Smile Politely

Southern Illinois BBQ Ramble: Part 1

Mama’s cookin’ chicken fried in bacon grease

C’mon along boys, it’s just down the road a piece.

“Down the Road A Piece,” Amos Milburn, Chuck Berry, and a hundred others.

Much grousing in the household last Thursday when complications put the kibosh on the spring break frolic in the sunny southland. In recompense, I suggested a quick two-day trip to Illinois’ own sunny southland. Southern Illinois is quite the place these days, with wineries and resort destinations springing up like the wild spring onions that can make the local milk taste a mite peculiar this time of year (I happen to like it tastes like spring).

So we looked at the web tourism sites, and even though we look nothing like the fit, trim 30-40ish J-Crew clad couples who were clinking their wine glasses, we decided to go anyway. For a wine tour? Hell no. We had a craving for meatier stuff: southern Illinois style BBQ. One of the best in the world if you take my word for it, and you should.

A little old honky-tonk music in the car’s CD player and we’re off.



Little Egypt is kind of a second home, although I haven’t spent much time there since they planted my grandparents at the base of the one of the hollows near Rudement a ways south of Harrisburg in the graveyard of one of the literally hundreds of various Free-Will Baptist, Southern Baptist, Pentecostal or other weird offshoot country churches littering the region. This one happens to be the Spring Valley Social Brethren, of which I think there are and have been only three congregations the aforementioned country one, one in Harrisburg itself, and one in Pontiac, Michigan, to which many of the local men migrated for work in the car factories in the ‘20s and the bomber and tank plants in the ‘40s.

When they buried my grandfather, the preacher with great joy informed the assembled that Louie in his final days had finally accepted Jesus and was on his way to Social Brethren heaven. Since the preacher was probably 90 years old, I doubt he heard the muffled snorts of derision at his declamation. The older menfolk mostly just put up with the religion in those days. During the evening viewing, while the womenfolk sat praying and consoling inside the funeral home, the talk outside was about hunting, and you could catch a whiff of alcohol in the air.

When in college at SIU, we had wandered far and wide enjoying the natural splendor of this unglaciated region, and loved poking around in local culture, something I’d picked up on as a child driving around with Grandpa. We always thought he was lost until we came down some back gravel road into Muddy, then the only wet town in Saline County. The rest of the trip would be accompanied by a six-pack of Drewry’s next to him on the front seat. Then it would be 40 miles an hour up and down the winding trails, one hand on the wheel, one on the beer, and one occasionally on the door handle to open it, lean out and spit the tobacco juice. Grandma sat in the back seat fuming and muttering, “Louie, you know better” she didn’t take with sin. No beer or tobacco chewing was allowed in her house.

Louie drove a cab in Harrisburg for a while in the ’20s, the decade of the great southern Illinois gang war between the bootleggers Charlie Birger and the Shelton Brothers. Birger lived in Harrisburg, where he was trying to be respectable businessman and pillar of the community and halfway succeeding.

Growing up, I’d heard stories about the gang war, which included the first domestic aerial bombing in the U.S. The Shelton boys hired a barnstorming pilot to drop some dynamite bombs on Birger’s Shady Rest, a roadhouse/hideout/arsenal between Harrisburg and Marion, tucked away behind the BBQ stand on the road where the kids could get some Q and maybe a kick of the white mule.

But the bombers missed Shady Rest, hitting only the dog-fighting pit, killing a dog. [That’s Birger in the bulletproof vest sitting on top of the car in front of Shady Rest in the photo] Both gangs built armored truck/tanks with Tommy-gun slots to cruise the roads between all the coal towns while looking for each other, and roadhouse shootouts were common. Birger would sometimes hail Louie’s cab to drive him to one of his roadhouses and Grandpa loved telling the story of always being scared half to death that the Shelton boys would appear at any moment and Tommy-gun him to the Social Brethren promised land.



So our first stop was getting off I-57 at Benton to see the museum at the old jailhouse, where Birger spent his final days. Local museums are usually pretty dreary affairs Victorian era dresses and furniture, some old kitchenware, etc. etc. This one is definitely worth seeing. It’s a far grimmer jail tour than Alcatraz (and you don’t have to take the miserable cold boat ride across San Francisco Bay), and the display of armaments (including S. Glenn Young’s pearl-handled pistol), models of the armored trucks, photographs and contemporary newspaper accounts, and drawings of the gang’s doings by one of Birger’s henchmen who decided to become an artist in prison are all worth an extended visit, particularly if you’re an aficionado of old-style gangster lore.

You can stand in the very spot Birger did when the picture shown here was taken shortly before his execution. The reconstructed gallows outside the jailhouse, where Birger became the last man legally hanged in Illinois in 1928, is a little tacky, but it’s all in good clean macabre fun.

