“Thirty-six years you know; you can perfect something in 36 years—oh pray—I pray over this food. Bless it.” – Flora Payne
Flora Payne never thought she’d run a barbecue shop. But when her husband Horton Payne tragically passed away in 1984, his widow along with his mother, co-founder Emily Payne, took the reins of the restaurant. The name ‘Horton’ is still proudly displayed, stenciled on the building’s bright-red awning.
Flora and her son Ron have maintained all of the flourishes that Horton and Emily Payne made special. The pork shoulders are still turned over hickory coals, in a recessed pit set into the wall. The mild sauce simmers all afternoon on the stove. The hotter variety is dispensed via an old liquid soap bottle. Coleslaw is the color of day-glo green, its bright hue energetically sizzles between the meat and bun of a chopped pork sandwich.
We first visited Payne’s Bar-B-Q in 2002 as part of our initial foray into documenting Memphis ‘cue, a project that included photographs, original essays and a smattering of oral history interviews. Visit the original Payne’s Bar-B-Q 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: Flora & Ron Payne
Rien T. Fertel: This is Rien Fertel with the Southern Foodways Alliance. It is Wednesday, July 30, 2008, just 10 minutes to three in the afternoon. I am at Payne’s Barbecue in Memphis Tennessee on the Barbecue Trail. I’m sitting here with Flora Payne and Ron Payne, her son. I’m going to have them introduce themselves and give us their birth dates please.
Flora Payne: Well hello there; I’m Flora Payne—Payne’s Barbecue; birthday December 14, 1947—too much information; thank you.
Ron Payne: I’m Ron Payne, Flora’s son; my birth date is November 24, 1978.
Okay; let’s talk about the beginnings of the restaurant. How long has Payne’s Barbecue been opened?
FP: Since April of ’72.
So April of ’72; who founded Payne’s Barbecue?
FP: My husband and his mother. … Horton Payne. [and] Emily Payne.
And—and Mr. Horton Payne, so he opened Payne’s Barbecue. … How old was he around at the time?
FP: Twenty-five, he was twenty-five. … Uh-huh and he passed at 35.
Passed at 35; what made him want to open up a restaurant so young at such a young age?
FP: I—I guess because he just wanted to do his own thing, you know—you know, his own little boss I guess. [Laughs] … He was in the Service from ’72—no, no, no—from ’69 to ’70, uh-hm, and then he came out and worked at [JC] Penney’s and then in ’72 that’s when he opened the restaurant.
Why did he open a barbecue restaurant?
FP: Well his mother which is Emily, her family barbecued back in the—back in you know I guess the old days in the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s—they had restaurants—her family did.
And the recipes did they carry over from that family?
FP: Yeah; it’s basically the same—the same recipes.
So when did you meet your husband?
FP: High school. [Laughs] … Yeah; yeah we—yeah we started dating in our senior year which is—we graduated in ’65.
Ron; what do you remember about the early years? I mean I guess did you kind of grow up here?
RP: Yeah; I would say I did. I just you know being dropped off, staying after school [Laughs]—things like that. I kind of—it wasn’t my favorite place to be but I did grow up here I would say. … I liked to stay out of school a lot so I got to wipe tables down and stuff like that when I was in elementary school but I might have did a little cash register or something like that but nah. I really just started working here two years ago, so—.
FP: He probably got away with murder, because by the time—you were how old when Horton passed?
RP: Five years old when he passed.
FP: He didn’t get a chance to get the really mean treatment. His dad would have had him in here; I’m sure he would have [Laughs] but being the mom you know you kind of let—your little son get away with murder.
Your husband passed away in what year?
Eighty-four and did his mother take over at that point or did you?
FP: We worked together. We—we worked together; uh-huh. We—we really loved each other so it wasn’t a problem you know like mother-in-law and daughter—no problem. We never had an argument and people like—people just could never could believe that you know I was one of the only people—people would say that she never said anything out of the way to. [Laughs] Now why she—why she did that I don't know ‘cause I seen her—I’ve seen it. … Shared—shared everything; uh-huh it was just like when Horton was living you know. Nothing—nothing changed, nothing; everything was fair you know.
I’ve been in a few times now and it seems to be all types of people. There’s people from out of town definitely. You have you know just a mixed clientele—all types of people. When did business really change?
FP: Oh let me see; I would say by the time we made it down here, uh-huh; so yeah that’s when a lot of out of town(ers). You know the word had started really spreading then so we got a few write-ups and so that always helps. And now it’s like a big thing you know—food magazines here and there and on the internet, so we’re kind of known as the best; so everybody is trying—trying us out and actually since we’ve been back off of vacation we’ve had man—we’ve had quite a few people from out of town, from everywhere. As a matter of fact, we were closed Monday and England—people from—we missed them. [Laughs] But they—I think they said they would be back Friday; uh-hm. But we’ve had people from everywhere so—. And what else?
Well what makes your barbecue good?
