“I mean there’s no knobs, there’s no gas lines, there’s no eyes, there’s no thermometer; there’s nothing. It’s just coals and a shovel and you do it—you do it long enough and you begin to learn how to fire the meat, how many coals to put under there given how fast you’re trying to get it done.” – Devin Pickard
Papa KayJoe’s Bar-B-Que
Located in the “buckle” of the Bible Belt, Centerville, Tennessee is home to one of the South’s more unconventional barbecue sandwiches. Devin Pickard borrowed and expanded on the recipe from a restaurant he cooked at as a teenager. A hoecake-type batter is ladled on a hot griddle, to order, and cooked a couple minutes per side until a blackened crust forms. Pickard then cradles the pulled and shredded Boston butt between these two pieces of lard-fried “cornbread fritters.”
We first visited Papa KayJoe’s Bar-B-Que in 2003 as part of our initial foray into documenting rural Tennessee ‘cue. Visit the original Papa KayJoe’s Bar-B-Que page.
What follows is a portion of the original interview that has been edited for length. To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.
Subject: Devin Pickard
Rien T. Fertel: This is Rien Fertel with the Southern Foodways Alliance. It is a Thursday, July 24, 2008 just about 10 o'clock in the morning. I’m here at Papa KayJoe’s Barbecue in Centreville, Tennessee on the Barbecue Trail with Mr. Devin Pickard. I’m going to have him introduce himself and tell us his birth date.
Devin Pickard: Hey, my name is Devin Pickard; my birth date is August 15, 1969.
When did you open [Papa KayJoe’s]? How long has it been around?
We opened September 2, 2000.
Okay; and we are in Centreville. The City is in Hickman County. Can you tell me a bit about the county?
Centreville is known as the—it’s the County Seat of Hickman County which was for years known as Keg County. Now Keg County simply meant that there were a lot of folks who ran moonshine, made their living doing that and so that’s where we got the name Keg County. Centreville, Hickman County is the birth place of Ophelia Cannon. Many people know her as Minnie Pearl. Recently a year or two ago had a—a statute put up of her on the—on the Town Square, so we’re sort of for her; Del Reeves was also born and raised here. He—he recently passed away. He was a star on the Grand Ole Opry for years. We—I don't know what else we’re known for really; a lot of good folks. A lot of people say that we’re part of the buckle of the Bible belt, have a lot of churches—very religious town. I was born and raised here and—and I think it’s—it’s a great place. We have really good schools. We have a lot of diverse restaurants actually for such a small town; probably not many more than 3,000 folks or so inside the City limits. We have Mexican and fish and barbecue and spaghetti and pizza and this and that, so it’s a good place. It’s a good place.
And you were born and raised here. Growing up what barbecue restaurants if any do you remember being in this—in this town?
We had a couple of small ones that would—seems like barbecue restaurants are—are the most—I know restaurants are the most I guess opened and—and closed or failed businesses there are, but it seems like the barbecue restaurants even more so. We had a couple little mom and pop restaurants, barbecue related—Stone’s Barbecue comes to mind is—is the name of one little place that—that was open for a while. And there’s been some other folks who have really tried it but it’s—it’s been a real hit and miss. I would think—I may be wrong and speaking out of turn, but I think we’re probably had—we’ve—we’ve had the—the best longevity of any barbecue restaurant at least that I can recall here, so what we hope is that when people in Centerville think of barbecue that they think of us ‘cause we are the only if you will barbecue restaurant. I mean there are some other places here that serve barbecue but it’s not their primary objective as it is here.
And tell me how you got into the barbecue business.
When I was about 15 years-old in high school I played basketball with a fellow who worked at a barbecue restaurant [Cherry’s] in Dixon, Tennessee which is just not too far outside of Nashville. And he actually was the cook and he cooked it the way that we do here, just in a pit with hickory coals and things like that. And so they needed someone to help him cook barbecue. So he asked me if I wanted to you know do a little work on the weekends or at night and make a little spending money and I was like sure. I didn’t have anything else going on. So 15 years-old began doing that, learned how to pretty much do what we do right now; we—there’s not much different than the way—than the way we did it in—in Dixon and my brother also worked there as well from about the same age. He also has a barbecue restaurant; it’s in Dixon now. Bart’s Barbecue is the name of that but—so that’s kind of how we—how we got started. And really liked it; kind of seemed to be our little niche and so here we are, some gosh well over 20 years later.
