July is peach season in Georgia, and I was on high alert, scanning the side of the road for wooden fruit stands. I saw the hand-painted yellow sign with ketchup-red colored RIBS scrawled across it, but I quickly dismissed it as not my target. My eyes darted the to other side of the road to look for peach stands. But as I was riding in my Jeep with the windows rolled down, suddenly the smoky smell of pork invaded my senses.
With a quick glance in my rearview mirror, I slammed on the brakes and turned the car around.
"Where've you been?" asked the man wearing a faded green apron and holding long-handled tongs as I approached the long black smoker. "I've been waiting for you all morning."
The hands on my watch read 11:10. I had been on the road since morning light, meandering up the back roads from South Florida to join Patrick and the boat in Savannah. I had already driven out of expanses of scrubby palmetto palms in the swampy outreaches of the Everglades, through the fragrant orange groves in the center of the state and past fields of cattle huddled under lone trees seeking out a small refrain from the roasting heat of the southern summer. It had only been a few miles since I had crossed the Florida-Georgia line, but it felt like I had left the Sunshine State far behind and truly entered the South. Wisps of Spanish moss hung from the oaks along the road, and kudzu vines crawled up telephone poles and crept along the lines concealing dilapidated wooden shacks and abandoned one-room churches.
"I got here as fast as I could," I answered him. "I didn't want to miss you." I'd never seen this man before and had no idea where I was, but his large toothy smile and the twinkle in his eye set the tone and gave the go-ahead for banter.
"People be lined up here soon enough for my ribs, but you got here just in time." He lifted the lid of the smoker. Tendrils of blue-gray smoke escaped, clouding the air between us. "Smoke's just right 'bout now."
My stomach rumbled. He used the tongs to shuffle half a dozen ribs that sat on the side of the black mesh grill far away from the smoldering pecan wood. "This one here good?"
He laid the four-bone rack in the groove of a wooden cutting board, worn concave from years of use, and switched out his tongs for a saber-like carving knife. His large fingers curled around the handle of the knife and expertly guided it between the bones. Steam escaped from the exposed pink flesh, setting my mouth to water.
From a cooler stashed at the base of the smoker, he pulled a plastic squirt bottle. A trail of yellow sauce speckled with flecks of pepper trailed down the side. The bottle collapsed under his tight grip and a thin sauce exploded over the ribs he'd moved to a paper plate. He slapped a soft slice of white bread on top of the ribs and handed me my lunch.
"This here'll keep you going till you get where you're going."
I balanced my plate in one hand and a Styrofoam cup full of sweet tea in the other and made my way to the picnic table under the pecan tree in the yard of the gas station. The limbs of the old-growth tree sprawled across the parking lot, casting shade over the table but doing little to cut the heat.
An old black Chevy truck from the mid-'60s rumbled into view. They too had their windows down and pulled into the gravel lot. A cloud of dry dust rose as two men pounded onto the driveway and ambled up to the smoker as I took my first bite.
Spice and apple cider vinegar cut through the moist, warm, fatty meat and melted in my mouth as the meat pulled easily from the bone. I must have groaned with delight as I worked my teeth around the bones. One of the men from the truck turned on the heel of his dust-covered brown leather cowboy boots.
"You enjoying that, darlin'?" The gravel in his voice matched the stones from the road.
I blushed under the heat of the noon-day sun and the attention of the Georgia men. Before I could swallow and reply, the pit-master laughed. "Course she is." He lifted the lid of the smoker and reached in to grab a slab for the men. "There's magic in this smoke."