Jean Webb is my oldest friend.
I first met Jean when I was 9 years old, which was well before you were born. Our family had just moved from Granville, Ohio to Vestavia Forest, then a lonely outpost on the borderlands between the Birmingham suburbs and reputed moonshine country. Jean lived up the street, a couple of hundred yards away from us.AS I recall, he was one of the few people who didn’t mention my Yankee accent. (Days before, kids in Ohio had been making fun of my Southern accent.) Jean and I spent a lot of time throwing a football, shooting off fireworks, batting around a baseball autographed by the 1961 New York Yankees,* picking muscadines and scuppernongs, wandering the woods, and getting into more or less age-appropriate mischief — at least within my expansive definition of “age-appropriate.”
My family moved closer in during my 8th grade, and I was pushed off the back of a truckload of turnips into preppy Mountain Brook Junior High But Jean and I reunited the next year in high school at Indian Springs School, where I became a nuisance to society in general, and to Jean and many of my teachers in particular. Jean and I have kept in touch off and on since.
Jean went to college at Chapel Hill, along with five other people in our class at Indian Springs. That was over 13% of our class of 45. I think the ads for a new dorm with in-room refrigerators might had something to do with the enthusiasm for UNC. The next year, an Extraordinarily Smart Kid at Indian Springs applied to North Carolina as his “safety school”. He was accepted by Harvard, MIT, Cal Tech, and Stanford, but North Carolina turned him down. I’m sure Jean and the other Indian Springs grads had nothing to do with UNC’s 180 degree change of heart.
Now, I don’t want to hide anything from my readers. After college, Jean went through a vegan phase. Jean avoided not only meat and fish, but all dairy products as well. But with the grounding he learned at Indian Springs, Jean would eat barbecue — but only a Damnit to Hell Sandwich that you could get at the Tired Texan very late at night or very early in the morning. I think the Tired Texan operated out of a truck, decades before food trucks were cool, or even sanitary. (I went there a couple of times and tried the Damnit to Hell Sandwich. I found it very heavy on the Tabasco, heavy enough to overshadow the meat; but then the meat may have needed overshadowing. I also tried their Pig Ear Sandwich and was very disappointed to find that the pig ear wasn’t crisp, but sort of slimy. I almost didn’t finish it.)
Jean was not at our 50th high school reunion, much to my dismay, but I was able to track him down on a subsequent trip. It seems that on the eve of the reunion, Jean had a regular medical check-up and his doctor, upon listening to Jean’s heart, marched him to the hospital. After a few days in a hospital bed, and after a few thousand tests, some of the best medical minds in the country discovered that there was nothing at all wrong with Jean’s heart. That was certainly good news. The fact that his insurance covered it was in some ways even better news. But it did not erase the fact that Jean had missed the reunion. Lesson: never visit a doctor before an important event.
When I called, Jean had long since fully recovered from his vegan phase, and we got together for lunch. Actually I would have gone to a vegan restaurant to see him again. Really. Jean suggested Rudy’s in Leeds, of which he had heard good things.
Rudy’s looked good.
Inside, there were a couple of troubling signs. I did not see a picture of Bear Bryant. Strike one. There were picture of racing cars, but Formula One cars, not NASCAR. Swinging strike two. An appeal to the first base umpire: he didn’t swing. Rusty’s is just down the road from Barber Motorsports, site of a Formula One race course and a museum of 1,400 vintage cars and motorcycles. Really — 1,400. It’s an attraction and worthy of celebrating.
I ordered a pork plate ($8.99), chopped, no sauce, with potato salad and deviled eggs.
Now that’s how barbecue should be served — not chopped too fine, not just carelessly pulled into too-long strips, and accompanied by hamburger dill chips. And the barbecue tasted good. It has a good smoke favor, good texture, and good bark. Very good. A stand-up double scoring two runs.
Okay, okay. I’m dropping the baseball metaphor.
Rusty’s offers a choice of sauces.
I tried the white, the house and the spicy. For the uninitiated, white sauce is vinegar with mayonnaise and some cayenne or Tabasco and other spices. Some horseradish helps. It rarely has that sweetness that usually ruins red sauces.
All the sauces were tasty and well balanced. I preferred the white, but I really ate most of the meat with no sauce. The spicy sauce would be real good on french fries.
The potato salad was good. I like potato salad best with more texture and with some celery, but it wasn’t over-cooked or overdressed, and it had a good potato taste. The deviled eggs were traditional — just plain good. I love deviled eggs.
Jean had a pork sandwich and some cole slaw. They offer a choice of creamy or marinated cole slaw. The cole slaw is not excessively creamy, and has a good spicy taste. They also have green beans, collards, black-eyed peas, and macaroni and cheese as sides. I don’t know why I didn’t order one of those, or all of them, for that matter. Or the banana pudding, which won some award. I may have seen “deviled eggs” and lost focus, or they may have been out. Someone had just come to get food for a large group, and apparently cleaned them out of a lot of stuff.
That’s a man who knows how to cook barbecue. AL.com, the remnant of the once-daily newspapers in the three largest cities in Alabama, named Rusty’s the Best Mom N Pop barbecue place in Alabama during one of their many articles about barbecue in Alabama. That means it’s the best place with only one location that is run by a husband and wife — Mom and Pop. Considering how many good family-run barbecue places there are in Alabama, that’s really quite an honor. You’d think that, being a daily reader of AL.com I would have known about Rusty’s, but, to be honest, AL.com writes so much about barbecue, football, and Flora-Bama, and so little about anything else besides murders, that it’s hard to keep up with everything.
I highly recommend Rusty’s. You definitely should stop by.
Oh — Jean, by the way, has a 23-year old son who is the head pastry chef for the sensational Hot and Hot Fish Club and the highly rated OvenBird (sic). I have not tried OvenBird, but I took Dear to Hot and Hot once and had one of the best meals of my life that took place outside New Orleans or Paris, and that did not involve barbecue. Hot and Hot recently was written up in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. That’ll give you an idea of the prices, but rest assured that the level of food is even higher than the prices.
For those who lack an unlimited expense account, and, actually, those who do, I highly recommend Rusty’s. You definitely should stop by.
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*It was my older bother, Jim’s. He got the autographs while on a spring baseball training trip to Florida. Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, Roger Maris ….