If the smell of smoke from a barbecue pit is the best, the smell of smoke from a burning barbecue restaurant is the worst.
Last June, Jon and Seresa Ivory were called to their Humboldt, Tennessee, restaurant, Sam's Bar-B-Q, at 10 p.m. because of a fire. The fire department extinguished the minor blaze, which had started outside the building. After using heat sensors to ensure the fire was out, the fire department left.
At 2 a.m., the call came again. A fire had started in a different location outside the building, but it was much worse this time. Before being extinguished, it nearly destroyed the restaurant. Overnight, a thriving business with traditions reaching back more than 60 years was brought to a standstill.
Seresa Ivory's father, Sam Donald, began smoking pork in Gibson County in the 1940s. After working for others for years, Sam and his wife, Mary, opened their own restaurant in 1988. Sam died in 2011, and Jon and Seresa took over the business. Their plan then was to keep the business going and, eventually, pass it on to Seresa's daughter, Francesca Martin.
Upon hearing of the fire, Tony Kail, Humboldt resident and author of Meat Fire Wood: The Survival of West Tennessee Barbecue, put out a call for help for the sake of the family and of the community, which was on the verge of losing an institution.
"They are historically tied to one of the deepest barbecue lineages in Gibson County. Sam's is a symbol of an art form that has survived through several generations of family," Kail says.
John T Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) at the University of Mississippi, had just written an essay on West Tennessee barbecue, including Sam's, for Garden & Gun magazine. Kail had previously talked barbecue with Edge, and he immediately contacted Edge regarding the fire. Edge then reached out to his fellow members of the Fatback Collective, a group of like-minded lovers of all things swine. The collective didn't hesitate to take on the task of rebuilding Sam's.
Nick Pihakis of Jim 'N Nick's Bar-B-Q brought a crew to Humboldt to survey the site. Although the roof and wood-framed walls had burned, the cinder-block walls still stood. And most important of all, the pit could be saved.
After putting a plan together, Edge went to the SFA, and the food community in general, asking for volunteers. So it was that 20 people found themselves in Humboldt on two hot days in late July. The majority of the work for the volunteers was to load several dumpsters with debris. The restaurant consisted of a room with the pit, an adjoining room where customers placed their orders, and a larger two-story space.
The lower floor had been a storeroom for items unrelated to the restaurant; its contents had been lost in the blaze. The space above was in the process of being converted into an apartment for Francesca and her children. Fortunately, it suffered only minor smoke damage.
Volunteers began clearing the storeroom with the vision of a new dining room. In the pit room and previous service space, cleanup proceeded under open skies even as more skilled workers were beginning to add trusses for the new roof.
Though the walls and chimney of the pit survived, refurbishing it was the biggest challenge. Decades of accumulated grease and ash formed rock-hard layers inside the potentially fragile pit wall. Alternating bouts of vigorous pickax work and gentle scraping restored the walls to usable condition. With guidance from Jon and Francesca, local masons and iron workers were brought in to line the pit with fire bricks and add a new door.
As a lover of barbecue and a champion of Southern food, Edge is thrilled by the progress that has been made to date: "Sam's is a Tennessee barbecue stalwart with a great back story. It was great to see the town of Humboldt — along with barbecue devotees from around the South — rally to the cause. It was greater still to witness the emergence of next-generation pit master Francesca Martin, known to all who worked the early stages of the rebuild as 'Pit Baby,'" he says.
Seresa Ivory has soldiered on during the entire ordeal, never letting the setback overwhelm her. What has been overwhelming for her is the outpouring of love and assistance. Thanking volunteers at a lunch provided in a local church by the Old Country Store in Jackson, Tennessee, her eyes filled with tears. Later, back at the jobsite, she took a break from working to look on in near disbelief.
"This was a terrible thing, but it has become such a blessing," she says.
Two months into the rebuilding process, the roof is up, and the good kind of smoke is once again rising from the pit. Work on the new and enlarged dining space is well under way, but it's progressing slowly because of typical construction obstacles and because the family is being careful not to overextend themselves. Life continues, however, and the restaurant now serves barbecue from the original small dining room on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.
Sam's Bar-B-Q, 500 W. Main, Humboldt, TN (713-784-9850)