BBQ is Folk Art!
A Family’s Informal Tradition
By Jeff FInger
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary (An Encyclopedia Britannica Company), the definition of FOLK ART is: “noun - the traditional typically anonymous art of usually untrained people.”
When it comes to BBQ, is it the professionally trained and accredited Chef of Le Cordon Bleu with his diploma hanging on the wall that comes to mind? Or is your top of mind the local pitmaster with a saucing mop hanging on the wall, just carrying forth the tradition he was raised around?
I’ll tell you what’s hanging on my wall: a Howard Finster “the top is high as you can go” Coca-Cola bottle, complete with angels flying on the neck and a “millions of folks drink Cokes and drive home safely” church at “the bottom is low as you can go.”
Howard Finster (1916-2001) was a man of visions, with one calling him as a teenager to spread the gospel at tent revivals all over Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee. In 1940, he became a church pastor, preaching at small country churches over the years, baptizing new members and washing the feet of churchgoers.
In 1976, the Baptist reverend is said to have had a vision telling him to do sacred art. He replied, according to a biography from his family, that “he could not do art because he was not a professional. ‘How do you know?’ the voice (then) asked him repeatedly.”
Finster would go on to produce colorful artistic renderings of religious images like trumpeting angels and Jesus, as well as of pop-culture icons like Elvis, Hank Williams, and Coke bottles.
He would often include Bible verses on these pieces because “he felt that they stuck in people’s heads better that way.” The professional scholars and critics of art began to compare his works to that of nineteenth-century tent-revival posters, something I’m sure Finster had been exposed to in his teens.
Using bottles, bathtubs, bicycle parts, light catchers, and other “junk,” Finster transferred his home in Pennville, GA, to a Paradise Garden, constructing beautiful mosaic pathways leading to the property’s multiple tributes, including a “Bible House,” “Hubcap Tower” and five-story “World’s Folk Art Chapel.”
All this, not with formal training, but because of his faith.
This article of belief is for those of you who think you cannot master the art of BBQ because you’re not a professional. How do you know?
I, too, grew up around BBQ, but often wondered if I could do it myself because I wasn’t formally trained. I had helped at family gatherings and the like, but I lacked faith.
Deciding to get some learnin’, I attended a couple of high-profile classes. Yes, I did pick up a helpful secret or two, but mostly, my education just confirmed what my Dad had already demonstrated through the years. I can hear Big Daddy speak to me from above right now, “Boy, I told you so!”
Now, you can make this devilishly difficult, or you can join the choir and start singing. Turn your Pavo Baptist Church Hymnal to number 428, “And he walks with me, and he talks with me......”
Simply start by loading the pickup with cement blocks and take ‘em to the Shak (Make sure you shut the cow gate behind you).
Dig out and level the ground over near the muscadine vines, between the barn and peach trees. Then stack the blocks around a raised 42” X 60” grate, allowing for the “front door”. Half-blocks on the “catty-corners” will ensure a tight fit around the grate.
After treating the exterior with heat resistant paint, decorate the pit front and sides appropriately. Although you may not have the nicest house, you can still make it home and take pride in it!
Drill holes in the Fire Barrel for a rebar wood sifter and cut a space below that sieve to access the coals. Fire that barrel up! Shovel coals from the bottom of the barrel to the pit floor.
Take the whole hawg, butterflied with Granddover Gooch’s old-time meat saw, stay out all night and mop, mop, mop it.
How did Howard Finster do with his art?
Heck, the Athens, GA, alternative rock group R.E.M decided to film the video for its hit “Radio Free Europe” at Paradise Gardens. A couple of rock album covers later (not CDs mind you, I’m talkin’ actual vinyl, folks), Finster’s work, all in the name of the Lord, was established as part of the permanent collection of Atlanta’s High Museum of Art.
And how did we do with our BBQ?
After saying grace, we watched the family line up at the long tables for a delightful treat, and when it was over, it looked like quite a pickin’ that pig took.
Does that make us the Pitmaster Grand Champion?
Well, the final score isn’t in yet; but when it is, neither those certified by society nor those trained in the ivory kitchens of The Cordon Bleu will judge the winner.
Nope, the future of our art’s impact will be determined by those untrained kids sitting on the Shak’s front porch steps. Can the values of hard work, pride in craftsmanship, family, and enjoying the fruits of their own labor be formally taught?
Or, is their exposure to our family’s BBQ informal “tent revival” getting those virtues “stuck in (their) heads better that way?”
In these parts, BBQ is religion, and as the story goes, Reverend Finster said he “gave up preaching because one Sunday night he asked who remembered his Sunday morning sermon. No one did.”
Finster spread his message, not with his preaching, but with his art. That’s what my Dad did too. It just took me a while to see the vision. As Pavo Baptist Church Hymnal number 165 reverently reads: “Was blind, but now I see.” Have faith brother; BBQ is Folk Art!
All photos submitted by Jeff Finger