In the U.S., Southern barbecue was originally cooked in earthen pits, mostly by African-American men, who stoked fires with hickory logs, swabbed whole hogs with vinegar, and tended them in a swirl of smoke for long hours.
As 20th-century jobs shifted from farms to factories, those pit masters moved to cities like Memphis, Tennessee, where they worked more quickly, smoking smaller cuts of meat in handmade oil drum grills and brick barbecue pits.
In the process, says Lolis Elie, author of Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country, “the styles of barbecue now associated with Memphis emerged: shoulder sandwiches and rib racks.”
Memphis boasts more than 75 barbecue restaurants. Some, like the Rendezvous—which popularized dry-rubbed ribs when Charlie Vergos began grilling racks and shipping them across the nation via Federal Express—are more famous.
But none are better or more culturally resonant than Payne’s Bar-B-Q, a cinder block bunker doing business since 1972. Piled with roughly chopped pork, drenched in vinegary tomato sauce, capped with sweet-and-sour coleslaw, the overstuffed sandwiches that Flora Payne dishes are paragons of the urban barbecue art form.
So are the spice-rubbed pork ribs, smoked on a charcoal pit that looks like a retrofitted aquarium, served across town at the mini-mart look-alike, Cozy Corner.
At these beloved joints, lunch comes with a lesson in African-American enterprise. “We don’t make a big fuss,” says Desiree Robinson, widow of Cozy Corner founder Raymond Robinson. “We just work hard and smile big when our customers come walking in the door.”
This piece, written by John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.