In Bullock’s Hollow, there are culinary secrets galore.
Amid the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Tennessee, you’ll find Ridgewood Barbecue. It opened in 1948 and still attracts a full house of customers, even on a recent Friday not long before New Year’s. That’s when Sherry and I visited with friends Phillip and Trish Townsend, who live an hour or so away in North Carolina.
Start with the recipe for the tomato-based sweet and sour barbecue sauce, which goes on much of the food the place serves, including French fries.
As author Fred Sauceman relates the legend in his book about Ridgewood and the family that owns it, “The Proffitts of Ridgewood,” the recipe is written down only when it passes from one family generation to the next. Then the paper burns.
Same level of secrecy for the blue cheese dressing which is served in a large bowl with saltine crackers.
And if you want to get a peek at the hickory-fired pits, forget about it.
“You can’t go in there,” a worker said as we tried to enter, closing the door in our faces. “It’s a secret.”
Messages don’t get more clear. We aren’t in Texas anymore, where the pit masters proudly show off — and often brag about — their smokers to anyone interested.
We aren’t talking about Texas-style barbecue with brisket, pork butts and ribs. We’re talking about hams, smoked eight hours or so, then rubbed with spices and salt and cooled overnight.
Before serving, the hams are sliced thinly and cooked again on a big flat top grill. Same for the beef. which is top round.
“It’s not brisket, but it’s still good,” our waitress, Denise, said of the beef.
I ordered a pork and beef plate, smothered in sauce. Sherry and the Townsends each got pork sandwiches, which are huge.
“The pork sandwich is the best thing,” Phillip said.
Regular readers of the Posse site might remember Phillip. He recently wrote a story for us about his North Carolina barbecue background and his sojourn to Texas joints.
“It’s not what in North Carolina we would call barbecue,” Phillip added later about Ridgewood. “But kind of on the fringes of that tradition. And interesting.”
He was right. I got to finish Sherry’s sandwich. The crisp edges on the fried ham add a nice pleasing texture to the mild smokey flavor. I’d be a regular at The Ridgewood just for the pork sandwich.
Based on the day we visited, there are lots of regulars. We arrived a few minutes after 11 a.m. Plenty of open seats. We left about an hour later. No empty seats among the 100 or so in the place. And 28 people waiting in line. Cars parked up and down the Hollow.
After our meal, Phillip gave us a tour of the region, including a drive by the Bristol Motor Speedway, about six miles away. In stock car racing, BMS is legendary. It’s high-banked, half-mile track seats 160,000, nearly as many as Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth with its 1.4-mile oval.
In his book, Sauceman says stock car racing greats Junior Johnson, Benny Parsons, Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were patrons of Ridgewood.
“The beans are the best I’ve ever eaten,” Sauceman quotes Johnson, a contraband whiskey runner before he began racing.
“The beans are as good as anything on the menu,” Phillip said.
Neither Junior nor Phillip gets an argument from me.
Driving by BMS, I told Phillip about one of the most memorable stories I’d ever read: “Junior Johnson is the last American Hero. Yes!” Written by Tom Wolfe, it ran in the March 1965 issue of Esquire. Phillip, of course, knew all about it.
A couple months after that article appeared, Johnson won his first race as a driver at BMS. He remains the all-time winningest car owner of NASCAR Cup races at the track.
In his book, Sauceman also notes that in addition to stock car drivers, the Dallas Cowboys, in their team bus, once visited Ridgewood for a meal. I’ll bet a lot of pork sandwiches were served that day.
Texans might think of Jerry World in Arlington, home of the Cowboys, as the Mecca of sports. But Bristol Motor Speedway has about twice the normal seating capacity as AT&T Stadium.
To paraphrase Tom Wolfe: While it may not be Texas-style, Ridgewood is a real barbecue joint. Yes!
Ridgewood Barbecue, 900 Elizabethton Hwy, Bluff City, TN, (423) 538-7543. Open Mon-Thurs 11am-7:30pm, Fri-Sat 11am-2:30pm, 4:30pm-8:30pm. Closed Sundays.