I'd never thought of islands as homes for cowboys but just off the coast of Georgia, twenty miles south of Savannah, I met the quintessential island cowboy.
Ossabaw is Georgia's second-largest barrier island. Twice the size of Bermuda, it has eleven-thousand acres of highland forests and fourteen-thousand acres of marshland, and is full of sturdy pine trees, fragrant azaleas, tropical palms, bright-blooming magnolias, and live oaks dripping with Spanish moss. Saltwater creeks and tidal rivers scribble the land. Thirteen-foot alligators frequently sun themselves on the banks and in the marsh grasses. Immense, shifting white sand dunes dominate the eastern side, providing nesting grounds for loggerhead turtles and leading to vast stretches of deserted beach scattered with driftwood. The terrain is full of wild turkey, hogs, and deer, and the waters host oysters, shrimp, and fiddler crabs.
For more than sixty years, the caretaker of all this natural beauty was Roger Parker. He cleared the trees that fell during hurricane season, rounded up the wild donkeys, fished the rivers, and maintained the roads.
"You gotta watch out for Roger," my friends Cathy and Jimmy warned as they introduced me to him during my first visit to Ossabaw. "He'll have you two-steppin' and shootin' whiskey before the night is through." Roger's ubiquitous black cowboy hat sat on top of his grey hair, pulled down low to hide his blue eyes and shield the smile that played on his lips.
"Last winter we had my birthday party here on the island," he said, trying to change the subject. "Now, I ain't telling you how many candles was on the cake, but I will tell you that Gregg Allman was here and sang me 'Happy Birthday.'" His laugh was gruff but his face lit up when telling the story. "Can you imagine that? The Allman Brothers singin' to me."
Sure enough, the next time I visited the island, there was Gregg enjoying the afternoon and waiting for a taste of Roger's famous BBQ. Earlier that morning, Roger, Jimmy, and I had gone hunting for a hog, piling into Roger's pickup truck and driving down the bumpy dirt roads that crossed the island. It didn't take long before we spotted three black hogs digging under a bush.
Roger pulled over and grabbed his rifle, not once taking his eye off the hogs. He shushed us and brought the gun to his shoulder. A single shot was all it took. The largest hog fell as the other two bolted for the forest. "Load 'em up." His voice was gravel as he replaced the rifle. Jimmy and I each took two of the pig's feet and swung it into the truck.
At the abattoir on other side of the island, Roger poured himself a drink and went to work on the hog with the skill of a man who had done this numerous times before. With his hunting knife, he slit the pig's throat and blood poured, swirling bright red, onto the floor. He made another long slash up the belly, then reached in and pulled out the stomach and intestines. Using a combination of knife cuts and a pulling motion, Roger skinned the pig with fingers thick from years of manual work. He removed it from the hook and began to butcher. It was all over in a few minutes.
I had never seen an animal slaughtered before. I had butchered many pieces of meat in my galley, but had never witnessed the whole process. Although I am not squeamish, I did take a moment to contemplate vegetarianism. But not for long. There was dinner to make.
Roger loaded island-cut hardwood into his homemade barbecue smoker. Once burning, the wood produced a low- temperature fire that filled the grilling area with heat and smoke to saturate the meat with flavor. Roger liberally coated the pork with salt and pepper, placed the pieces inside the smoker, and lowered the lid. The gentle heat worked its wonders for the next six hours as we drank, listened to Greg sing, and danced in the shade of a tree.
Finally, Roger painted a coat of sauce on the pork. "There you are, darlin'," he said to me. "You tell me if that ain't the best barbecue you ever had." It was warm, juicy, melt-in-your-mouth. Roger's vinegar- based sauce was piquant and lighter than the ketchup-based ones I make. It didn't overpower the soft texture of the pork, and I was able to taste the smokiness of the meat instead of just the sweetness of the sauce. Barbecue had never tasted so good. "This is delicious! I'm going to start cooking all my pork this way," I declared, licking my fingers. "Darlin', it just won't be the same." Roger shook his head. "That's the magic of Ossabaw you taste. Just look at where you are." He nodded at the landscape before us.
We sat facing the Atlantic Ocean. Behind us, the sun was setting through a veil of palm trees. The large, bright yellow ball that had filled the sky moments ago was now sinking at an alarming rate. The few clouds in the sky turned cobalt blue, while the sky itself went from baby blue to pastel pink. Rays of sunlight shot skyward, illuminating the clouds from below. Before I knew it, the sun had completely disappeared and the ocean had turned a darker hue of midnight blue. The pastels in the sky gave way to deeper mauves and dusty roses. The palms lost their green tones and became black. The whole sky started changing color again, becoming richer and more radiant as night descended. A whip-poor-will called in the distance. The cold night air grazed my cheek.
"You're right. This place is magical," I said. That night I learned that there are different types of cowboys. Some ride horses, some ride waves, and others, like Roger, preside over island paradises and tend to the barbecue. Jimmy says life is about making memories. This is one of my better ones.
I have no idea what is in Roger's BBQ sauce. Being the South, where barbecue is as sacred as NASCAR, and recipes are as guarded as Fort Knox, Roger only smiled when I asked what the recipe was. It'll take a few more bottles of bourbon to get that outta me. All the smiling and two-stepping I did that weekend, and the many that followed, have not softened his guard but I don't mind having to go back and try again and again.
¼ cup vegetable oil
½ cup onions
4 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons chili powder
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon dry mustard
1 tablespoon sea salt
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 teaspoon ground pepper
2 cups ketchup
¼ cup lemon juice
¼ cup molasses
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons soy sauce
½ cup sugar
½ cup apple cider vinegar
½ cup apple juice
In a heavy-bottomed sauce pot, sauté onions and garlic in the vegetable oil for 5 minutes over medium-high heat. Add spices and stir. Add remaining ingredients and reduce on medium-low for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Cool and slather over barbecued chicken, pork, or steaks. Makes 3 cups.