It turns out that the great racial equalizer of the South is barbecue. Everyone eats it here. Few people don’t take it seriously. Vigorous debates can be instigated just by asking “Do you like your sandwich wet or dry?” or by requesting a pulled pork sandwich (standard in Mississippi) at a Texas barbecue joint, where beef reigns supreme. It doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, or otherwise—chances are, if you’re from the South, you’ve enjoyed smoky, slow-cooked meat and steaming, grease-slathered vegetables on at least one occasion. Even if you’re vegan.
An example: Last Saturday afternoon, Traveling Tom, Brian and I walked into Handy Andy’s Grocery and Market Bar-B-Q in Oxford, Mississippi. I was concerned as soon as we opened the door, as I was the only non-white person in the semi-crowded joint. But Tom set me immediately to rights, noting “Ah, there’s that smell!” Indeed, there it was—luscious, succulent, smoked meat drenched in tangy peppered sauce. It filled my nostrils.
Even better, the place was a fluorescent-lights/linoleum-floor affair. I worry when a barbecue joint has fancy paintings and faux antiques on the wall, or is lit by candlelight. The first concern should be on the food; décor runs a distant second, or even third, lagging behind a pretty cashier’s smile. Handy Andy’s looks like a convenience store, because that’s what it is. People strolled in to buy newspapers, sodas from the cooler, and candy bars from the counter. It just also happens to be the best barbecue restaurant in Oxford.
All three of us ordered large pulled pork sandwiches—I wanted ribs, but it was Memorial Day Weekend, and ribs had disappeared hours ago—with baked beans and crisp, crinkly fries. As we sat, waiting for our orders, more people came in. Most of them were black. Two slim, gorgeous, freshly manicured women in sleek black dresses sauntered in, and waved to the white owner. “Hey, Sal, how’s it going back there?” A black family of five came in, hollering out greetings to the cashier. Blacks and whites mingled freely, swapped stories, patted each other on the backs, and ate delicious barbecue. College kids and grizzled locals felt at home. Handy Andy’s was obviously the place to be. Nobody seemed uncomfortable, and I began to feel silly for being so paranoid.
But, then, Oxford hasn’t always had such chummy relations between the races. The town is home to the University of Mississippi, the site of one of the bitterest civil rights struggles the state ever had. In September 1962, James Meredith became the first black student to enroll at the school. The result was a riot by angry whites. President Kennedy was forced to call in federal troops. Two people were killed, 48 soldiers were injured, and thirty U.S. Marshals were wounded by gunshots. In my college classes, whites frequently referred to all this as “ancient history.” But my father was ten years old when it happened. I was born a mere fourteen years later. I suppose “ancient history” means different things to different people.
I saw few colored people in Oxford last weekend. The charming, almost cloyingly pretty town square teemed with frat boys and socialites on the prowl, but the only black person I saw was a security guard. The barista behind the counter at the San Francisco Bread Company (a yuppie coffee shop) was a surly black woman; the two of us were the only black faces in the joint. The wait staff at El Charro (tasty Mexican food) was entirely Mexican, but almost all of the clientele was white.
Handy Andy’s, then, served as a refreshing oasis, a reminder that Mississippi has indeed changed for the better, and that there were people in the town whose only concern was a flavorful barbecue sandwich with crisp, burnt pork tips submerged into the baked beans. Progress comes as slowly as the best-cooked barbecue, but it has come. So, as I licked sauce off my fingers and praised the spirits for tender pork on white-bread buns, I thought to myself that there’s hope after all.