I recently drove down to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to teach an Honors College class for my good friend, Bob McCurley. I do that every year. Usually, I take my time driving down, stop and see family, and Nancy and I join Bob and Babs at an Alabama game. This year, I was a bit antsy about drinking, dining, and just being at close quarters with an Alabama and Ole Miss football crowd of 250,000, including 100,000 or so in the stadium, so I balked at the game. But I said I would teach the class, so I did. With other commitments, I ended up planning to drive hell for leather down to Alabama, teaching, and drive hell for leather back.
The Virginia Traffic Obstruction Department was over-performing on my way down, especially the storied Division of Semis Cutting in Front of You and Slowing Before a Hill. That slowed me down a good bit. I ended up skipping lunch to make time, and only stopped to eat pretty late in the day. My choice was Rusty’s in Leeds, just east of Birmingham, and it was a great choice.
I’d been to Rusty’s once before, see here, and enjoyed it. It’s a family run place, and they cook some good barbecue. I sat down and ordered a pork plate with greens and black eyed peas. I was home.
I also got the minimum order of ribs (4).
I ordered the ribs not so much because I was hungry, although I certainly was, as because I’d failed to order some on my last trip, and that failure had haunted me. You know, you pass up so many opportunities in life, assuming you’ll have another chance. Now, to paraphrase A.E. Houseman, of my three score years and ten, ain’t none of them gonna come again. Fact is, I’m two years in the hole. So now I take time to stop and smell the ribs.
And these ribs were great. If you leave Alabama for a while, you forget the magisterial excellence of Archibald’s, the greatness of SAW’s and Miss Myra’s, the flashes of brilliance at Dreamland. Alabama owns ribs. They are at a higher level than elsewhere. Lots of places have ribs that are tasty, and many have ribs that are good — very good, and I eat them with pleasure. Adequate ribs are easy, but you can travel the other 49 states and never find a place that touches the ribs at Rusty’s: meaty, rich, smoky, al dente, and absolutely delicious.
Ah, and the pork! Pork cooked in a brick pit, with the pork fat dripping on the wood coals and generating pork fat smoke: that’s true barbecue. At Rusty’s, you can wallow in the richness of the pork and the flavor of the wood, enhanced by that pork fat smoke. It just doesn’t get much better than that. And I mean “wallow” figuratively.
But wait. The greens. I took one bite, and thought, “Whoa! These are great.” I took another bite, and got a small piece of sausage. I took bite and hollered over to Rusty, “Is this Conecuh Sausage?” Rusty allowed as it was with the same nonchalance that Bach had when he’d say, “Yeah, I wrote that.” For the uninitiated, Conecuh Sausage is the best smoked sausage the world. It has a fan club. It makes everything better, from Shrimp and Grits to Red Beans and Rice to … greens. You can’t get it in DC unless you’re in the military (nothing is too good for those who serve in harm’s way), and they won’t have me back. I told Rusty, “These may be the best greens in the world.”
And the black eyed peas were excellent. I don’t’ see black eyed peas or other field peas on menus much, which is a shame. They have a great nutty taste, and they were a love of my childhood.
Rusty has, like everyone in the restaurant business, had a rough year and a half. It’s really hard to get workers who will show up. He’s adjusted to the changing environment, though. Leeds is a big deal in formula one auto racing. There’s a 2.4 mile formula one track there and the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum with, among many other things, the world’s largest collection of motorcycles. One of the Rahalls, I forget if it was Bobby or Graham, asked Rusty if he cooked brisket, and Rusty said that if Rahall came back the next day, he’d have some for him. Rahal came back, liked it, and now Rusty’s cooks brisket. And he added a food truck with a wood-fire cooker.
You work hard, you do what you need to do, but you don’t sacrifice principles. Rusty is a good man, a good fellow, and he runs a great restaurant in the face of the strong headwinds that beset all restauranteurs these days. Here he is in his “Make Cornbread, Not War” hat.
You need to go by there for some of his pork, some of his ribs, and make sure to get some of those greens.
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