The sandy soil in Dooly County in central Georgia is amazingly fertile.
Forests of tall pines bound for pulp mills cover much of the landscape that isn’t reserved for cotton, pecan and peanut crops. By early November the cotton plants have matured, shed their leaves and are ready for harvesting.
Machine-harvested cotton is rolled into huge plastic-wrapped bales before the faux snow-sprinkled fields are covered with real snow, eclipsing King Cotton’s presence.
Central Georgia is also rich with our country’s history. Eatonton, birthplace of Joel Chandler Harris, is 96 miles north of Vienna. The young Harris got his first job as a typesetter for a Confederate newspaper in Eatonton, published on the Turnwold Plantation.
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Some of the stories Harris learned from enslaved people on the plantation were later retold through his fictional Uncle Remus. Harris’ semi-autobiographical novel, On the Plantation, is based upon his experiences in Eatonton.
Pecans, peanuts, peaches and sweet onions also emerge from these sandy fertile fields. Be careful where you step, however, as the many fire ant mounds you’ll see are not hospitable to humans. Locals say the best antidote to fire ant stings is bleach — the sooner the better.
The culinary cornucopia in this area overflows with pecans, pecan pie, chocolate-covered pecans, pecan brittle, roasted peanuts, chocolate-covered peanuts, peanut brittle, fresh peaches in season, peach pies, peach preserves, chow chow, fried green tomatoes, Brunswick Stew, grits, country ham, cheese, sausages, barbecue sauces, biscuits and gravy, fried chicken, barbecue sauce and, of course, pork barbecue.
Pork barbecue is available year round in Georgia, but the biggest celebration of the cuisine happens every year in early November. The 34th Annual Big Pig Jig in Vienna was on Nov. 6 and 7. This year’s theme, “Big Pig Jig’s Diner at the Hog Hop,” was reflected in team décor and dress.
Sanctioned by the Memphis Barbecue Network , 88 competition barbecue teams vied for top honors in whole hog, pork shoulder and pork ribs. This is the largest Memphis Barbecue Network-sanctioned contest in the world. Teams that return year after year are allotted permanent spaces for one- to three-story structures with electricity and water. I know of no other contest with similar amenities.
Teams were judged blind and on site in each category. In blind judging, team entries are numbered so judges don’t know the source of the entry. On-site judges go to individual team sites assigned by contest officials, meet the team and listen to a presentation on how the entry to be judged was prepared and cooked.
The judge samples the entry in the presence of the team, while interacting with the head cook and asking for details that weren’t covered in the cook’s presentation. Judging scores range from 6 to 10 for appearance/presentation, tenderness and flavor. Judges compare all entries they have sampled in a respective category and give the best entry a 10 for overall impression. Others are ranked by decimals below 10, but unduplicated — for example, 9.9, 9.8, 9.7 …
Three top-ranked teams in each of the three categories go through one more round of finals judging by four judges over a three hour period. This year, for the second year in a row, Bubba Grills emerged as grand champion. Congratulations to Lonnie and Sharon Smith and team!
Kudos and thanks to Rhonda Lamb-Heath, event organizer, the MBN sanctioning officials, and the many volunteers who made the 34th Annual Big Pig Jig a fantastic event. I loved meeting new teams and judges, visiting with new and old friends, and taking in the local scene, sprinkled generously with Southern hospitality. I hope to return next year.
Ardie Davis founded a sauce contest on his backyard patio in 1984 that became the American Royal International Barbecue Sauce, Rub & Baste contest. He is a charter member of the Kansas City Barbeque Society and an inductee into the KCBS Hall of Flame. He has been interviewed on food shows and writes for barbecue-related publications. His most recent releases are America’s Best BBQ (Revised Edition), with chef Paul Kirk, and Barbecue Lover’s Kansas City Style .