How the BBQ Documentaries Came to Be

For the past twenty years, I’ve traveled over Alabama collecting stories to tell through public TV documentaries. Everywhere I go I prefer to eat at local restaurants rather than national chains. If there’s a barbecue restaurant handy, that’ll be my first choice.

I like barbecue and so do most of my co-workers. In fact, some of my co-workers through the years have been barbecue fanatics. There was one cameraman who just couldn’t pass up an opportunity to stop at Jim’s Bar-B-Q on Highway 82. Every time we traveled from Tuscaloosa to Montgomery, he’d stop there for a late breakfast or early lunch. Then on our return drive to Tuscaloosa, he’d stop again to pick up takeout for his family.

Imagine this scene… Three or four (and sometimes more) public TV people eating lunch at a barbecue restaurant. We’ve been up since long before sunrise, driven for an hour or three, worked all morning with cameras and lights and we’re already pretty tired. We’ve got a lot more work to do after lunch and we know that we won’t be back home until late. This lunch is our only time to relax, and we’ve found a great place to eat. The meat is tender and smoked to perfection and the sauce adds just the right bite.

It doesn’t take long before someone says, “We should do a documentary about barbecue.” I don’t know how many times I’ve heard those words. I’ve even said them myself.

Being public TV storytellers, naturally we researched the topic. We read about the history of pit cooking and how it originated in the Caribbean, was brought to North Carolina, and spread across the US. We read how different sauces were developed in various locales. We talked about it over lunches in barbecue restaurants across Alabama for years, but we never got anything done on it. After lunch we’d go back to the job at hand. We were always busy with something else.

Then one day in 2003 Dwight Cammeron walked into my office and said, “We’ve been talking about this for years. Let’s do something!”

The history of barbecue cooking is a fascinating subject, but we decided not to focus on that. We decided instead to focus on barbecue restaurants around the state. After all, barbecue restaurants had been our inspiration from the very beginning.

As you might expect, we had lots of favorite places and it didn’t take long for us to realize that we couldn’t include all of them. We decided to feature ten restaurants spread out across the state. Dwight had a highway map hanging on the wall in his office and he drew ten big circles on it to divide up the state. He started looking for restaurants in five of the circles and I took the other five.

We phoned all over the state asking folks we know and folks we didn’t know until then about their favorite barbecue restaurants. When we came up with a list of good places to eat, we started calling restaurants. Some of the restaurant owners thought we were practical jokers. Some didn’t have time to talk to us. Some got real excited. All of them probably thought we were crazy.

In the end, we came up with nine restaurants scattered over the state. Passionate barbecue enthusiasts may question why we included one restaurant and not another. Well, we only had an hour of TV time to work with. We were looking for interesting stories and colorful people. We were also trying to include places ranging from extreme north Alabama to extreme south Alabama and all points in between.

We decided to let the restaurant folks tell their own stories without a lot of commentary from us. We hope the end result will let the viewer get to know the people and see behind the scenes. The folks at all of the restaurants were great to work with and were glad to share their life’s work with interested people.

We spent a couple of days at each of the featured restaurants dragging cameras and lights into tight corners, standing on chairs or lying on the floor to get just the right picture. We choked on smoke and worked up a sweat. Then we had lunch and celebrated the fact that we were finally doing something we’d talked about doing for years.

But the subject of conversation over lunch has changed. Now we talk about plans for the next barbecue documentary.

For more about “A Taste of Hog Heaven” and the featured restaurants, click here.

The next barbecue documentary was “Holy Smoke Over Birmingham” in 2006.