Barbecue, which always has been of the people, by the people, and for the people, got hip in the last few years. Any American city with trend-conscious foodies likely has a popular new barbecue restaurant. More than likely, it’s so popular that you have to wait (sometimes hours!) to get in and eat the precious brisket or pork and mac ‘n’ cheese and cornbread and such. Some of this food is yummy, and many of the restaurants do a good job of aping the humble mien of authentic barbecue parlors with such accoutrements as metal trays and tin cups, butcher-paper serving doilies, and blues music on the sound system. I am happy that barbecue has been recognized as a significant cultural phenomenon, although I do wonder if, like so many trends, it will fade from the spotlight and go back to simply being food that ordinary people eat and enjoy without the hoopla.
… all of which is a long-winded introduction to a barbecue parlor that is as basic, fundamental, and unfancy as a restaurant can be: Fresh Air Barbecue of Jackson, Georgia, since 1929. Dining facilities are log-cabin simple, reminiscent of mess hall in summer camp. To give you an idea of just how anti-fashionable this place is, here is the full menu: pork, Brunswick stew, cole slaw. You can get the pork on a plate or in a sandwich and the sandwich can be made on a bun or on slices from a white loaf. There is extra sauce, and it’s nice and tangy; but honestly, this high-on-the-hog ham, infused with hours of hickory-and-oak smoke and hacked to smithereens, is so right as-is with just a twist of vinegar that dressing it up any more than that is lipstick on a pig.
Brunswick stew, dating back to a family recipe from the 19th century, has been part of the menu from the beginning. It is a soupy, brightly seasoned affair thick with ground roast beef and just a few corn kernels — nice when you crumble a few saltines on top. Cole slaw, which was added to the menu a few decades into Fresh Air’s existence, is unique and wonderful. It is finely chopped yet fairly creamy, not the least bit sugared, its flavor a beguiling veggie duet of cabbage and sweet Georgia onions.
One of the unique things about this original Fresh Air Barbecue is that it never really closes up, as the pit operates 24/7/365. The restaurant opens to the public at 8am. Yes, indeed: smoke-cooked pork makes a grand breakfast.
There is a second location of Fresh Air, in Macon, GA, at 3076 Riverside Dr. (478-477-7229). It does not open until 11am and it has a much broader menu.