Editor’s note: This joint is now closed.
It’s the most unusual smoker any of us have seen. A giant black metal box on short stilts with a smokestack reaching 20-feet high, located just out the side door from Baby J’s Bar B Que and Fish near Palestine.
With a flick of his wrist, Jeremiah “Baby J” McKenzie toggles one of the huge counterweights and a door magically lifts, exposing eight rotating cook racks filled with chicken and ribs.
There is an identical cooking chamber on the opposite side. “That’s just heaven,” says Posse veteran Marshall Cooper, clearly smitten with an acute case of smoker envy. In Cooper’s case, that takes some doing. He owns a Jambo J-3.
Jeremiah calls this unique smoker Big Baby. He can load 10 logs at a time in the converted fire box underneath.
“This had gas when I got it,” he says. “We don’t want gas.”
Then, on a beautiful East Texas Saturday afternoon, he leads the Posse, 12 strong, on a slow procession to the parking area in front of his building where a more conventional, tank-style pit is smoking away.
“The big one don’t pass my test on brisket,” Baby J says. “For chicken, ribs, it’s perfect. But for brisket, this one here made my reputation.”
He takes the padlock off one of the cooking chambers and starts unwrapping a couple of the foiled briskets.
“This still has about an hour or so to go but you can get an idea,” he says as he cuts samples and passes them out to reaching hands.
The pieces are hot, dripping in juices, and a little more than one bite in size, which makes for some interesting contortions as we try to eat without burning our mouths or getting grease on our chins and clothes.
“Outstanding,” says Phil Lamb, an attorney making his first tour with the Posse. “Can I buy half of that brisket?”
Baby J nods yes. He explains that he cooks his briskets for 18 hours or so, never allowing the temperature to go above “boiling.”
“I never get in no hurry,” he says.
McKenzie, the youngest of eight children, therefore Baby J, started his joint in 2007 and made Texas Monthly’s Top 50 list in 2008. He closed for a while but opened again last year.
For a decade, he has also been pastor at One Way Apostolic Church in Palestine.
“Do you ever use barbecue in your sermons?” I ask.
“Yes,” he replies. “I say in the Christian religion, you can’t be fast. You gotta go slow. When you go fast, you mess up.”
We’ll have more later from our East Texas tour, including why Baby J padlocks his pit.
Baby J’s Bar-B-Que & Fish, 111 ACR 1405, Palestine, 903-729-8402. Open Tues-Sat 11 a.m.-8 p.m.
Photos ©Chris Wilkins/Texas BBQ Posse