How 'bout some southern pit bbq?
Tim Doherty
Tim Doherty
is a professional pre-press guy and new convert to digital photography. He is also handy in the garden and around the kitchen. And he is known to have a fondness for Irish whiskey and his sailboat, the Pass Me Some.
Posted 05.15.02
Lennoxville, Quebec


I mean real BBQ.

shouldersTender, juicy pork shoulder that falls off the bone and melts in your mouth. BBQ that has a wonderful smoky flavour that's not injected, but comes from cooking slowly, all day (and all night) over an open bed of shimmering charcoal.

I'm talking about real, down-home, Southern Pit BBQ.

If you've ever had it, you know what I'm talking about. If you've never tasted the real McCoy, then you haven't lived.

Martin, a small university town in western Tennessee, is a place I've visited all my life. My grandmother lived there, my aunt and uncle live there, and my parents lived there. When I think of Martin, I think of catfish dinners, buttermilk biscuits and black-eyed peas but mainly I dream of Pit BBQ. Whenever I'd pay a visit, I'd make sure that there was a pound or two of pulled-pork BBQ*** awaiting my arrival. And the only place to get it was Damron's Pit BBQ out on Highway 22, on the way to Dresden.

JoeOn a recent visit, I decide to learn a bit more about this local institution that's been around since 1947. I was ordering some BBQ to take back home to Canada when I met owner Joe Damron, the man who makes it all happen. I said I did a bit of amateur smoking up in Quebec, where I live, and I was wondering about temperatures and fuel and things that smoking guys talk about. Joe asked me if I would like to see the pits in the back and, being of sound mind and discerning palate, I jumped at the chance. This man's been doing it for years and knows his stuff.

We went out past the butcher area to the smoky room beyond. Here was where the magical transformation of pig to pit BBQ occurs.


The room was about 20' x 30' and held four what you can only call pits. Large. rectangular brick pits, maybe three feet high, eight feet wide and six feet deep. Each pit had a metal lid that was counterweighted and a large exhaust fan mounted through the wall at the back.

Each pit can accommodate about twenty-five full pork shoulders at a time.

Joe says they start out by getting 100 lbs. of charcoal burning in the pit and when it's ready, they spread the coals out evenly over the bottom. Then they put in the rack that holds the shoulders -- I'd say a couple of feet above the coals. Next, on go the shoulders themselves.

They go on au naturel -- naked pork shoulder, no sauce, no special prep, just the way they came off the pig. It's the smoke and the slow cooking that impart the special flavour.

The shoulders will cook from 18 to 24 hours, depending on the wind and temperature conditions outside. Someone has to be there to watch over the process because there's always the chance that fire could break out. If there's a hot spot in coals, Joe just sprays it with a hose to cool it down -- 250 lbs. of burning pork shoulder is not something you want to witness.


I asked him what temperature he cooks the shoulders at and he said he really didn't know. He just puts his hand on the lid of the pit and can feel if everything's right inside. This man's been doing it for years and knows his stuff.

The secret is long and slow. Too hot and the meat will seize up and be tough and dry. You want to sneak up on it nice and slow until it just relaxes off the bones.

The internal temperature has to reach 175 degrees F, as required by federal regulations. There is a federal meat inspector who comes by every day to check that everything is done by the book.

Once the shoulders have reached the proper temperature and are done, they have to be cooled below a certain temperature within six hours to make sure that there is no bacterial growth.

And now the good news.

signYou don't have to visit Martin to be able to experience this gastronomique delight. Damron's is on-line at and you can call up and have real southern pit BBQ delivered to your home. They'll vacuum pack your order, freeze it solid, pack it in dry ice in a styrofoam cooler, and ship it by courier.

And that's exactly what I plan on doing this summer when we have a sailing regatta on Lake Memphremagog. I'm going to have a whole shoulder packed and shipped to me and we're going to have the first R.B. Doherty Memorial Pit BBQ party in Mike's garage overlooking the lake and think nice thoughts about pigs, and the South, and especially about Joe and his crew down in Martin who will probably cook and ship close to 1000 shoulders during the week before the 4th of July.

Pit BBQ. It's as American as apple pie.

Oh, and did I mention their ribs?

***It is so tender that you literally pull it apart -- you don't slice it. You pull it with the grain of the meat so you get long strands of tender, melt-in-your-mouth pork.