You cook Boston butts you said. Why do you cook butts; why do you think it’s a good piece of meat compared to shoulders or similar cuts?
At Cherry’s Barbecue we cooked shoulders and shoulders are—are very good. There’s no question about that and I know a lot of folks use those. A lot of work in pulling the shoulders; a lot—several bones, gristle fat, vein—this and that; when I opened here one of my salesmen said well have you thought about trying Boston butts? All I knew was shoulders and I intended on cooking shoulders, but—so he—he brought me down a pack or two of Boston butts. Cooked them and just immediately fell in love with them because a lot less waste; the yield to me is—is certainly is—is far better. Just one bone, just a little bit of fat and you’re good to go pretty much; it’s just—it’s a lot less complicated. I think it’s the—the yield again is—is greater. Little easier to handle ‘cause they’re a little smaller, cook—can cook them—if you’re pushed a little you can cook them a little quicker I think. And so it’s just a matter of preference and—and to be honest I guess it’s just me being lazy; it’s just a lot less work but—but to me I can't tell a lot of difference in a shoulder—in shoulder meat as far as the actual taste and in the Boston butt, so—. It works for us.
Do you season or salt the butts before you put them on?
Yeah; all we do is just regular table salt. We—we put the butts, cut side up and season—season them with salt—quite a bit of salt actually and then that’s all that we do to them, literally. We don't—we don't have any kind of a dry rub; we don't inject anything in them. Again at the end—the end product is not mixed with any kind of sauce; it’s my opinion that if your meat is good you may not necessarily want sauce on it. I think sauce tends to—obviously it somewhat hides the flavor of the meat and so we prefer just to make the sauce our self which it’s homemade, but we make that and have it on the table here. But we have a lot of folks who do not use sauce at all and so really from—from the beginning the process is just a little bit of salt and that’s it. And it—again it—it seems to work or has so far.
And how long does the meat cook for?
We try to cook it 12 hours to 14 if we can. Now again that process can be sped up if you need to but obviously as most people know, the longer you can cook it and the more you can draw it out the—the more tender it’ll be, the more moist it’ll be, so—so we can get them done in eight hours if we had to. But we generally cook them overnight; usually put them on—we have a—a fellow who works—we call third shift who is our main cook. He will get the meat on around 6 o'clock, 7:00 or so and then we take it off the next morning or I take it off around 6:00 or 7:00. So normally it’ll run about 12 hours; we cook it every night. It’s fresh every day and we cook pork, we cook brisket, chicken, ribs, turkey which is a big seller and—and all that’s just done on—on the pit. We burn hickory wood, shovel the coals under the meat, and that’s it. I mean it’s not—not—it’s not brain surgery.
How do you speed up the process? Is it just a matter of adding more fuel?
Yes; that’s it—fuel being coals. We can cook it at a little hotter temperature. I’ll let you know—you can go out back and look in a little bit but there’s—I mean there’s no knobs, there’s no gas lines, there’s no eyes, there’s no thermometer; there’s—there’s nothing. It’s just coals and a shovel and you do it—you do it long enough and you begin to learn how to fire the meat, how to—how many coals to put under there given what—given how—how fast you’re trying to get it done. So you know just if you wanted to cook it quicker again you—you risk it being drier but it’s just a matter of adding more coals and—and more frequently rather than letting the—the coal time, you know you may put coals under the meat at—at the beginning of an hour and may not you know fire them again for another two or three hours. The heat outside has a lot to do with that; if it’s dead in the middle of winter, obviously it takes for us because our building is not insulated. It’s just an old fallen down pit; the one that like you might imagine in my opinion in the South, and so we have to fire it a lot harder in the wintertime. The summertime like today if it’s going to be 90—95 degrees like it has been the last few days the meat cooks a lot quicker, and so it just depends on a lot of different circumstances and—and a lot of different variables.
Can you describe the pit how it’s constructed and laid out?
