When people think of Tennessee barbecue, most are quick to bring up the original pit masters of Memphis. But in the Smoky Mountains, barbecue innovations have been flourishing for just as long. Each region of the country has its own sauces, seasonings, and methods. East Tennessee’s border with North Carolina made for a delicious crossover, bringing newcomers to the art, spawning chain restaurants, and pioneering one completely original dish: the Pig Burger. Here, I’ll take a look at some of the best barbecue spots on the east side of the state.
East Tennessee’s Opus
In 1946, Charles Andrew “Brother Jack” Jackson opened his barbecue joint on University Avenue in Knoxville at the ripe age of fifty-two. For most of his life, Jackson made a living as a butcher, but saw an opportunity in the rising popularity of restaurants at the time. He quickly became a local legend due to a simple but delicious creation: the fifty-cent pig burger. While the pig burger’s outstanding flavor and affordable price point left it open to rumors that it was actually made from opossum meat, the recipe was actually very simple: meat was taken off of a rack of spare (pig’s) ribs, ground up with salt and pepper, smashed into a patty and cooked very well done in sometimes day-old bacon grease and onions. This was served on a bun with Jackson’s famous Screamin’ Sauce, a recipe now lost to time that allegedly included ginseng root as its secret ingredient. This gave the pig burger a unique, sweet flavor.
While Brother Jack’s Barbecue would close in 1995 with the passing of his son, Clifford, the legend of the pig burger lives on. Foodmakers swear to sell Brother Jack’s original sauce, and other restaurants began offering the pig burger. Adam Alfrey, historian and food blogger at Nosh Tennessee, mentions Dixson’s Bar-B-Que in Knoxville, an early adopter. Dixson’s version of the pig burger was so successful that the Food Network’s Man vs. Food program featured it in 2010, before the restaurant’s closing.
In early 1950s Bluff City, Tennessee, the Proffitt family opened their own barbecue restaurant as a replacement for an old roadhouse at 900 Elizabethton Highway. Jim Proffitt, who had been operating the roadhouse with a few partners, was left on his own when Sullivan County went dry. Proffitt remembered a restaurant he enjoyed during a Florida vacation, built a pit out of cinderblocks, and the Ridgewood Inn became the Ridgewood Barbecue. His wife, Grace, operated the establishment and developed recipes while their two sons, Terry and Larry, worked in the restaurant as they grew up. Ridgewood continues to be a family-run business operating in the same location. When Jim died, Terry took over running the restaurant with his mother. After they both passed, Larry came to fill the shoes. Today, Larry’s daughter Lisa continues their family tradition.
In Alfrey’s words, Ridgewood is “the definition of an east Tennessee-style barbecue.” With beef and pork smoked for eight to ten hours and shaved thin, original blue-cheese dressing, and a sweet tomato-based barbecue sauce, Proffitt recipes have proven singular enough over the decades. The half-day smoking process of the meat at Ridgewood is not even enough to make it just right: that meat will be chilled and reheated again to make it extra crispy on the outside. The Ridgewood sauce is an extremely well-kept secret. At the time of this article, only two people know the recipe—both Proffitts. The recipe is only written down when it's time for another family member to learn it, and the paper is burned immediately after. The careful process and planning combined with close family ties gives Ridgewood Barbecue a flavor that Alfrey adores: “If I am fortunate enough to be informed that I am about to have my last meal, I’m headed straight there.”.
Good and Fast
While Buddy’s Bar-B-Que is often overlooked as fast food, the chain has been open for fifty years and is still owned and operated by its original founders, the Smothers family. Buddy’s began in 1966, when husband Carcel “Buddy” Smothers, a financier, invested in his wife LaMuriel’s dream of running a restaurant. With the help of cook Hettie Guffey, they opened it at the Pixie Drive Inn in Seymour. LaMuriel and Hettie’s cooking became so sought-after that business doubled within just one year, and Buddy soon quit his finance job to work in barbecue with his wife. The first Buddy Bar-B-Que opened at 5806 Kingston Pike in Knoxville in 1972.