A quick tour of the Benton courthouse square shows it to be in fair shape for one of these towns. Most of the storefronts had an antique mall in them only one was empty. That’s about as good as it gets for thriving downtowns in non-metropolitan Illinois these days.

But it was getting on, and it was time for the first BBQ stop of the dayand the first step in the challenge of just how many BBQ meals can one eat in one day. BBQ is serious business here; almost every town has at least one pit, and larger ones will certainly have several. And everyone has strong opinions on which is best. You could spend weeks here eating nothing but Q for every meal and still not exhaust the possibilities.



We cut across on Illinois 14 to the down-on-its-heels old coal town of Christopher, where we planned to have lunch at the original Larry’s Pit BBQ, which touts itself as “Southern Illinois’ Finest.” They have a somewhat plausible claim. Our first indicator was pulling into the parking lot and seeing a morbidly obese woman in her mobility scooter at the drive-in window. Ahh, this must be the place. You can’t have it if you want to live, but you must have it anyway.

Inside we order our iced tea (both sweetened and unsweetened are always offered down here), and peruse the menu for sides, since the entrée is pre-ordained: pulled pork sandwiches. Slaw is de rigueur in judging a Q joint, so that was an easy choice. Praise the Lard, Larry’s has deep fried okra, so that was also an easy choice.

While waiting for the food, an older enormous couple, him missing a leg, set themselves down next to us and pleasantries are exchanged. They’re up from Ziegler, a dreary coal town a few miles away that is continually sinking from land subsidence because they mined out all the coal below the town. They say Larry’s is indeed the best BBQ in the region. I want to ask, “where’s the leg? Mine accident?” But decide it’s probably impolite and my bet is diabetes anyway.

The food arrives and conversation ceases in lieu of lip smacking and murmurs of pleasure. The sandwiches are huge and piled high with an excellent shredded pork, moist, tender and slightly smoky, and smothered in Larry’s sauce, which is a variation on one of the typical styles here. It’s tomato-based and a little sweet, along with vinegary tang, lemon juice, paprika, and several other ingredients. It’s good, with the proper amount of snap and savor, but not quite what we’re seeking it’s a little too close to mainstream suburban stuff. It’s certainly better than the cloyingly sweet stuff one usually finds, or worse, thick molassassy/ketchup concoctions, but it’s still too sweet for my taste, although Nina likes it but she’s originally from Massachusetts.

The slaw is better than average, and the sandwiches are served with a mustardy chow that is a definite plus (you can get it on the sandwich or on the side). The okra was probably out of the freezer bag and was decent. Could have been better, but hey: it was deep fried okra, which is way too rare these days. Overall we gave the place a B (me a B-, she a B+) and would return next time through, or hit the offshoots in Carbondale or DuQuoin, but probably wouldn’t seek it out when there are so many other stations to pilgrimage to.


Deep fried okra takes me back to when I worked in a dormitory kitchen at SIU (after flunking out), back when food was real food and was cooked mostly from scratch by the local ladies. People don’t believe me when I tell them what a typical dinner line contained it was another time, another country. Fried chicken was a staple, fried or stuffed pork chops, fried apples, at least two kinds of potatoes, usually scalloped and mashed (with white chicken gravy), yellow hominy, deep fried okra (full pods), big fat Kentucky pole beans cooked for hours with bacon and onions, several pies, and oh yes, a variety of congealed salads (Jell-O salads for you Yankees), and loaves of Hillbilly Bread to mop everything up with. My god it was good. That, and the 88 cents a six pack Cook’s beer might explain how I went from uneducated and skinny to marginally educated and fat in only six years.

There was no rush to get out of college in those days. Hell, tuition was only $270 a year, and the books for core courses were free, loaned by the book service. I think it was only 50 cents to go watch the Salukis play football, the most interesting part of which was often watching a couple of mascot Saluki dogs hump in the end zone. It was downright communistic. Fortunately Rush Limbaugh was then a top 40 disc jockey and Glenn Beck had his marbles, which he was still playing with.

After my stint in the dorm kitchen, I got a night janitor job cleaning up the agriculture building, and the food got even better. We students worked a four-hour shift, getting off at 10, but the civil servant janitors worked an eight-hour shift so sometime in the evening it was lunch time (or dinner time as they say). Fortunately, there was a kitchen in the building and Billy Bob Badgett and Art DuHamel (pronounced Doo’ Hamel), our civil service bosses, would bring in whatever they had recently shot or fished out of Crab Orchard Lake or the Big Muddy River, along with a coffee can full of bacon grease, and a sack of cornmeal mixed with pepper and spices. Soon we’d have a feast of fried rabbit, squirrel, bullheads or crappie, along with a loaf of Hillbilly bread.



