The time is 5:30 on a cool Friday morning, and, as the old saying goes, it's as dark as the inside of a black cat. A little breeze riffles the tall pines lining a country road in Huntsville, a town of 35,000 in southeastern Texas, and an insomniac mockingbird sings somewhere deep in the shadows. Although every cell in my body is screaming for caffeine, I've somehow managed to show up on time at the small parish hall behind New Zion Missionary Baptist Church. Soon a pair of headlights appears in the distance: Robert Polk has come, as he does three days a week, to fire up the barbecue pit.
Looking with resignation at the soot-covered, nine-foot-long metal drum cooker in front of him, the taciturn 44-year-old outlines the task ahead. "First, I have to shovel the old ashes out and put them in the trash," he tells me. "Then I put some oak logs in the firebox," he says, referring to the metal receptacle that serves as the pit's fireplace. He gets a roaring blaze going and lets it cool down before he scrapes the grill racks clean. Then he disappears into the kitchen and returns with four enormous beef briskets that have been sitting in the refrigerator overnight while a seasoning rub from a closely guarded recipe seeps into every fiber and pore. After heaving the meat onto the racks, Polk settles into a rusty metal folding chair a few feet away. The sun has come up, and the day is getting warmer; the pit radiates a slumber-inducing heat. "I'll keep an eye on it, but I might nod off a little," he says. He's entitled. By 11, when the customers start showing up, things will be too busy for so much as a coffee break.
New Zion—more generally referred to as "that church that sells barbecue"—is one of the most renowned yet improbable members of the Texas barbecue hall of fame. I've been making regular pilgrimages here from my home in Austin, a good three hours away, for nearly 15 years, and each time I do I wonder why I've waited so long to come back. Everything about the trip is gratifying: driving out through the remote region known as the Piney Woods, spotting the smoke rising above the trees, comparing notes with other customers ("How'd y'all hear about this place?"), and finally sitting down in a rickety little church building to devour some of the most tender, flavorful barbecue in the state.
The transaction is about as straightforward as it can be: the church cooks mouthwatering meats, sides, and pies, and the public queues up for the privilege of consuming them. That's all there is to it. Basically, the church runs a barbecue joint like thousands of others in Texas, but something about the whole experience far surpasses the sum of its exceedingly modest parts. Walking across the remnants of purple carpet that have been placed on the ground around the pit to keep the dust down, I feel as if I'd been hired as an extra for a Texas-based episode of The Andy Griffith Show or perhaps been asked to pose for a Norman Rockwell painting. A feeling of deja vu—of having stepped back into that elusive, simpler time, a time when community and fellowship fueled the state's great barbecue tradition—envelops me, but with one key difference: this is for real.
If you want to find out more about the place that wags inevitably refer to as the Church of the Holy Smoke, it's a good idea to get acquainted with the Reverend Clinton Edison, the fatherly, 56-year-old pastor who presides over New Zion's congregation of 40 or so mostly elderly members. I ask him how the barbecues got started, and he treats me to an hour-long yarn.
As best he can figure, it was 1976—although some say 1979—when a painting contractor named D. C. Ward volunteered to paint the church, to which he and his family belonged. At noon on the first day of work, his wife, Annie Mae, set up a smoker on the church lawn to barbecue some meat for Ward's lunch. Savory aromas wafted through the air. "Once she fired that pit up," Edison says, "people started stopping by and asking if they could buy some barbecue." Annie Mae sold a little meat, then a little more, and pretty soon it was all gone. "My poor husband never got anything to eat," she is quoted as saying in one of the yellowed news clippings tacked to the dining room's walls. The following Sunday, Annie Mae asked the pastor at the time whether she could sell barbecue and give the proceeds to the church. He handed her $50, and with that sum she started what could be described as the longest-running church fund-raiser in the state's history.
The Wards handled the whole shebang at first, but before long most of the congregation was pitching in. Lunches and dinners were served on paper plates on the church lawn for a couple of years, until the health department cracked down and said they had to move the operation indoors. Fortunately, the church had raised enough money by then to build a wood-frame parish hall with room for a handful of tables and a kitchen. Things took off in a serious way: on some days, the line of barbecue supplicants stretched out the door to the church parking lot. Annie Mae and half a dozen church ladies would bustle around the kitchen in their print dresses and aprons, preparing side dishes and desserts: tender, unfussy pinto beans that had soaked and simmered for hours; potato salad made with Idaho russets, mashed by hand and flavored with plenty of dill pickle relish; pecan pie with a famously high pecan-to-goo ratio; eye-rollingly good, cinnamon-y sweet potato pie; and more. The recipes were Annie Mae's, and she resisted innumerable entreaties from customers that she share them. As Edison recalls, "She would say, 'It's not a secret; we just don't tell anyone.'"