FP: Thirty—thirty-six years you know; you can perfect something in 36 years—oh pray—I pray over this food. [Laughs] Bless it.
Well what was on the original menu? Was it different from today?
FP: It’s the same. Nothing has changed. … Nothing has changed—the recipes, the sandwiches, it’s all the same. … The style—the cooking style, everything is the same.
What cut [of pork]; do you use shoulder or butt?
FP: The shoulder uh-huh; we use shoulder and the ribs, uh-huh.
And do you spice them before they go on the fire?
FP: Oh no; you put—you don't put anything on them before you put them in the pit—burn up fast.
And now I’ve seen people cook shoulders in pans and in foil. Do y’all do that or is it just on the—?
FP: We barbecue. [Emphasis Added] [Laughs] No; we don't foil anything. We let it get all the smoke it can. So that’s what you call barbecue; you don't take any of the flavor away from it.
And so the fat drips on the fire—on the coals?
FP: That helps the fire. [Laughs] It keeps the fire going for one thing and the fat off the shoulders. The—the ribs don't have that much fat on it, so I would say the shoulders—once you kind of poke holes in them so and drip—and let it drip and that keeps the fire hot.
Now you do something, and anyone who orders their sandwich here can see that you have a pot of sauce on the stove. I’ve visited dozens of barbecue places; I’ve never seen that. Why do you do that? Is the flame on the whole time?
FP: Yeah; we do it ‘cause it’s cute. [Laughs]
‘Cause it’s cute?
FP: Actually that’s the mild sauce, uh-huh and it’s for sandwiches and not the smoked sausages or the hotdogs. It’s just for the sandwiches. Okay; you can't boil a hot—the hot sauce ‘cause it would probably make you sneeze all day. [Laughs]
And your mother-in-law always did it that way?
FP: Yeah; yeah that’s—that’s how I was taught. I didn’t know a thing about barbecuing so I had to kind of learn. And I’m really—after all these years because since she passed away and—well she stopped working actually about five years ago and I’m just really learning how to cook right now ‘cause she did the cooking. My husband did it and then she did it after he passed away and—and I’m learning.
Can we talk about the slaw? … Can you describe the color and maybe not what goes into it but what it is?
FP: It’s a mustard base—it’s mustard based and probably you’ve tasted a little kind of like tickling that’s—mustard. [Laughs] … Uh-huh; especially on the days that I make it perfect. Actually I’ve been—my mother-in-law told me how to make it. Actually I’ve been making it forever. That was one thing I could do but it’s that tangy sweet taste; that’s what people like about it, uh-huh.
It’s like a very bright, bright green color.
FP: Okay; the green is actually cabbage, the leaves off the cabbage. … Uh-huh; yeah I ground my—my cabbage up every day uh-hm, uh-hm. … So and people think it’s peppers but it’s not pepper—no, no, uh-huh ‘cause sometimes they say I know you put pepper in it because it’s hot. Well it’s not hot; it’s the sauce. They’ll say give me some hot slaw and you tell them it’s not the slaw; it’s the sauce, you know a combination of the two based on each other I guess.
Do you think you make your slaw or your sauces as good as your mother-in-law?
FP: Yes. [Laughs] I made it longer than she did; I mean she actually told me about it and then she did it probably for after the first year she didn’t do it again, uh-huh. So I’ve been making this forever and ever and ever.
What is the future of—of Payne’s Barbecue or what do you want the future to be?
FP: The future is that Ron is going to take over and he’s not going to change a thing. Everything is going to remain the same and I mean that. [Laughs] Yeah; I’m just kidding but hopefully that you know the young man—minds have different things, so if it was left up to Ron, he will—he will change some things and I already know because he tried to make me change things. But if it worked for me in the past it’s going to work for me until I leave her. Okay.
When this restaurant opened you weren’t working here full-time. What do you think your husband would say or think knowing that you’re running his restaurant?
FP: He would love it. [Laughs] He would think like wow; not her. She’s—I can't believe it. [Laughs] It would be quite a—I don't know; I don't even know the word but it would make him happy. I’m sure it would. I’m sure it would you know that—that I had stuck with it first of all through the years you know. Yeah; he would be quite proud of me, like I am. [Laughs] Yeah; it’s—it’s been up and down you know but I always say about a grace—I’m still here, so—. It’s been a blast. Oh don't let me say it like that; that sounds sad and scary. [Laughs] It’s been fun; it’s been really fun, you know. I guess—I guess the reason I can really do it, I’m a people person, so people help me make it through you know. I haven’t had that many rude customers in 36 years that you know I don't think I’ve had probably two good arguments maybe, so that’s—that’s saying a lot, you know, so—. It’s been fun; the customers like—like my friend over there, you know they’re sweet people, easy to get along with you know [Laughs] I guess ‘cause I don't know. I love people I guess—good atmosphere.
And they love your barbecue.
FP: And they love the barbecue. [Laughs] And no doubt about it; no doubt about it—it’s—it’s been real good, uh-hm.
To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.