Wednesday, August 15

Voices from the Pit: Sam Donald

Sam's Bar-B-Q, Humboldt, Tennessee

Photo by David Wharton

Sam Donald passed away in 2011. His daughter and son-in-law, Seresa and John Ivory, took over the business. Earlier this summer, Sam's Bar-B-Q sustained major damage from a fire. The Fatback Collective, along with Jim 'n Nick's Bar-B-Q and the SFA, have contributed sweat equity in the family's rebuilding efforts. As of this posting, Seresa and John are selling their barbecue on Saturdays outside the building.

As told to April Grayson by Sam Donald, March 2003.

I was born in 1920 in Gibson, about five miles from Humboldt. This building used to belong to my sister’s husband—he had a grocery store. And one day he decided he wanted to fix barbecue, so he asked me if I could make him a pit. I built a concrete pit for him out there, and then they built a big building over it. I used to cook for him sometimes. It’s just something that I picked up.

When my brother-in-law passed in 1988, the place closed. My son told me to I should open it back up. I was 65, so I quit my other job and took over this place. My brother-in-law used to cook some whole hogs. Now, I cook shoulders. I use oak and hickory wood from the sawmills down there in Hardeman County. And I get the shoulders from Dalton’s, over at Jackson. I serve my barbecue in sandwiches or by the pound. I used to smoke ribs and chicken and turkey. But I’m 83 years old, and there’s just so much you can do.

We’re open Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. I still cook the old, old-fashioned way. Now, most barbecue places are going to electric. Most of them are going to electric or gas or some other kind of cooking, but I’m still using wood. Unless it’s cooked by wood, it’s not good barbecue. I don’t rush the cooking. If I put a shoulder on this morning, I’ll take it up sometime tomorrow and put on some more. When I’m cooking, I’ll be back and forth, up til 12:00 at night, 11:00, according to how I feel. And then the next morning around 6:00, I’m back up here cooking.

My sauce recipe is mine. It’s got vinegar. And they always ask me how I make it. I put a little of this, a little of that, and then I’ll taste it. I’ll say, I need some more of this, and I put more. That’s the way I do it.

A guy came in here one time, in business with his brother-in-law, and he wanted me to sell him some sauce. I said, “Well, I don’t make that much.” And I let him have a bottle of it, you know, and when he came back, he said, “now I want a gallon of this sauce. Here’s the money right here; here’s $200.”

I told him, “I don’t have that much made. I just make a certain amount.”

And he said, “Well, when are you going to make some?”

And I said, “I’ll make some on Wednesday.”

And he said, “I was intending to go back home Monday, but I’ll be here when you make some.”

And when he came back by, he handed me $200 for a gallon.