has remained the same. They still serve Miss Jereline’s famous pig ear sandwich. People come from as far away as Hope Hull to get them.
I finally reach the window. The guy asks what I’ll have. I order a pig ear sandwich and a rib plate. My food arrives quickly. There is nowhere to sit, so everyone eats in their cars. Within three microseconds my clothes have come to ruination.
“This is Montgomery, baby,” says cigar lady from her open window. “Barbecue stains are part of the dress code.”
I hunch over my to-go container. I eat with both hands. The boiled pork ear is tender. The ribs are drowning in rich, crimson sauce.
This food stirs up a lot of memories. Because that’s what good barbecue does. It makes you remember.
I recall summers spent beside pit smokers, where old men in my family spent long afternoons smoking pork shoulders and puffing unfiltered Camels.
I remember tepid potato salad, dill chip pickles, paralyzingly sweet Lipton, and Sunbeam slices softer than the breath of my own mother. I remember new love. Old love. And all the loves between.
“Good, ain’t it?” says the woman with the cigar.
Good ain’t the word.
Sean Dietrich is a columnist and novelist known for his commentary on life in the American South. He has authored nine books and is the creator of the “Sean of the South” blog and podcast. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to Commentary@1819News.com.
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