What a day. Day 2 of the Great Memphis Region Barbecue Sandwich Tour started with a planned sandwich at the excellent Dixie Pig in Blytheville, Arkansas. Then I learned about the barbecue at the Kream Kastle in Blytheville, and had to try their sandwich. I headed to Helen’s to try her barbecue, but was delayed by a heavy thunderstorm that I decided to wait out over another unplanned sandwich at Chubby’s in Hayti, Missouri, just across the state line from Blytheville. Finally, I headed to Brownsville, Tennessee and Helen’s Bar B Q.
Helen’s is the smokiest barbecue place I’ve ever visited.
Helen’s is a small place on North Washington Street in Brownsville, famous as the county seat of Haywood County, for a rare gothic style synagogue, as one of Tina Turner’s too-numerous childhood homes, and for Helen’s Bar B Q, which perfumes the town with the fragrance of wood-cooked pork. And Helen’s has been discovered and celebrated — by Garden and Gun more than once, by Southern Living, by the Southern Foodways Alliance, and by a host of others. Now it’s my turn.
Helen Turner (no relation to Tina) cooks pork shoulders over a pit six days a week, and she does it the right way. She burns a mixture of oak and hickory down to coals in one pit and then shovels them into the bottom of another, the cooking pit. Pork shoulders rest over the pit and their fat drips down onto the coals and adds pork fat smoke to the oak and hickory smoke. Slabs of ribs sit on top of the shoulders (so they’ll cook slowly), and add their drippings, their smoke.
When the meat is finished, there’s another pit inside the kitchen, a warming pit that also is heated by the oak and hickory coals. The meat doesn’t sit there long. Helen feeds a steady stream of customers, even at 4:00 in the afternoon in the wake of a thunderstorm with an escaped murderer on the loose nearby. (The alert on my iPhone nearly scared me to death.)
As I mentioned, by the time I arrived at Helen’s on my Great Memphis Region Barbecue Sandwich Tour, I’d already enjoyed three barbecue sandwiches. Between that and the thunderstorm, and the murderer on the loose, I reasonably could have passed by on the other side and driven on to Memphis. But as I approached Helen’s from the northwest, I saw smoke, so much smoke I could almost smell it with the windows up and the AC on. Then I saw Helen’s, and decided that reason is way over-rated.
The menu begins on the signs up front. Ribs, chicken, and bologna on the main sign, and a sign by the entry with more detail.
You enter Helen’s, wait your turn, and go up to a window to order. It can take some time when a group of five people from, hypothetically, the New York area, is trying to sort out their orders. I made it to the front and ordered a barbecue sandwich. Regular or large? Regular. Mild or hot? Hot. Slaw? Please. And some chips, a bag of Brim’s, a local brand. That will be five dollars. I hand over a five, put a one in the tip jar, and get a surprised, “Thank you!” You’d almost think some customers don’t tip.
Most people get carry out orders. There are a few tables in a dark, smoky room. Dark red walls, a smoke-dark ceiling, and smoke in the air scoff at the vain efforts of two fluorescent light bulbs. If it hasn’t been raining, the picnic tables out front are a better bet. I ate in and watched a cross-section of society enter and order.
My first step upon approaching a barbecue sandwich is to search out some pork that has not been touched by sauce or slaw and taste it. At Helen’s, that reveals some truly great pork. It is moist, tender, flavorful, and very smoky — unsurprisingly. Having established the pork, I then attack the sandwich. A Helen’s sandwich is a challenge unless you are wearing a shirt your wife has been after you for months, perhaps years, to throw away.* Concentration and perseverance are rewarded, however, by an excellent sandwich. The sauce, a thin mixture of tomato and vinegar and spices, complements the meat. The hot sauce is not that hot, certainly not hot enough to distract from the pork and smoke flavors. The slaw is mixed with both mayonnaise and vinegar — raw cabbage would be better, to be honest, but the slaw is fine. And it all works together. This is a very good sandwich.
I got potato chips because I had never seen Brim’s potato chips. They were local, made in Bartlett, Tennessee, and I thought, as I often do, maybe they’ll be great. I tried them and I thought, as I often think, oh well. Maybe next time.`
It was a nice coda to a day of pork. I was tempted to try the bologna. Helen’s is famous for smoked bologna, which is rare outside this region. I may have tried some in Tuscaloosa once, when someone brought a loaf of smoked bologna to a tailgate. I honestly don’t remember. You don’t see it that often, and I’m usually eager to try new foods. But after four barbecue sandwiches in three states in one day — one afternoon, actually — I decided to call it quits and head back to my hotel and a couple of carbonated beverages — very good Anandas by Wiseacre Brewing.
I hope to go back to Helen’s. It’s a Top Place. I hope to try the ribs and the bologna, and eat some more pork. I dearly love to just be in a rural barbecue place that continues to do things the old fashioned way, the right way, the best way.
Go to Helen’s. Go to Memphis and drive up. Go to Nashville and drive over. Drive from wherever you are. Helen’s is a gem.
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*Some years ago, my main Christmas present to Nancy wastickets to a concert by one of her favorite performers. The concert was in Paris, and I thought that it was pretty sporty present, even if it was almost entirely self-interested. (I would get to go to Paris.) Nancy, perhaps suspecting my ulterior motive, thought that was … nice. I also gave her a trash bag full of my “Saturday shirts” — shirts she’d been after me forever to throw away. She was thrilled. Best present ever. I’ve mentioned this to several married women and they’ve all oohed and aahed over what a great gift it was.
I still miss those shirts.