With Love from Columbus, GA

19 May 2010

Dear Columbus, GA Chamber of Commerce,

I have serious doubts that you even exist.

Columbus might be the largest town, dare I say city, in western Georgia, just across the river from Alabama, but in all other respects it might as well be a rest stop on the highway. I was in your town, dare I say city for two very long hours. I did not find a downtown of any sort. I found no neighborhoods or businesses, no commerce to speak of. Your job must either be very difficult or very dull.

I did find a civil war graveyard, a rail yard, plenty of painfully normal houses, a large throughway packed very full with cars. I wondered aloud where these people might be driving to or from. Alabama? Walmart? Is this the center of America?

I also found Smokey Pig Barbecue, or rather, it found me from the pages of a Lonely Planet guide dedicated to the cuisine. Perhaps you’ve outsourced your duties to the travel guide industry. I’m happy I did find this gem of a restaurant, because it taught me many valuable lessons of the peculiar and many-varied world of barbecue. It was to me, a gastronomic classroom, and, knowing the interest (and general incompetence) in the barbecue-ery outside of the South, you could stand to profit from the Smokey Pig’s School of Authenticity.

“A Georgia tradition since 1953,” the Smokey Pig looks like its development was arrested around 1973. Upon walking in you might think the building was on fire, as the pit opens up right to the very empty dining room, saturating the air with the pungent smoky scent. I would later find this to be a mark of a good, old fashioned barbecue joint. In Austin, TX, there’s a place where the walls are yellowed from 60 years of exposure to a smoky pit, which comprises a quarter of the restaurant. This might explain the color scheme of the Smokey Pig: intentional browns, yellows, and dark, almost beige creams.

Surprisingly, or maybe not, the food is the same color. Another lesson is that, where it matters, barbecue is not a menu of ribs or chicken or brisket or pulled pork. It’s whatever meat that restaurant chooses to cook, in this case pork butt. In theory, you can break down the South into barbecue regions by what type of meat they choose to smoke, but in practice, you walk into a true restaurant, order “barbecue,” and eat whatever they give you.

The plates are paper, the forks plastic, the frills absent. The pork butt comes chipped or bite-sized, which is to say chopped with a big ole’ knife into a sort of paste (barbecue salad?) or small chunks that leave the fat and char intact and ready to wage war on your taste buds.

I reinforced a lesson I had previously learned, that sauce is king. Georgian ‘cue is usually marred by thick, cloying sauces that have as much molasses as they do ketchup. It quickly became apparent that what has sustained the Smokey Pig for 57 years is its sauce. Tangy, sweet, canary yellow, it breaks molds by being mustard-based, something you hardly find outside the Carolinas. It absolutely makes this barbecue and, besides being delicious, the reason is simple and increasingly rare: it’s made fresh, everyday.

Brunswick stew is another lesson learned. A mainstay of Georgian barbecue, it is rooted in the eastern town of Brunswick, where, presumably, the local chili became something of a statewide phenomenon. At the Smokey Pig, the brunswick stew is thick, rich, studded with corn, and heavily spiced. Like a not-so-distant cousin of the dark and meaty goulash.

Another entry on the day’s syllabus, sides. Just as diverse as sauces, barbecue sides fall into a line of regulars. Collard greens, beans, cucumber salad, coleslaw, potato salad, macaroni and cheese, just to name a few. Some places let you choose your sides, some don’t. Smokey pig don’t. You get a plate, it comes with pickle slices and coleslaw made with the house sauce. This emphasizes a credo of reputable barbecue pits, make what you make well enough and you don’t need choice. It also manifests itself in the price. “We sell one thing and it’s cheap.” $5.70 for a plate at the Smokey Pig, where 12 Bones gave us plenty of variety for $12-$15 an option.

My favorite side, though…three slices of Sunbeam white bread. The ubiquitous sponge for a saucy plate.

If you devote even a small portion of your resources to the successful marketing of the Smokey Pig, chances are you’ll attract my kind of tourist, one who looks to a towns food for a view of its culture.

With love from Columbus, GA,

Smokey Pig Barbecue
1617 11th Ave
Columbus, GA


3 Responses to “With Love from Columbus, GA”

  1. Maggie said

    Do you know the Cornbread Nation book series? Cornbread Nation 1 is a masterwork, and included in those pages is a gorgeous rumination on the mysteries of brunswick stew. Cornbread Nation 2, though (the subtitle of which is The United States of Barbecue), paints the most varied picture of barbecue in all its definitions that I’ve ever seen. The back of my mouth waters for vinegar when I read essays from eastern NC. The pit of my stomach growls for substance when I read about what’s served up in Tennessee. You’ve gotta own it.

  2. Thanks for the love Joe. Sorry it took so long to locate. Columubus Ga does have a downtown. Having Columbus State University in town means most action cranks up at night. There is The beautiful Historic District, The Riverwalk, and The Black Heritage Trail, Coca Cola Space and Science Museum all downtown to be explored. With so much history and so many attractions, promoting Columbus Ga is daunting, but we are making strides. http://www.greatercolumbusga.com is the beginning of a new era. Try us again with this new tool. Maps to restaurants can be retrieved on your PDA by the way.

    • Joseph Watts said

      I wish I had enough time to explore. As it was, we were over the river into Alabama not long after lunch. Next time I swing by for some more Smokey Pig, I’ll take in some attractions.

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