It—it—let’s see; it’s probably—it’s concrete block, probably four feet high and then it’s just wood studs, metal roof, some screen around it; it’s not pretty by no means. Again we’ve had a few fires, but it’s still standing. I expect one morning I’ll get here and the thing will just have—have fallen in and—and the smart thing would probably be to obviously have some type of metal—metal trusses so even if it did catch fire it’s not going to burn down but it’s—it’s got the—my wood burner is just outside the door. It’s a—it’s quarter inch gas pipeline that I got from my uncle who worked for the Gas Company and there have been thousands and thousands of fires built in it, and—and I mean it will withstand a long, long time. So it’s just—again in my mind’s eye it’s what people would think a barbecue pit is supposed to look like. It’s not real clean looking on the outside. It’s charred. It’s burnt and it just looks like something you’d see out back behind a barbecue restaurant, so—.
I think what you’re known for, what’s most interesting here is the sandwich. It’s a cornbread sandwich; can you talk about that?
Yeah; we—we made little cornbread fritters. Some people would call them fritters or whole-cakes; they look like pancakes pretty much, little flapjack looking things and we did that in Dixon at Cherry’s but—which was—which was good and we sold a lot of that. But we just more or less cooked them on top of a flat grill. When I came here my grandfather told me that everything is—is—everything is good fried in lard. And so we began coating the—the grill, the griddle fairly thick in—in lard and literally we—we fry these. Not the healthiest thing in the world but they’re fabulous; they taste really good and it more or less you fry up two of those. We fry them fresh as ordered and pile barbecue on top of them. Some people you know put slaw on them and this and that, pickles and whatever. We—we serve everything pretty well plain and then if folks want something added on top then we do that. I know there’s some places that it comes standard with slaw on it, with pickles—whatever and I found it’s a lot easier just to put it on as they need it than to try to take it off if they didn’t want it and then you—then you ruin that, so—. That’s probably one of our best sellers is the barbecue on cornbread. We—we sell a lot of turkey; I think a lot of folks have become a lot more health conscious and you know being the greasy spoon that most barbecue places are and I don't claim to be any different, it—it is good to have something of a healthy nature. We have that; we have smoked half chickens. Again we do beef brisket; we pull that. We don't slice it; we pull it just like we do the pork. On Fridays and Saturdays is when we have the chicken halves and—and pork ribs, spare ribs. We do everything is from scratch; turnip greens—pretty—I say everything; most everything is from scratch—turnip greens, white beans, baked beans; potato salad is made in-house; the mayonnaise slaw is made in-house; vinegar slaw is made in-house so everything has our little handprint on it in some way.
Well what’s the secret to making good barbecue?
I think time is—is a major part of that as I said earlier; I think that the slower that you can cook it at—at a safe heat—you know you don't want to obviously let it get lukewarm but I think time is—is an essential ingredient. We—the way we prepare and cook the barbecue, we utilize the grease. A lot of folks I have heard of people who will cook Boston butts and/or shoulders; they’ll put them on the grill, season or salt them in some way and then they never touch them again ever—until they’re done. I mean they just cook from the bottom up. To me that produces a real dry product, a very dry product and so the way that we do it, we cook them for a while—both sides. Flip them back and forth. At one point of the process we pan them up and put them in a metal—long metal pans. We put—we foil them up; once they’ve gotten what we consider to be enough—enough smoke to—to flavor it, then it essentially cooks probably half the time in—in pans which holds the grease. The grease doesn’t—it doesn’t get wasted. And so we—we mix part of that grease back in with the meat, which produces a very tender—it’s moist yet not greasy.
Do you baste it or do you mix it in—?
No, no; no, we—we—when we—when we pull the barbecue we have—I mean we—we pull—pull it off and it’s hot. I mean it’s steaming hot. We have these heavy rubber gloves and we pull the—pull the bones and all that out, put the meat in this big pot that we mix it in and then pour the grease back over the top of it. And then with these gloves we just—we just start mixing. And—and it takes about five—ten minutes to you know pull out some of the waste; there’s not much but pull out a little bit of gristle or this or that and—and—and that’s—to me, my opinion that’s where a lot of places lose their flavor. That’s why you’ve got to have sauce to put on it because you—grease, I know when folks think of grease they think of—of unhealthy which obviously it—it is but think of—of you know grease as your friend. Pork fat rules I think is what—what’s his name says, and it does. I mean I think that’s where the flavor is at. … So my opinion for the way we do it anyway, the—the key to good barbecue is—is grease.
To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.