Friday, October 26, 2012

A Barbecue in Sweetwater

Some readers of this blog have asked whether I'd be willing to say something about the places I've visited in lecturing publicly about music and sustainability. Travel writing isn't my purpose but I can't pass up the chance to write about Bradley's Barbecue, formerly Wilson's Barbecue, in Sweetwater, Tennessee, just south of Knoxville, where I lectured on October 3 (please see the previous blog entry).

In the spring of 1990 Loyal Jones had taken me to Wilson's on the way to the Appalachian Studies Conference, in north Georgia, and the barbecue was so delicious, and I must have been so effusive about it, that Loyal called the owner over to the table—he knew him—and I repeated my praise, whereupon the owner, Mr. Wilson himself, wrote down the recipe to his barbecue sauce on one of those green-colored guest checks printed on cheap paper. Of course, most of the taste was in the pit barbecuing, not the sauce; but the sauce was excellent, and I was struck by the secret ingredient, which I won't reveal here. Upon returning to Berea College, where I was teaching as a visiting professor at the time, I copied and then carefully handed over this guest check with the recipe to Shannon Wilson (no relation to barbecue Wilson), the special collections librarian and archivist at the Berea College Hutchins Library, for safekeeping; and he put it into an acid-free manila folder. I vowed that if I ever returned to the Knoxville area, I would seek out Wilson’s Barbecue and have another meal.

Interior, Bradley's BBQ

In September of this year, a few weeks prior to my flight to Knoxville, Leslie Gay, my host at the University of Tennessee, emailed asking if there was anything special I wanted to do during my stay there. He may have been surprised to hear that I wanted to go to Wilson’s once again, but he was game to give it a try, although he said he couldn’t locate a Wilson’s in Sweetwater and wondered if the place had disappeared. Fearing the worst—it had been 22 years, after all—I emailed Loyal and asked if he knew what happened to the restaurant. He confirmed my fears, saying that the place had changed hands since then, and he couldn’t remember the new name of it; but he and Nancy had stopped in some years ago and had not been impressed by the change. 

Meanwhile, Les discovered that there was a place in Sweetwater called Bradley’s Barbecue, and wondered if that was the same place. I told him about Loyal’s warning, but he thought we should give it a try anyway; and I’m glad he did.

 Wilson’s Barbecue had gone, but Bradley’s was in the exact same place, with the exact same barbecue pit, and the exact same sauce. The barbecue was as good as I’d remembered it. Maybe Loyal had gone on a bad night.


Fireplace, Bradley's BBQ
The interior of the place had been gussied up a bit, but it was not made to look, as a barbecue joint in New England would have been, like a replica or representation of a southern barbecue joint: it was such a joint, in effect a diner with a barbecue pit. Decor such as the fireplace objects would never be seen in a New England barbecue restaurant, but I have seen similar in places like Duffy’s, in Orland, Maine, a neighborhood joint which has traditional Maine home cooking, though it never calls attention to its cuisine as such.

 Les and two musicologists (one was his wife, Rachel Golden; the other was their colleague Jacqueline Avila) and I all enjoyed a wonderful meal there, all the better because it exceeded expectations.
Pulled pork barbecue plate, Bradley's BBQ


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