Some of you may know that I spent my childhood and college years in and around Lansing, Michigan. You know, state capitol, birthplace of Oldsmobile, and home to a large and reasonably well-regarded public university. It wasn’t a horrible place to grow up: there were parks, trees, video game arcades, a good local theater and a few thriving independent businesses. I’m still thankful for its four distinct seasons, good public schools, and modicum of diversity. And despite being an early casualty of the auto-industry-collapse Diaspora, I only moved about five hours south, to Cincinnati. While my sister is quite happy and prosperous in Phoenix, I’ve sometimes felt an affinity to one of Darwin’s Galapagos finches, well suited to my surroundings, but completely out of place anywhere but my own native habitat.
Now, despite my grounding in the Midwest, our family did have one other important geographic connection, one which I had to think clearly about when i received a small package from “home” this past week. My father grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and all of his side of the family still lives there. Our family vacations typically involved the twelve-hour trek down I69/65 to visit, sight see, guzzle the absurdly sweet tea I’m only now shaking off an addiction to, and absorb the culture shock of the slower, genteel Deep South.
But Birmingham is also home to my first real Food Memory. Ollie’s Barbecue. No matter what the circumstances of our trip south, no matter how much or how little time we had, our extended family always made it a point to go. It’s one of those traditions kids get caught up in, but by the time I was a teenager I could never wait to go to Ollie’s and sit at the ancient Formica counter top and watch the meat being smoked.
Ollie’s was an institution in Birmingham from its founding in the mid 1920s. I never once saw my grandfather place his order verbally. He would nod and smile at the staff, who always seemed to understand. In fact, he said, it wasn’t uncommon for second, third, and even fourth generations to continue patronizing the place. And even taking into account the overall friendliness of a place like that, it always seemed like most of the staff had known the customers for years.
The food was worth it. Succulent pulled pork on steamy hamburger buns, dipped very lightly in a sweet vinegary sauce. Never dry, never under (or over) cooked, it still defines for me what Barbecue is supposed to taste like. I”m quite sure I’ve had better, but it’s never Ollie’s.
I would learn in the early 90s that Ollie’s was the subject of a landmark Civil Rights case that went before the Supreme Court. The court ruled that because most of the food was purchased out-of-state, denying full patronage to African-Americans (they were allowed to order carry-out and eat “out back”) interfered with interstate commerce, and, ostensibly, the place was integrated. But when i look back, I remember the customer base as being, like so many of the places I went in Birmingham, absolutely lillywhite, despite the staff being nearly all black.
And it was this last point that dominated my thoughts this week as I finally had a chance to use some Ollie Sauce.
Anyway, my aunt had made it a point to send my dad a couple of bottles of Ollie’s sauce, which is still in production despite the restaurant itself being closed. On a whim, I went ahead and roasted a pork shoulder. It’s technically not barbecue, and frankly it’s not even the sort of aluminum-foil-over-woodchips/quasi-tent-thing you see sometimes. This is just slow-roasted pork at home, finished with a little of Ollie’s sauce. And it was close. Close enough that it really made me think about what I was eating. Anyway:
If you cook pork shoulder low and slow, it’s pretty difficult to screw up. I took a four pound shoulder, seaoned it with a mix of salt, pimenton, onion powder, powdered chipotle, cumin and thyme, I preheated my oven to 250, set my remote thermometer to 175, and placed it uncovered, in the oven.
Once done, I wrapped in aluminum foil and let it set on the counter for about an hour. I sliced, dipped in the sauce, seared it for a second, and spent the week figuring out new and creative ways to eat it.
I realize what I have made is horribly inauthentic. But it certainly was tasty.
Anyway, it’s funny how food memories work, isn’t it? As I was munching one of the first sandwiches (two slices of homemade bread that were just warm to the touch) – EVERYTHING came back to me, and not just the taste of the food.
It wound up being a very sobering experience. I’m hesitant to blame people for being grounded within their time/place in history. There is, however, no way around this fact: my experiences in the south were laced with extreme, if subtle, racism. The attitudes of the older members of my family weren’t terribly out of line for people of their generation and geography, but along with inhaling every bit of these amazing sandwiches I remember these whispers and uncomfortable glares that seemed to form the dark underbelly of southern kindness. I remembered a assistant at my Uncle’s vet clinic (he’d been there for years and used to take me out for burgers sometimes) who suddenly vanished because my uncle had a problem with his “attitude,” I hadn’t thought about that in years. Or the horrible, caustic comments made at the dinner table, and how my dad would often pull me aside later and try to sugar-coat or justify what was said by others (a fact that cost me a great deal of respect for him)
It reminded me of the backhanded Chinese fortune, “may you get what you wish for,” which of course winds up as a curse. Yeah, my Ollie’s pork tasted great, almost like it did in 1992, the last time I was there. But it also made me remember everything else about my own weird relationship with the Deep South, and memories, like flavors, can be quite double-edged.