At around 3:00 am, the pork shoulders slid off of the small metal rack they were perched upon, and tumbled into the bottom of Mike Bartlett’s homemade smoker. It was a rotisserie-style cooker Marshall’s father brought to life from old cotton gin parts decades before, and we were using it in the 2018 Memphis in May BBQ competition. After three days of non-stop cooking and tending to the fire, our dreams of BBQ Fest domination came crashing down. The pork shoulders were all lying in a pile at the bottom of the smoker. I took facefulls of smoke while fishing the pork shoulders out of the belly of the smoker, cursing the decision to enter the contest. The smoker had first broken down around midnight, and this was the knockout punch on our pork shoulder entry. The cook team showed up a few hours later, and we put the pork back on the smoker and decided to finish what we came to do. To no one’s surprise, we placed 52nd out of 54th that year. While we were licking our wounds, teams all around us were getting the good news that they had placed in the “Top 10” and were headed to the next round. I watched the multitude of greasy, bearded dudes in their aprons and black nitrile gloves high-five and hug each other. I was crushed.
I did not start cooking BBQ for the competitions. In fact, I had never seen a smoker until four years earlier when I worked at Home Place Pastures as an intern. My first task at Home Place was serving whole-hog BBQ at a party that was being thrown on the farm. It was incredible. The whole community was there for it! Local blues bands were playing sets, people were dancing, and everyone was getting in line for pulled pork. The night hit its peak when Sharde Thomas brought out the fife and drum band and got everyone on their feet. I grew up working on a traditional row-crop farm, but my first day at Home Place Pastures had been unlike anything I had experienced. I didn’t know that these kinds of parties had long been a part of the community. If you’ve never heard of Otha Turner or the Goat Picnic, do yourself a favor and check out some of the videos that document this famous party. Everyone worked hard during the week, and on the weekends they would play hard too. In the summertime, picnics and yard parties were happening every weekend. I grew up in The Delta south of Greenville, Mississippi and we didn’t have “picnics”. I was on the tail end of my time in the Ole Miss English Department and I hadn’t felt this much at home since I started college. I was hooked, and desperate to cook more barbecue.
After my internship, I was eventually offered a full time job at Home Place where the work hard/party hard ethos was alive and well. We were working long days building infrastructure for the growing number of hogs and I loved it. When we were first getting started, everything felt like an uphill battle. Work weeks included feeding hogs, laying water lines, building fences, butchering hogs, packing orders, and were capped off with a grueling two-day delivery route that had me driving to New Orleans and back. By the time Friday night rolled around we had a head full of steam, the smoker fired up, and friends en route out to the farm. It’s been almost 7 years since I worked that first summer, and the amount of good times we’ve had that involved barbecue with our friends are too many to count. Being able to share the fruits of this labor is something that I do not take for granted. The farm I grew up on didn’t produce food like this, at least not in such a tangible way. When we harvested corn or soybeans, we simply loaded it onto an 18-wheeler and sent it to the grain elevator where it would be shipped away never to be shared with our family and friends. At Home Place our harvest connected us with people and businesses around us. The barbecue and farm parties seemed to come with the territory.
We have learned a thing or two since we first started cooking. We’ve spent enough time with smoke filled eyes and dozing off by the fire that we are finally able to pull it together and present some pretty good stuff. We’ve had help along the way, but we’ve also put in the time and reps required to learn. When we started raising cattle, we learned to cook brisket and beef ribs. Getting the USDA plant online meant we could make sausages and hams, so we started smoking those as well. Our BBQ repertoire has expanded and grown along with our business.
Of course we’re trying to make money, grow our business, and establish regenerative farming practices, but we also love a good party! And even though we can’t throw a yard party or a picnic right now, we all have to eat. So, we’ve started up a little thing we’re calling BBQ Saturday! I’m not here to tell you that this is the best BBQ in the world, but I am here to tell you that it’s the 7th best. That’s right. The following year in the 2019 “World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest” we took 7th place! We bought a new smoker, picked the best pork shoulders we had to offer, and the team rallied for a 7th place finish. The celebration that ensued will forever be remembered amongst the proud men and women of the 2019 Sweet Cheeks BBQ team.
One weekend out of every month we’re going to be cooking barbecue, and once the weather improves we’re going to be offering live music and getting some of our local bands back on the stage. We’re making plans to expand our outdoor seating, add yard games and more accommodations for hanging out at the store. This pandemic has made hard work harder, and good times almost impossible. But not totally impossible. Come out and grab some Q and a couple beers from 11am until we sell out. Don’t miss out on a good thing!