Soon, Buddy’s gained even more popularity by way of the 1982 World’s Fair. Buddy had been catering for local politicians, bringing the family food to rallies in his own Volkswagen van. When he brought that food to the fair, it made a massive impression, cementing Buddy’s as a keeper of Tennessee barbecue tradition. Buddy Smothers was soon recognized as a Restaurateur of the Year and elected president of the Tennessee Restaurant Association.
The restaurant went on to open a total of 19 locations across East Tennessee, adopting the slogan “We Cook It Slow, You Get It Fast.” Now with 350 employees and an annual revenue of $19 million, it has come a long way from the one couple who started it all. However, like Ridgewood, it has stayed with the family — the current owner Mark Limoncelli is the husband of Buddy’s own granddaughter, Jaime Smother Limoncelli. It is a Tennessee, family-run barbecue with plenty of history and original family recipes, from Buddy’s hot fudge cake to LaMuriel’s lemon pie. As Alfrey says, “I would argue that longevity not only cements Buddy's as a barbecue tradition but also makes their very accessible 'cue a recognizable influence on our collective East Tennessee palate.”
Smoky Mountain Specials
East Tennessee’s border with North Carolina takes in lots of whole hogs smoked and chopped, often cooked in sweet vinegar-based sauces. The hogs are almost always smoked in hickory or applewood as opposed to charcoal. Tomato-based barbecue sauces enter the menu by way of Memphis, making a unique regional blend of flavors and styles specific to Appalachia.
While the history is rich, there is a newcomer looking to start some new traditions. Trotter’s Whole Hog BBQ at 127 Bruce Street in Sevierville has set out to “define East Tennessee in the world of whole-hog barbecue.” I was lucky enough to speak with David Rule, the mastermind behind the eatery. Rule was born and raised in Maryville. He told me that while East Tennessee has a lot of great barbecue, he is setting out to give the region its own identity. Finding himself “sandwiched in between two incredible regions,” he wants to create a flavor that stands on its own outside of them: “I’m not saying I’m the dude that defines East Tennessee Barbecue, I’m just saying East Tennessee Barbecue needs a definition,” he explains. This begins with a pronounced smoky flavor in the style of Al Benton, who Rule and I agree is a wonderful man to follow. “Salt of the earth. One of the nicest people I’ve ever met,” Rule says of Benton.
Rule’s hogs are locally raised by Satterfield Family Farms, only ten short miles from Trotter’s itself. These hogs are not skinned at Satterfield, and instead, Rule uses their skin for the pork rinds he serves at the restaurant. The rest of the hog is smoked at a temperature of up to 75° Fahrenheit for four to five hours, then smoked at a steadily dropping temperature for eight to twelve more. A small hog (about 110 pounds) will smoke for fourteen to sixteen hours, and a large one (around 175 pounds) will smoke for eighteen to twenty. This is less so cooking than it is bringing a deep smoke flavor to the meat. Rule’s second step in creating the individual Eastern Tennessee flavor is to use local ingredients. Where a lot of sauces will use sugar or molasses, Rule uses sorghum sourced at Tarwater Farm & Mills only four miles away.
Trotter’s also offers what is turning into the modern-day pig burger: the smoked meatloaf sandwich. As great inventions often do, the recipe for this came by accident, when Rule and his wife Cara (the meatloaf mastermind) had a few guests over and the meatloaf went in the oven a little late. Guests were getting hungry, and so Rule took his wife’s meatloaf out of the oven only to find it still medium rare. His solution was to cut it into slices, sear it, and serve it with homegrown tomato jam. It was a hit. Now Trotter’s offers the seared meatloaf—smoked, of course—on a sandwich bun at his restaurant, and it’s quickly become the second most ordered item after their whole hog barbecue. “There’s no other way to make meatloaf after this,” he declares.
Rule and his employees, including pit master Johnny Hogg (“That’s really his name,” he assures me) work every day to refine recipes and birth new traditions for East Tennessee. This drive to create comes from knowledge and a deep appreciation of past and present traditions. While it takes work and dedication, Rule and his team are committed to their goal. “I’ve been cooking pigs for a long time,” he smiles, “But I never thought I would be cooking one a day.”