Leaving Christopher fully stuffed, we mosey on down to Herrin, a town with as colorful a history as any in Illinois. It was here that the 1922 Herrin Massacre  striking miners marched a bunch of scabs brought down from Chicago into the woods and killed a score of them helped earn the county its sobriquet of Bloody Williamson, an aspersion reinforced when the locals acquitted the miners, which drove the press, notably the Chicago Tribune, crazy.

Herrin was also the site of several decisive gun battles between the bootleggers and the Ku Klux Klan, loosely led by the aforementioned S. Glenn Young, a former federal cop and militaristic type. The Klan arose there to enforce prohibition and chase the bootleggers out of the county. Young led several raids against liquor establishments, which also included the homes of the many Italian (pronounced Eye-talian) miners who were making their own table wine for domestic use, not sale (they also had the misfortune of being of the wrong religion). Feelings ran high, and when Birger pal Ora Thomas bumped into Young in the lobby of the European Hotel downtown, they shot each other to death. Soon the Klan was defeated and the bootleggersBirger and the Sheltons allied against a common foe were free to resume normal business, at least until the allies had a falling out and the gang war began.

Herrin is a very Italian sort of place, with lots of good Italian eats, as well as BBQ places, but our next destination was a little coal patch hamlet a few miles to the west.



Colp, Illinois, was once a wide-open, wild and wooly little town.  Birger had several prostitution cribs there as well as the ubiquitous roadhouses and there were other establishments and taverns.

Colp and nearby environs have one of the largest African-American populations in southern Illinois, somewhere in the neighborhood of a quarter of the population. Several communities were settled after the civil war by former slaves from Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina, most of whom are long gone. African Americans were also brought up as strike breakers in the late 19th century, mostly from Tennessee. That is the origin of the community in the Colp area. If most of southern Illinois is poor, and it is, Colp is dirt poor. Today it’s a rural slum of trailers, low quality old miner cabins, and apparently only one commercial building our destination, John Johns BBQ.

John Johns, as the photo of the glutton entering for his second lunch shows, is a nondescript metal building with basic fast food seating/décor inside. Like most BBQ places it has a few old newspaper articles about the restaurant on the wall, as well as some stories about the folks associated with the tradition; here about the black (even before work) miners walking the several miles to the various shafts between Colp and Cambria. The menu looks good large and small bbq, deep-fried sausage, ribs, tips, chicken, wings, ham and beans. Plus fish; catfish or bluegill. Lots of places serve bluegill plates or sandwiches (maybe the focus of another trip).

Sides include the usual slaw, fries, rings, but also corn nuggets, fried pickle, fried okra, mushrooms and asparagus. Still stuffed we just want one bbq sandwich to try, but they have a special that day of three for $6.50. Who could say no? We order one sweet, one hot, and one spicy. Alas, the spicy sauce is not made yet, so we settle for two hot.

John Johns sauce is good. Somewhat like Larry’s but a little redder and sharper. Good enough, but probably only a B in my book due to sweetness, but it was much more to Nina’s taste who gives it an A. The meat on the other hand: Goodgawdalmighty! This is the stuff. Succulent, moist, with crispy bits and a strong hickory smoke. Served chopped, rather than sliced or shredded, this is as good as any you’ll ever get-I kid you not. Overall, this place is at least an A- (Nina give it an A) and more than worth the drive and a stop. Next time we’ll make it the first stop and try the bluegill and some of the fried vegetables, or even maybe the ham ‘n beans. Better yet, we’ll try to hit it on a Sunday when they have, as the menu says, “Soul Food Sundays!!!!!!!!” to fill up on all the menu items, plus greens, cornbread, mac and cheese and all that good stuff.



As it’s now mid-afternoon and as we have another BBQ rendezvous for supper (not dinner that means lunch here), we get back in the car to head down to Carterville to catch Illinois 13 and on to our lodgings in Makanda for a little nap before the day’s main event. Along the way we keep ourselves awake by trying to remember (it was the late ’60s and early ’70s, man) life down here. The highlight was recalling a friend from CU, a somewhat demure albeit no stranger to psychedelic drugs woman, and her husband, a nice Jewish boy albeit an acidhead artist from the east coast. Caught up in the Jesus Freak movement, they had joined some Baptist church and were living the Christian life in Carterville. They hadn’t realized that hereabouts when the New Year is rung in, people don’t blow party favors and clink champagne glasses; they take their shotguns out and start blasting the heavens it sounds like a war zone. Totally freaked them out.

With that little chuckle, we hit 13 and began to see just how much the region had changed since we last spent significant time here. What once was mostly open space was now one long strip mall, which we later discovered ran pretty much uninterrupted from Marion to Murphysboro. Economic development. More on that and the rest of the tour later.

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