My name is Jed Ellis. I am a simple man who appreciates simple things. But still waters run deep. Beneath the surface, even water that looks calm hides snags and rock formations that can drag you down. So it is when you attempt to address issues of long-standing cultural import. Religion. Sex. Warfare. Smoked meat. Particularly smoked meat. And in that regard, I am a bit more complex.
I’ve traveled this globe for many years and had a chance to see a lot of the food the world has to offer. I ate peppers that made my eyes turn red in Cambodia. In Afghanistan, I shared greasy goat. In Ghazni, I ate Kabuli street kabobs with hot peppers and Velveeta that my grandmama sent me. In Lashkar Gah I ate fried chicken so tough I quit chewing and swallowed it all with a gulp of RipIt. I had a damn fine bacon wrapped cheese dog in Norway, lived on meat pies and Black Jack bourbon on a fifty-five-hour bus ride in the Australian Outback and enjoyed everything from taco rice cheese to a finely marbled Kobe steak in Japan. In Catalonia I ate their famous jamon carved fresh from the leg. I’ve eaten a lot of things in a lot of places and I loved it all (except that Helmandi yard bird).
But I hail from the South, where the marriage of fire, smoke and flesh is sacred, and the people who work in that medium are rightfully seen as acolytes in a divine order.
Barbecue is art and like all great art, debates rage around BBQ’s many complexities.
What kind of heathens use “barbecue” as a verb? What kind of meat really constitutes BBQ? Which sauces are appropriate and which are abominations before the Lords of the Pit?
Ask a Georgian, you’re apt to get chopped pork with a vinegar, pepper, and ketchup sauce. South Carolinians will default to chopped pork in mustard-based sauce. North Carolina is split mid-state, pulled pork riven with anger at the tomato versus vinegar fault line. Texans think beef brisket is a pitmaster’s crowning achievement. Tennesseans dry rub their ribs and consider themselves oracles of the word. Alabamians have a mayonnaise-based white sauce that I wouldn’t put on anything, but there’s folks in Decatur that would fight me for saying as much.
Then there are the wildcards, like the fact that I recently had the best ribs of my life in a one-street town in Wyoming. That alone justifies the notion that you should never turn your nose up at a chance to see what people can do with fire and meat and spice and smoke.
Thus I don’t pass up BBQ in its many splendid forms. I may scorn it afterward, but I treat every meeting with a BBQ joint like I’m a sailor and it’s my last night on shore leave.
I intend to Die Living and for that reason, Doug asked me to record my thoughts from time to time, specifically on America’s myriad BBQ outposts. So join me on the journey to come, but understand there are rules to this trip on which we’re embarking:
- It’s BBQ, not “barbecue.” BBQ is a noun referring to the product, not the process and is absolutely not a verb. One eats BBQ. One does not go out back and “barbecue.”
- All BBQ is rated on a scale of “1” to “Holcomb’s BBQ” in Greensboro, GA with Holcomb’s representing a 10 (the White Plains, GA operation is an 11 due to the sawdust floors). Zeb’s in Danielsville, GA is a 9. If Ole Will’s in Winder, GA ever reopens we will re-evaluate the scale.
- Chain BBQ, no matter the quality can never be more than an 8.
It was with these rules in mind that I found myself at Martin’s BBQ Joint in Louisville, Kentucky. Martin’s is a Nashville, Tennessee-based whole hog BBQ chain. Whole hog is just what it says. Pitmasters cook the whole hog, then take a cleaver to it, mixing fat and meat and crackling skin into a delicious mélange that leaves me nodding like a junkie when I get enough in me.
Whole hog is labor intensive and, like a 400-pound deadlift, it ain’t happening overnight. Well, actually it is. In fact, it takes all damn night. Moving hot coals, stoking here, calming there, until rendered fat and flesh come together in a steady bath of woodsmoke to yield sweet perfection. It’s small batch BBQ and if the hipsters ever find out, Martin’s will be awash in dudes with cop mustaches and fixie bikes in no time.
I like Martin’s because every single one of my favorite BBQ joints is named after the people that run it. Show me a cute name on a BBQ joint and I’ll show you a place you can happily bypass.
I don’t know who Martin is, but he, or they, know what they’re doing.
When I walked in, they were playing “George Jones” by Drive-By Truckers. Soon after came The Highwaymen’s “Highwayman” twice, both as studio and live versions. Actual George Jones came on and anomalously but welcome, Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train”. There was NO “bro country,” not one stupid song about col’ beer, tailgates or “lookin’ at her in them cut off jeans.” This omission alone gives big, big points to Martin’s.
While not a brisket guy, I had already ordered a separate pork item, thus felt obligated to eat some brisket on y’all’s behalf in the interest of science.
The brisket plate came with white bread and two sides. I settled on mac and cheese (not bad, not special) and hush puppies (good onions, well-browned, crispy, light batter. Normally, I find hush puppies away from the coast generally uninspired but these delivered). The meat had a great blackened crust with a bright red ring and consisted of both dry and sloppy pieces which pretty much fell apart the instant a fork glanced over them. A very solid effort. Not as good as that retired Marine First Sarn’t in Jacksonville, NC that has the pull-behind smoker and sells a brisket sandwich you’d rent your kid into child labor for, but good.
Onto the pork, which is really what matters when it comes to BBQ (shut it, Texans. You’re wrong, you know you’re wrong, so go brag about the Alamo or something).
I had a “Redneck Taco,” which is pulled pork on a corn hoecake with slaw. Seeing as I am ethically and morally opposed to slaw on BBQ (it’s an abomination that caught me by surprise back when I moved to North Carolina and it is apparently a West Tennessee thing too), I had them hold it. It’s fine if you like that sort of thing but it ain’t where I mean to be when Jesus comes back. The pig was just smoky enough, super juicy and all in all a really solid effort. The corn hoecake set it off perfectly, the grittiness a perfect foil for the juiciness of the meat. I left Martin’s BBQ Joint enjoying a thorough bout of the meat sweats.
Sweet tea. They have it. It’s good. It’s not nearly as sweet as they think it is, but not everyone’s Nana puts a cup of sugar to a gallon of water. You can drink a gallon or so at Martin’s and not get the DTs.
All in all, Martin's is a 7 on a scale of 1 to Holcomb’s. I’d eat there all the time if I lived nearby.