For good barbecue, give me Leatha's any day
Robert St. John
Oct. 15, 2003
Robert St. John is the executive chef/owner of the Purple Parrot Caf and Crescent City Grill in Hattiesburg and Meridian. He can be reached at email@example.com or at (601) 264-0672.
Memphis has The Rendezvous, Tuscaloosa has Dreamland, Austin has Stubb's and Hattiesburg has Leatha's BBQ Inn.
Barbecue is a regional thing. North Carolina has vinegar-based barbecue sauce; Tennessee opts for a tomato-based sauce. Both of those states favor barbecued pork while Texas opts for beef. In the Piney Woods of South Mississippi, we like pork and we like it sweet.
Leatha Jackson was born in Meadville, Miss. She got her start cooking chicken pies in her aunt's kitchen when she was just a teenager. She moved to Foxworth, just west of Columbia, in 1955 and after 20 years of working for other people in various restaurants and cafes, she decided to open her own restaurant.
Eventually the business took off and customers began pouring in. Nowadays, folks travel great distances from spots all around the globe to eat Leatha's ribs.
Their loss, our gain
Four years ago, she packed up the pit and moved the entire operation to Hattiesburg. Lucky me. Few and far between are the real-pit barbecue houses. The barbecue pit is the last bastion of old-fashioned slow cooking. A real, wood-fired pit is the mark of true, barbecue perfection.
The meat falls off of the bone of Leatha's ribs. Accomplishing this is a Herculean task if one is using a real pit (as opposed to a propane-fueled cooker).
Most mid-scale chain restaurants serve fork-tender baby-back ribs that fall off of the bone. That's easy. They are using a slow-cooking oven called an Alto-Sham. The Alto-Sham has heating elements in all six sides of the oven's interior. Chain-restaurants place their ribs in the Alto-Sham overnight and cook them at a very low temperature. Getting those same results in a real, wood-fired barbecue pit is not easy.
Leatha's restaurant is a family operation.
Three of her daughters work in the restaurant while her son Larry serenades the customers. Larry's song repertoire is extensive and eclectic. While dining with my family last week, the kids asked if he would sing the theme from "Scooby Doo." To which Larry replied, "Do you want the new version or the old version?" We opted for the old (you gotta love the classics).
On other occasions we've heard him sing "Amazing Grace" and Michael Jackson's "Thriller" (with the Vincent Price narration and a healthy pause for a bit of moon-walking thrown in for good measure).
Leatha's barbecue sauce is sweet, thin and made in-house. The recipe is a closely-held family secret.
Pork ribs, beef brisket and pulled pork are always on the menu. Her barbecue-baked beans are some of the finest to be found. The slaw is a cross between the Carolina-mustard variety and the sweet, South Mississippi catfish-house variety. It is excellent. The ribs arrive to the table accompanied by a few dinner rolls and pitcher of extra sauce.
Leatha's looks exactly like a barbecue shack should: raw-wood floors, walls and ceilings, mismatched chairs and tablecloths, and pictures of B.B. King and countless other celebrities who have visited Leatha's over the years for some of the best barbecue South Mississippi has to offer.
There is an age-old saying that any barbecue shack worth its sauce is one that is on the verge of being shut down by the local health department. Leatha's debunks that myth. Leatha's has a perfect health-inspection record.
My friend Lisa Taylor, the local supervisor for the Forrest County Health Department, loves Leatha's the restaurant, but she is also a big fan of Leatha Jackson the person. Taylor recounts many stories of how Leatha, without drawing attention to her kindnesses, has fed those in need.
Leatha still works in her restaurant every night. After 30 years the pit is still smoking. The key to her long and storied success in the restaurant business: "You've got to love people."
So true, but you've got to have a good product, too. Leatha Jackson makes the finest barbecue I have tasted. Her advice to this restaurateur: "Love your neighbor as yourself and trust God."
You can keep The Rendezvous, Dreamland and Stubb's; give me Leatha's any day.