Rutledge: No more barbecue means the eyes get misty passing Dixie
Saturday, May 7, 2016
When I moved with my young family to eastern North Carolina 15 years ago, Johnson City’s Dixie Barbecue Co. was one of the hardest things to leave. Now I'm back and Dixie is gone. Life can be cruel.
Not many people know this, but when we decided to come home, Dixie was the reason. Of course there were many more reasons, but the process was started because Alan Howell, my favorite minister of barbecue, was retiring. His "church" was for sale.
I wanted badly to go into the ministry and make one change — add a "choir loft" for live music. Friends and family wanted to help, and for a while the dream had legs. It didn’t come true but it did start the ball rolling toward home and opened other doors of opportunity.
Before the final closing of Dixie's doors, Alan had his best December in years. Everybody wanted one last plate of that wonderful hickory-smoked pulled pork, one final order of beans, one more little cup of that magical mixture of potatoes and onions. We savored the meal and the memories with sweet tea and Andy and Barney on the TV.
During the months since, the building has sat empty. With the lights still glowing around the windows and on the sign, it's like a shrine to mouth-watering days gone by.
Driving past the North Roan Street landmark can make the eyes water, too.
"I drove by Dixie today and got all misty-eyed at seeing the 'closed' and 'for sale' signs," my friend Robert Houk said in a recent email. He referenced a column I wrote about Dixie more than a decade ago and said I should send it to Alan.
The column was my rebuttal to a debate over which region of North Carolina produces the best barbecue. I wrote that finding the best barbecue in North Carolina requires driving west until you finally arrive in the east again — the eastern-most region of Tennessee.
I further wrote:
"Barbecue is not my religion, but if it were, Alan Howell, who owns and operates Dixie Barbecue Co., would be my preacher. A true minister of barbecue reaches out to his flock, and Alan has a firm grasp on his parishioners.
"More than six years after I was a weekly lunchtime patron, he still remembers my regular order — pulled pork plain, slaw on the side and plenty of house and Texas-Oklahoma sauces available separately.
"When my first daughter was born, Alan announced her arrival in church-bulletin style. For a solid week, Dixie’s marquee sign read, “Let’s all welcome Carly Grace to the race.”
When my father passed away eight years later, the sign read, "So long, Wiley."
I still have the snapshots displayed on my desk. That way I can get misty-eyed whenever I want.
During those years of living back in eastern North Carolina, I never took to the barbecue there. It’s not bad, but I had Dixie to fill up on during visits home. I sure do miss coming home.
For months now, the Dixie Barbecue sign has said, “Thanks, y’all” and “4 sale.”
Someone ought to climb up there, borrow the “n” from “Thanks” and use the rest to spell “Alan.”
Contact Mark Rutledge at firstname.lastname@example.org.