My name is Melvin Charles Smith, but I go by Chuck. I am the youngest of four sons and I grew up with smoke and meat down in Cullman, Alabama. That's me in the back row with the biker moustache and black beret. My family ran a farm and a country meat processing plant, where we did everything the old fashioned way, salting down hams and bacons by hand, grinding sausage and stuffing it into natural gut casings or muslin bags (sewn by Grandma Elvie on a treadle-powered sewing machine), and smoking it all in a beautiful brick smokehouse at the end of the barnyard over a hickory fire. My Uncle Pig (yes, I did have an Uncle Pig—Curtis Alfred Smith) ran a barbecue joint over in Addison. My first job on the farm at the age of five was to turn the switch on the grinder on or off while Dad stuffed sausage. I worked in the process room or the smokehouse all through my childhood, and came back and worked every weekend and every summer all the time I was in college.
Although my father, Melvin W. Smith, was an only child, his father, John Edward Smith, was the oldest of a large family. He loved to invite all his brothers and sisters and all their kids over for a Saturday night fish-fry or barbecue. In those days we’d dig a shallow trench about eight feet long and build a big fire in it. Once it had burned down to coals we set a big steel box with a grill face on top over the embers and laid the meat out on top. We’d build another fire beside it and shovel fresh coals in as needed, while throwing fresh-cut green hickory in to make a rich smoke. A big sheet of tin laid on top kept the heat in while every now and then we’d open it up and baste everything down with a mix of vinegar, water, oil, and spices…and a few hours later out would come tender, juicy shoulders, ribs that came clean off the bone but still had enough texture to chew, or a whole flock of chickens at a perfect brown. I learned a lot about life and a lot about how to treat barbecue sitting around that smoky fire listening to my great uncles tell tales and swap lies.
Come forward twenty-five years. My three brothers all married, and married fertile women; between them, they’ve produced twenty-two children, all single births, all with the same wives, no step-children or adoptions. Even though our great aunts and uncles have mostly passed away by now, we still fill a building when we get together. The smoked meat business moved to a new facility, and then moved again when the state finally got around to four-laning Highway 278 east of Cullman. In the process Dad retired and turned the business over to my Brother Joe, and when Joe built the new place, he built in a set of brick barbecue pits modeled after Uncle Pig’s design in Addison. I kept on working for Joe summers and holidays while I was in graduate school, and by the time I finished my PhD and left Alabama for my first real teaching job, I had thirty years before the fire, man and boy.
Although I left Alabama behind, I carried the fire and the steel with me. I’ve barbecued in Western North Carolina where the sauce is thick and sweet and in South Texas where they still call it “barbacoa.” I’ve barbecued in Pennsylvania and New York State—and I’m here to tell you, Yankees wouldn’t know what to do with a hog if it walked up to them hitched to a little red wagon full of spices and split hickory. I’ve sampled barbecue styles from the Rio Grande to the Virginia Tidewater. And I still go back to Cullman on a regular basis, where my Dad and my brothers and I still tend to sit around a smoky fire, tell tales and swap lies while the magic happens inside the pit.
Now I am in Williamsburg, Kentucky, and it looks like I’m going to be here a while. I’m reasonably happy teaching history at the University of the Cumberlands and they seem to be reasonably happy with me—they keep renewing my contract, at any rate. I’ve been cooking for my friends and colleagues for a few years now, but now I have the opportunity to take it to a new level. My niece Possum (yes, I have a niece we call Possum—Amanda Michelle Moody, Joe’s youngest daughter) married a welder named Ben. Ben has built me a portable pit that is everything I could ask for.
Even though Uncle Pig and Aunt Lou and Aunt Jim (yes, I had an Aunt Jim—Edna was her birth name) aren’t around our table anymore, their legacy and that of Grandpa Ed and Grandma Elvie are right there with us. We still get the whole clan together, invite a passel of friends, and celebrate nature’s most perfect food: the pig. I hope you’ll let me pass this legacy on to your next special gathering of family or friends.
But enough of my smoky past! Click here to Get On-Target!