TUSCALOOSA - The 5-year-old had come all the way from Massachusetts in a day, his daddy not giving up the dream of a dinner of slow-smoked ribs at the original home of Dreamland Bar-B-Que, where the only side served with a slab is white bread.
Shortly before closing, the boy took his first few bites of a thick, juicy rib and - without an "mmmm" of appreciation or "yeow!" of consternation - determined it was too spicy for his tender tongue. He picked up his root beer and took a long pull. Then another.
The waitress leaned in close across the counter: "Honey, you can't just sit there and drink your root beer. You've got to eat more of that meat."
It is said that the South is defined at its culinary core by two things: corn and hog meat. In Alabama, that means a rich tradition of pork ribs set above a hickory fire for the better part of a day. By the time they hit your mouth, the meat is pretty much begging you to pull it off the bone. (For a taste of corn, dig into a side of grits for breakfast. Bacon goes well, and some eggs, over easy.)
Swerve three times in Alabama, and you're liable to run into a roadside barbecue joint. The tastes of one restaurant's slab compared to another can be as different as the Alabama terrain, which stretches from the Gulf Coast near Mobile, to the central piney woods, and northward into the Appalachian range. (Let's not complicate things by getting into North Carolina barbecue, where pork is preferred pulled, or that in Texas, where barbecue is often made from animals that moo.)
In an ode to 'Bama barbecue' at The Southern BBQ Trail website, Jake Adam York celebrates the influences that arrive from neighboring states, whether mustard mixing with tomato for an orange sauce near the Georgia border, or chicken in a white sauce up near Tennessee.
"Whether the influence is Cherokee, Appalachian, Georgian, Mississippian, Floridian, Tennessean, Texan, or just plain Alabamian," York writes, "barbecue springs up everywhere, with significant variation."
There are barbecue holes-in-the-wall and institutions, which pretty much end up being one and the same, as the best have started in simple ways. Consider Archibald's Bar-b-q, just across the Black Warrior River from Tuscaloosa. George Archibald Jr. has been serving up ribs with a vinegar-based sauce for decades at a spot his parents opened that is still nearly all cinder-block chimney and a stack of hickory logs.
Success has led a lot of the originals - Dreamland, Golden Rule, Jim and Nick's, Johnny Ray's, etc. - to expand from humble beginnings to many locations. The trick these days is knowing where to pull over, and when.
A Northerner who doesn't know the difference between hickory and hominy can get a lot of advice online about which barbecue restaurants have the best techniques and tastes. But be prepared if you start reading the listings for Alabama joints at bbqlinks.com; there are more than 500, from A1 Barbecue, in Autaugaville, to Zack's Restaurant, in Evergreen. You'll just stall right there at the computer. (By comparison, bbqlinks.com boasts five listings for Vermont.)
When motoring into Alabama, it is best to pick just one or two well-regarded stops in advance - Miss Myra's Pit Bar-B-Q in Birmingham, say, or Big Bob Gibson up in Decatur - then start driving. If you get hungry moving from one to the next, you're bound to round a bend at just the right hour, which tends to be from late morning on, and see smoke rising out back of a low building. Just take your foot off the gas.
Ribs, after all, are slow food. A documentary interviewer for the Southern Foodways Alliance asked Archibald about his barbecue technique.
"We just cook ours slow and easy, yeah," Archibald said.
The interviewer asked for more tips.
"Well just take your time," Archibald said. "That's - that's mainly - that's about all of it - just take your time with it and that's it."
Idle over a plate of ribs, and you're likely to find the warm and easy style carries over to the atmosphere as well. At the Tuscaloosa Dreamland one January evening, a police sergeant sat on a stool beneath walls covered with license plates and helped fill plastic sauce containers for the next day's crowd. At Truman's Original Bar-B-Q, heading south toward the Talladega National Forest, high school students sitting at tables with red-and-white checked tablecloths wore the colors of the Hale County Wildcats, who play at a football field just across the two lanes of Highway 69. At the Golden Ranch in Selma, a military man and his lady friend quietly chatted as neighbors traveled from one table to the next, trading hugs and stories about an evening outing.
When it's your turn to talk, be prepared to make choices. Ribs in a slab, or served in a "sandwich," with a slice of butter-soaked toast? Ribs or pulled pork? Pork or, well, OK, chicken?
Then comes the standard choosing of two sides: fried okra, black-eyed peas, baked beans, slaw, deviled eggs, green beans, or chips, to name a few. The original Dreamland keeps it pretty simple with its side of white bread. Though 75 cents can get you a bag of Golden Flake chips.
Now you might wonder, how much barbecue can one person eat? Lunch and dinner in the same day? Day after day? But roll with the idea: Pretty soon you'll find yourself in a lunch-dinner-lunch-dinner-lunch barbecue rhythm that has your nostrils sniffing for wood smoke and your tongue hoping for something spicy.
Dreamland's ribs were meaty and dry, in a good way, the sauce more stuck to the rib than part of it. At Fat Daddy's Dairy Bar, an unassuming single-story place set by the side of the road on the edge of Maplesville, the ribs were so juicy it seemed as though the sauce had been injected. Equally tasty.
Now consider the sides. At Truman's in Moundville, for example, the beans were salty and came with a light vinegar taste. Fat Daddy's served them up tomatoey and thick, loaded with chunks of smoked pork. That's right. Want some pork with your pork?
Belly up at Miss Myra's, where you can follow a slab of ribs with a heaping slice of chocolate chess, lemon ice box, coconut, or pecan pie. Or peanut butter, key lime, or chocolate cream pie. Or banana pudding.
Alas, even after three days of relentless ribs you can start to think about taking a break. That kind of mindset, by the way, can bring a moment of weakness, when a Northerner might pass up a chance at Miss Myra's ribs by ordering chicken, just for a change of pace.
Either way, just when you've sworn off your last rib, you're likely to bump into someone who gets things pointed back in the right direction. In Birmingham, that meant two local brothers, long-timers who know well the ins and outs of the 'Bama barbecue scene.
"Miss Myra's!" said one. "I've been going there for 40 years. I just stopped by yesterday for take out."
Countered the other: "Did you get out to Irondale? To the original Golden Rule? Those are the best ribs I've ever tasted."
So take a deep breath and turn the key. Off to Irondale you go.
Tom Haines can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.