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Back to the Future Part 3: Myron Mixon’s greatest contribution

A boy’s take on the history, current state, and future

By Jeff Finger

Photo submitted by Jeff Finger
Trimming the greens & grind meat for the stew.

This is the third of 3 articles concerning one Georgia boy’s take on the history, current state, and future of the BBQ tradition.

A couple of months ago I wrote about growing up in Oconee County, Georgia, and relishing the Union Christian Church’s annual BBQ.  I spoke of playing in the creek at Harris Shoals Park while some local politician pulled pork from the cinder block pits. And I referenced the fact that in almost every single public park, a cinder block pit was available for community use.
Church functions, school functions, political functions, civic and community group functions, as well as family reunions, they all involved BBQ off the pit.

Photo submitted by Jeff Finger
You have to be up to enjoy the sunrise!

As such, within each community, the pitmasters who worked the cheap, tough meat into such a wonderous delight often gained a local reputation of epic proportions. Local BBQ becomes tradition, and each individual area that you visit has the absolute best.  If you don’t believe me, just ask the folks who live there.

The competition circuit evolved from this “social and political force” – the quest to determine who and what really is the best.
Then last month I wrote – let’s be honest – I whined about the evolution of the competition circuit from what I perceived as a move from an event which often featured regional flair and was a competition of great BBQ styles to a contest that is a competition of just one style.  

I concluded, “Is there hope for the future of BBQ?”  Hope for the traditional flavors or will we, like the Chamber of Commerce during a storm, continue to “just pour sugar on it,” and judge it to be “good?”

Photo submitted by Jeff Finger
After all the work, Sunday dinner.

The question is best answered by the fella from Utah, “I’m here because I like to study history.”  

He continued with references to materials mentioning BBQ and founding father-General-President George Washington.  I myself am familiar with one such example, a quote from George Washington’s diary in 1769, “Went in to Alexandria [VA] to a barbecue and stayed all night.”

Now just where was the “here” the Utahan mentioned?   

Unadilla, Georgia, where he was joined by an almond farmer from California, an IT professional from New York, and a sous chef from Minnesota.  Heck, we even had a fella from Montana in attendance.  They all traveled to South Georgia for Myron Mixon’s BBQ Memories class, where you experience firsthand the way BBQ used to be, cooking a whole hog over coals in a masonry pit.

Photo submitted by Jeff Finger
Rubbed & wrapped & ready for the pit.

In our meat-n-greet dinner Friday night, Myron, with the credibility of having won it all in BBQ, emphasized that this was a “way of life”; it’s hard work, but it’s how rural folks did and still do BBQ. It’s how a community came and comes together; it’s how his Dad did BBQ.  It’s the real thing!

Myron stated this was just the second time he’d ever conducted the class, and the number participants are limited because it is intended to be an intimate setting where everyone is up all night sharing in the work and camaraderie.  
 
Hearing this was music to my ears.  As I wrote about in the first article of this series, this is also my BBQ heritage.  Seeing others from all over the country willing to travel thousands of miles to participate in our heritage warmed my heart.

Now I can hear some of you now, “That cocky Myron Mixon, how can you learn anything from that ego. Besides, his interest is making money, not promoting BBQ.”

Photo submitted by Jeff Finger
Moving coals from the fire barrel to the pit.

If any of you have spent more than 10 minutes with us laid-back, thank you ma’am southern gentlemen, you’ll know that any time you put a challenge down, well, Lord have mercy, we’re gonna be all over you.   

Mama will often be in the background shaking her head and carrying on about “Sho’n’ yo butt” and “raised him better,” but like BBQ, it’s in our blood.   
You have a TV show where folks are challenging our passion, so what do you expect?

Photo submitted by Jeff Finger
Butterflying the hog at Yoder’s.

Let me tell you what: there hasn’t been one time when I’ve asked Myron for something where he hasn’t delivered, from calls for sauce at the last minute before the big family BBQ to advice on chicken preparation in the middle of a competition.
  
Ever since my Dad introduced me to him in the mid-90s, my family and I have always enjoyed our times together.

The next morning we were off to Yoder’s Butcher Block to select the hog. Back in the day, a good processor was a necessity in every community; folks would raise their own to eat; surplus could go to market.
  
Meat was done right; today, just try to find a grocery store “butcher” who knows different cuts, much less can make one.  As such, I believe we would have benefitted from a step-by-step tour of the “processing” process, but we were able to ask questions about all aspects of getting a good hog.

We then went around the corner to Yoder’s Deitsch Haus Restaurant for a lunch of good home cookin’ and homemade cinnamon rolls.  Talk about food-to-table farming.  All the surrounding area is part of a Mennonite community, with the restaurant part of their efforts.  Again, a way of life.

After some afternoon rest, we returned to prep our hog, apply the rub – no injections, no heavy sugar (sugar burns over coals) – and frame it in hog wire so you can flip it on the pit.
  
We filled “fire barrels” with hickory and oak wood to generate coals; we used green wood so we would get coals, not ash.    
With a pit, you’re cooking not with fire, nor indirect heat, but over the ember of wood coals.  As the meat heats and its drippings splash on those coals, well, therein lies the uniqueness of pit cooked flavor.

All night long, we frequently added wood to the fire barrels and replenished coals in the pit from the barrels.   
How often was determined by an old fashioned tell true gauge – holding your hand over the cover tin and counting seconds to determine the temperature.
 
In between coal runs, we trimmed stems from the greens, ground the meat for the stew and began preparation of our other sides.   

When morning came, I took a minute to enjoy the beauty of the sunrise. Then, it was back to mix-up and apply a vinegar based “mop” to the hog.  
 
The comment is often made, “a simpler time.”  I think that comment is often misunderstood.  As I stated in the first article of this series, this was, is, an arduous labor intensive process. It was, is, not “simple.”  
 
The BBQ Pitmasters Season 2 had it right when they made the finalists cook a whole hog on a pit to win the grand prize.  No Green Egg computerized DigiQ fan doing the work for you; it’s just you, the pit and the hog.

After working day and night, we were preparing our plates with the fruits of our labor for Sunday dinner when it hit me like a straight right hand to the chin.   

All the community functions in my home county still use the local pitmasters; they still prepare BBQ the old fashioned way; the long-time family owned BBQ institutions – with their peppery vinegar sauce – are still cranking it out, and most importantly, our family is still coming together each Memorial Day weekend for some BBQ with all the fixins’.  The work is hard, but the value is simple.

So when fella named Dale asked as we were finishing our meal, “What’s your favorite?”   
I pondered a minute, there was so much to choose from - the BBQ, greens, sweet potatoes, Brunswick Stew, sausage, cracklin’ cornbread?

But after enjoying it all, this Judge’s answer was old school, one from “a simpler time,” I leaned between Myron and Faye to say: “The Fellowship!”

Yep, the BBQ spirit is still alive. As explained with Red, Hot & Blue in the first column, the whole experience made me appreciate what was right in front of me all along.  
 
Hopefully, it will for others, too, and bring old-fashioned BBQ back to the future. Not only for nourishment of the body, but for nourishment of the soul. Thank you, Myron Mixon!

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