As I scarfed down my post-Sunday church lunch, my parents sat unimpressed.
My prepubescent taste buds couldn’t tell the difference but I was told it wasn’t the same. It may have been true, it may have been placebo, but regardless, I don’t think we ever ate there again.
My parents, born in North Alabama during WWII, had an affinity for barbecue. This is nothing new in the South; barbecue is as partisan as politics or football in these parts, though people may tolerate—even enjoy—more than one barbecue joint. However, they will always have a favorite. And for my parents, it was Whitt’s.
Whitt’s Barbecue opened in Athens, AL in 1957 and while remaining a stalwart in its hometown (the original stand still exists) it has branched out into neighboring Tennessee and its bunk buddy Kentucky. Though it doesn’t have the name recognition of Dreamland or the festival trophies of Big Bob Gibson, it still has done enough to be voted the best pulled pork sandwich in the state. Which may have some validity; unlike other barbecue joints, Whitt’s doesn’t have an extensive menu— it is smoked pork, beef, and turkey along with sides of potato salad, beans, and slaw. That’s it, unless you count the potato chips. It’s the most minimalist barbecue menu I’ve seen since the original Dreamland in Tuscaloosa had “one rack or two” and white bread on the side, so if you’re keeping people queued up outside the walk-up window while simultaneously running a drive-thru line to mimic an In-n-Out location, you must be doing something pretty damn good.
There was once even a Whitt’s near our house in Huntsville. Wedged between another business and a corner gas station, it was often a treat for us to whip through on a Sunday afternoon after church and grab a sandwich or plate. I wasn’t big on sandwiches at the time so I would eat the pork sans bun and always with second helping of cole slaw. What may be the most maligned side item in history became a delicacy in the hands of Whitt’s. Instead of the limp, carrot-strip and ribboned cabbage slathered with a thinned mayonnaise mixture, came something completely different—a finely shredded slaw, with a sweet tanginess due its vinegar solution and just enough pepper to give it a bite in the back of your throat. As a kid who loves sweets—and really, which kid doesn’t—it was a way to get me to eat my vegetables; just brine them in sugar vinegar and watch ‘em disappear.
However, on the aforementioned fateful day, that familiar roadside shack a mere two miles from home no longer featured a Whitt’s sign on its property. Nope, in place of the iconic Whitt’s script logo was a yellow sign imprinted with a word I had never seen: Nolen’s.
Now, Mr Nolen may have been a fine gentleman, skilled in the art of slow pit cooking, but this was not Whitt’s. Why we went through the drive thru that day I know not, nor do I know the specific offense that raised the ire of my mother and father. All I know is that the next Sunday, or whenever my mother was eschewing her cooking for post-Sunday service takeout, my request for Nolen’s was met with an emphatic “no”.
“We’ll get Whitt’s the next time we’re in Athens for a dentist appointment …” or something to that effect.
No explanation given. Ever. I could—and probably did—argue that it tasted the same to me but in all fairness, now as an adult myself, why would they listen to an eight-year-old about good barbecue? I also though McDonald’s was the best burger in the world, and asked my mother to cook the eggs in another pan rather than in the same one as the bacon because it got bacon on the eggs. In retrospect, being an only child probably spared me from the incredulous wrath of my parents, at least with respect to my food peculiarities.
So the barbecue became fewer and far between, limited to trips to see family or funerals, then on occasions when visiting from college and later on when coming up from New Orleans. Now, as I fly in from Chicago, instead of taking the right turn out of the airport property to head to my childhood home, we skew left and head towards that place where through time, experience, and passed-down heritage, my own culinary desires and my ancestors’ have finally aligned.
The stand is as it ever was: short menu, long lines, flies surrounding the exterior garbage cans hoping in vain a customer didn’t finish their order. The cole slaw is still amazing, and I’ve even warmed to the sandwich with its white-bread bun made to soak up the thin vinegar sauce that adds that little bit of piquant spice to the silken pork. All that I loved back then that I despise now, and all I couldn’t grasp then that came with learned wisdom, is encapsulated in that sandwich. Whitt’s doesn’t have to be the best barbecue for me; it’s simply a building block. It was my parent’s favorite and therefore my benchmark—and it doesn’t hurt to sit there again and experience it anew for the umpteenth time, even as my culinary acumen has expanded beyond a simple pulled pork sandwich. I’ll sit under a shade tree that does nothing for the humidity in the air while my folks will go to the window all smiles, order for all of us, throw in an extra slaw for me, and for one meal we’ll forget I ever grew up.
Pulled pork sandwich, baked beans, coleslaw. Whitt’s BBQ, Athens, AL. Available at multiple locations in Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Whittsbarbecue.com