Friday, May 3

Remembering Pitmaster Ricky Parker

Photo by Joe York
SFA filmmaker Joe York wrote this remembrance of pitmaster Ricky Parker after attending Parker's funeral on Wednesday, May 1, in Lexington, Tennessee. 

They buried Ricky Parker yesterday. A few miles down the road from the cinder block pits where he cooked whole hogs for more than half his life, from the sliding glass window where he sold sandwiches, from the creosote-stained door where he hung the “SOLD OUT” sign every afternoon to let the latecomers know not to bother, they gathered to say they were sorry, to say goodbye, to say that they didn’t know what to say.

They dressed him as he dressed himself. In blue Dickies, a tan work shirt with a pack of Swisher Sweets peeking from the breast pocket, and his burgundy and brown ball cap resting on the ledge of coffin, he went to his reward. The only thing missing was his greasy apron. I imagine it hangs on a nail somewhere back by the pits where he left it.

They came to eat at Scott’s Barbecue long before I did. For years it was run by its namesake, Early Scott, who grew the business from a roadside stand into a place of pilgrimage. Along the way, he took Ricky in and he raised him as his own son, though he wasn’t. Ricky recalled how he came to live and work with Early in an interview I did with him in 2005:

“When I was sixteen, me and my dad got into it and I hit him with a baseball bat because he was whooping up on my momma. I went to school the next morning and when I come back he had all my clothes sitting out on the front porch. So I called Mr. and Mrs. Scott and I’ve been with them ever since."

"Ever since" lasted thirty-five years. In that time Early taught Ricky how to cook hogs, how to coax smoke and vinegar into every nook and cranny of the carcass, how to burn down the leftover hickory scraps from the local ax-handle factory into the perfect catalyst for their edible alchemy, how to load the shovel, where to put the fire, when to stoke it, and when not to. Mostly, he taught him how to work and how to wait, the only two ingredients that really matter. Somewhere along the way Early faded into the smoke and Zach and Matthew emerged from it. Ricky taught his boys what Early taught him, and through it all they came.

They came to the tiny, glass window and asked for shoulder, and ham, and middlin. They asked for extra slaw and extra sauce. And whether it was Early or Ricky or Zach or Matthew that handed the sandwiches and trays and cans of Coke through the window, it always tasted the same, always smelled the same, and they always came back and came back and came back. And when they ran through one hog, Ricky and the boys would go back and lift another from the pit to take its place.

It was fitting then, and crushing, that it was those same boys who lifted their father’s casket and carried him to the front of the sanctuary at the Sand Ridge Baptist Church in Lexington, Tennessee, yesterday, where the parking lot was so full and the lines were so long that you’d swear you were at Scott’s.

They filled the church and they sat quietly as the preacher spoke. They bowed their heads when he bowed his head. They amen’ed when he amen’ed. And when there we no more words to say, they stood and came one by one to say goodbye to Ricky Parker.

They filed past his body, looking down at the restless man turned still life. I was with them. He was there and he wasn’t, more something ready-made for a wax museum now than the man who roamed the pits, who burned more hickory in his fifty-one years than lightning ever did, who spent his days here transforming hogs, and himself, through an inscrutable transubstantiation of fire and smoke into the embodiment of two of our greatest human virtues, patience and hard work.

I paused over him and noticed that in his right hand someone had placed a single cigar between his index and bird fingers. His thumb rested, anticipatory, on the business end of the Swisher Sweet and in that moment I couldn’t help but imagine a scene in which Ricky saunters up to St. Peter, looks him up and down and says, “Well, Pete, you got a light for me or what?”

They will still come to Scott’s. The smoke will still rise behind the old wooden store that Early built and passed on to Ricky, that Ricky passed on to his boys. One morning not too long from now, they’ll get up before any of us would dream of waking. They’ll drive out to the edge of town and light a fire. They’ll heave a hog on the pit and shovel a load of coals under it and wait. And when the fire and smoke have done what their daddy told them it would, they’ll reach up and grab the greasy apron from the nail where Ricky left it and get to work.