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Spring Break Part One: Big Bob Gibson’s Barbecue

March 20, 2012

The road trip has been completed. Spring Break 2012 is gone but not forgotten. If nothing else, I am certain the bathroom scale will not let me forget.
This family vacation played out like so many others — slow mornings leading to mad afternoon dashes from attraction to attraction, searches for obscure pressed penny machines, and lots of interesting things to eat. This was my first trip to fully embrace a GPS — up to now the boundaries of technological travel assistance has been MapQuest. I’ve even been known to consult a genuine printed road atlas. But the GPS helped me find some off-the-beaten-path edibles on this trip, so I am now a believer.
Daughter was a bit misled, however, by the GPS calculation of travel time on the first leg of our journey. She thought it was only going to be three-plus hours to Nashville, Tenn., our final stop of that first day. But I had set the navigation destination for Decatur, Ala., home of Big Bob Gibson’s Barbecue restaurant. I didn’t know what time we would get there, if I’d order a sandwich to go or a platter to stay, if it would be a family meal or just a research stop for Daddy — I just knew we were stopping.
I’m not even sure how I first heard of Big Bob Gibson’s. It could have been any number of references, because I am just the kind of barbecue nerd that actually studies the subject of my own free will. For this trip I was reminded of Big Bob’s by way of John T. Edge’s book, “Southern Belly,” one of my best resources. If I am planning a trip through any southern state, I check the book to see if I will be anywhere near the places he describes. Decatur, Ala. was going to be directly in our path this trip — or at least close enough to justify a slight detour if necessary — and that is where Big Bob’s began.
With the help of the little lady inside the GPS we found Big Bob’s with no problem. We walked in late on Sunday afternoon and were greeted by huge trophies (taller than Daughter) representing wins at the Memphis in May barbecue contest, among other trophies scattered about the front entrance. The walls were covered with what seemed like scores of framed Southern Living covers with articles featuring their barbecue. And there was a tall rack full of their award-winning barbecue sauces for sale. I knew we were in the right place.
You don’t need to go all the way to Decatur to have good barbecue — we have some of the best right here in Stark-Vegas. But as a barbecue nerd, I do like to try other styles of cooking, sauces and sides whenever I can, if for no other reason than to train my palate for a future career in barbecue judging.    
Many of the awards Big Bob’s has won have been for the sauces. It’s known in particular for the white, mayonnaise-based barbecue sauce. Our waitress told us it was originally developed for chicken, but people put it on everything — it was all about what you liked. I had already eaten barbecue chicken for lunch that day, so I tried the sauce on my pork and liked it just fine on the other white meat. White barbecue sauce, like the mustard-based version of South Carolina, is a regional concoction that seems to be rooted in Alabama — possibly even invented by Big Bob himself. I’ve seen recipes for it, even made some myself once, but this was the first time I had ever seen it on the table in a barbecue joint. They had a good red sauce on the table as well, and sold a golden-colored sauce at the front. As you might expect, I toted three colorful bottles of prize-winning barbecue sauce around for the rest of our trip. Some people buy t-shirts for souvenirs, I buy barbecue sauce.
When my combination plate arrived, what stood out immediately was the cole slaw. I’m not the kind of eater that requires slaw to actually be on my barbecue sandwiches (though I have grown to appreciate that type of layering), but I do like to keep it close by. It’s almost as necessary to a proper barbecue meal as sweet tea. Big Bob’s slaw was green. Bright green. I asked the waitress what made it so green, and she said it was simply their use of the outer cabbage leaves, which a lot of folks end up throwing away. She went on to tell us how she liked to take those same outer leaves at home and fry them up with bacon and onions. You never know where you might pick up a good recipe.
The Brunswick stew tasted pretty much like it was supposed to, though I still prefer Oktoc’s.  Big Bob’s just didn’t have that “all-night-stir” vibe to it. The pulled pork was pretty tasty on its own, but was even better with the sauce. I probably wouldn’t order the beef brisket again — I’m a pork man anyway — but it wasn’t so underwhelming that I left any for the doggies. Wife got the ribs, which seemed to be basted with the red sauce. They were the highlight of the meal. 
After sharing a couple of pieces of Big Bob’s famous pies, we moved on and reset the GPS to Music City. Halfway there I saw one of those billboards with revolving ads, only this one was broken. On the left was the beginning of a restaurant sign — on the right was the remainder of a hospital ad. The end result: “Arby’s — Your Health, Our Passion.” I took it as a sign of a good week to come.

Jay Reed is a local foodie and pharmacist.  The culinary tastes expressed here are his and do not necessarily reflect the appetites of the Starkville Daily News or individual members of its staff.  He    welcomes your comments at

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