Pork Products Ruined My Childhood

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.

10 thoughts on “Pork Products Ruined My Childhood

  1. The longer I remain away from home (even though I’m still in Georgia), the more I realize the exact same thing. I only remember seeing a black man walking through downtown ONE TIME in all the eighteen years I lived in my hometown, and I only remember this instance because my grandmother commented that 20 years ago, a black man could NEVER have walked around downtown.

    I remember being taught that African-Americans were different and that I shouldn’t date people from other races. I unfortunately know a lot of racist jokes that I learned from my parents, and I really hate that this is the background I have. As a woman, I am also realizing that the South is still a very sexist place as well as racist, and it makes me sad also to think about my home in such a way, but it’s true.

  2. Raisin Girl – I wanted to thank you for leaving such a thoughtful comment. “looking back” can be troubling, can’t it. And when you think back to your own history and realize how tangled up you are in it… even harder.

    Thanks again.

  3. Thank you for this! I often think of Ollie’s, the sticky Formica tabletops, the amazing meringue pies, the smell of pork. Wonderful memories. Last time I was in B’ham I picked up a case of the juice, but never did it justice.

  4. Personally, I never remember a justification or an apology for the rampant racism. I think this is where I learned to smile, nod, and silently cringe. Now I just smirk….Change is impossible for many people. H and W will die in there small minded world that I choose not to be a part of. The best revenge is moving on.

  5. Hey Sis!!!

    There was never an apology, but you know how dad is, making an absurd effort to avoid having to confront people. And frankly, I think he bought into it.

  6. This really struck a nerve. For years I lived in Palm Beach County, Florida and there was a black owned barbeque place called the “Blue Front”, a real dive, but out of this world barbeque! Us white folks would call ahead and do take out as we didn’t feel comfortable dining “in” and the blacks were just as happy. Times changed and the “Blue Front” went slightly upscale. For many of us, black and white, the barbeque never tasted quite as good in the fancier “digs”.

    Racism is a fact of life, diminishing hopefully, but still there. It exists everywhere, but seems to always be “front page” in the South due to the history of the region. In Cincinnati, Clifton and the Westside are miles apart in attitude (a lot of my family is on the Westside). The terms become so ingrained that far too many speakers just don’t realize how offensive certain terms and words are and I don’t mean just the obvious one.

  7. Joe-

    Thank you for such a thoughtful and engaging comment.

    You’re right that racism remains a fact of life, even in places one would think would have enlightened attitudes. I had a friend in college who grew up in rural Georgia who insisted it was even worse up North because A) it’s much more hidden – ala “I like everyone as long as they ACT like we do.” – and B) because northerners typically refuse to believe it could “happen here.”

    Like I said, it was very sobering as an adult to look back on my childhood and see things for what they really were.

    Thanks again for stopping by.


  8. Need to have you by during the Summer months, being a New Orleans native I make sweet tea the old school way. Embrace your addiction!

  9. I made the sweet tea last night and tonight we’re having the leftovers from my pork shoulder I cooked on Sunday. Divine Heaven and I wish I didn’t have to share. (My mom can be such a pig! ) You know it’s really funny. I’m in California born and raised here but my mother’s family is from North Carolina. I have a couple of Uncles that moved up to Michigan ages ago when their families were young and for the most part everyone is back in either Tennessee, Carolina and a handful up in Virginia. I remember things like that occurring during my multitude of visits just as well as I remember Bill’s BBQ or Mayflower Seafood. Being from California it was just plain shocking to see and hear the racist attitudes when I was a teen and actually noticing those things for the first time but they’re here just as well just in a different tone. It is very sobering. Also I have to agree with Loki I’d just give up where that sweet tea addiction is and totally embrace it. It is the elixir of the South after all!