New Zion's piece de resistance, though, was its barbecue, prepared in smoke-belching pits by D. C. Ward and the church men. In the early years, they used direct-heat smokers, in which the coals are placed right under the grill racks; it's a difficult, labor-intensive way to cook, as the meat can easily dry out if the cooks aren't careful, but done right, it delivers an intensely smoky taste. Later the church switched to indirect-heat barrel smokers, with the firebox off to the side. Beef brisket—loose textured and abundantly fatty even after it's been trimmed—was always the centerpiece, but there were also meaty pork ribs that you ate using two hands, as you would corn on the cob, along with chicken, its skin burnished and golden and its meat falling from the bone in pearlescent hunks. Links of slow-smoked pork-and-beef sausage—made in nearby Bryan, Texas—added a salty, peppery kick to the ensemble.
Annie Mae and D. C. Ward did things their own way, which is to say, not in the style you might expect to find at most East Texas barbecue joints. For one thing, they cooked their brisket and ribs for a comparatively short time, not until it fell apart in tender shreds. For another, they didn't serve their brisket precut and slathered with the smash-up of condiments, from ketchup and worcestershire to barbecued meat drippings and black coffee, that's become the thick and hearty style of sauce now common across the state. Instead, the Wards cooked their meats for anywhere from four to six hours, until they were succulent and smoky, and served their sauce—the kind of thinnish, tomatoey, russet-colored brew shot through with vinegar that you used to find in Central Texas—on the side or, if the customer preferred, ladled onto the plate. The signature flavor came from Annie Mae's special mix of salt, pepper, and secret seasonings, which was not only rubbed on the meats but also added to the barbecue sauce and the beans, as it still is today. "About the only thing it's not in is the tea, and we're working on that," a cook named Clayton "Smitty" Smith tells me.
In 2004 the Wards, well into their 90s, retired to Houston, where they still live. Horace and Mae Archie, longtime church members, took over the management of the meals and oversaw them until last year, when Mae died of a heart attack. After that, Edison himself took on the job of running the business. "I told everybody we would keep it going as long as the Wards were alive or until the old building falls down," he said. Given a dwindling and aging congregation, he has had to hire help from outside the church in order to keep up with demand.
Over time and with practice, though, the group of six has coalesced into an efficient, tight-knit team. During the day I spent hanging around the kitchen, I watched with admiration as they sliced brisket, ladled sauce, toted steaming platters of sides, and weaved around one another with seeming extrasensory perception. Robert Polk, the pit master I met earlier this morning, comes in carrying a gorgeous brisket fresh from the smoker and hands it off to Smitty, who starts slicing it to make sandwiches and plates. The rest goes into a supersize crock pot, where it stays warm throughout service. Ann O'Bryant, a woman in her 40s who does most of the cooking, tells me that she prepares sides "just the way Mrs. Ward did", and Henry Ford, 16, the newest member of the team, moves quickly as he washes dishes and cleans up. Reverend Edison, under the watchful eye of his wife, Wyvonnia, who helps him manage the place, runs the cash register. He also comes in early to make a few desserts, having added his own, excellent buttermilk pie to the repertoire.
By around one o'clock, the rush has died down, and I come out from behind the counter where I've been shooed so that I'd be out of the way. I find Edison at a kitchen counter putting away leftovers. I have a couple of final questions for him, including one that you could almost call theological: What does the future hold?
"Well," he says, "our first goal is to give this place a good face-lift." I confess that I find this alarming. While I can't deny that the church hall could use an upgrade—the flooring is cracked, the curtains are faded—too much spiffing up could destroy the joint's scruffy charisma.
Perhaps Reverend Edison senses that I'm quietly freaking out. "We're not going to do much; people come for the history," he says, as he stretches a sheet of plastic wrap around a bowl of potato salad and puts it into the refrigerator. Aside from a little sprucing up, the reverend says, he and his flock plan to keep things exactly the same. Thank heaven.