DBBBBQ: Chapter 7
Fresh Air and Sweet Water in the Peach State
My base in Atlanta was Little 5 Points, a neighborhood not unlike the campus stretch of Telegraph Ave. I had a list of recommendations on places to visit, including L5P, but the first thing on my mind when I woke up wasn’t Atlanta. It was a joint in Jackson called Fresh Air Barbecue. My sources had told me that this could be the best BBQ in all of Georgia, and with only 50 miles between us and the disappointment of Henry’s lingering in my soul, I was ready to find out.
Off a woody stretch of highway halfway to Macon, Fresh Air lets you know up front that it does two things right: barbecue and Brunswick stew. Inside, a three panel menu reiterates the reasons you are here: “WE SELL CHOPPED PORK, BRUNSWICK STEW, AND COLE SLAW.” I took the hint and ordered a sandwich, a bowl of stew and a cup of sweet tea. While the entire meal cost about $6, the sandwich and the stew both cost $2.40, meaning if you go with water you can play doubles of both for ten bucks. This may not be a fistful of $1 LA tacos, but it adds up fine to me.
Fresh Air’s stew, much like Lexington’s BBQ slaw, was a revelation. After one plastic spoonful I understood why the option of buying a gallon bucket of anything at a restaurant exists. It landed with a made-for-empty-stomachs mountain man consistency that made me want to drop the spoon and drink the entire serving in one gulp. It’s rare to find a stew that isn’t serviceable, but your typical stew draws a bit of a line between chunks and broth. Fresh Air merged ingredients and flavors so successfully that it was impossible to tell what had gone into the pot and impossible to resist the addictive substance that had come out.
As you can see, the barbecue was just as good. I have no knowledge of the stylings of Georgia barbecue cuts but I had no problem believing that this was the best the state had to offer. I’m sure we’re all getting a little tired of descriptions of pork at this point, so I’ll let this close-up shot do the talking. To my surprise, the most amazing thing about Fresh Air actually wasn’t the stew or the Q. It was the sauce. After spending three days in the strictest of no-sauce zones, I had forgotten that while good meat is the undeniable key to barbecue, a well-crafted sauce (or dip) is the key to punching a higher floor on the elevator of flavor.
The hot sauce at Fresh Air was, hands down, the best I had on the entire trip. The first hit jumps your tongue with a tang reminiscent of the vinegar-based dips of North Carolina. After a few seconds of chewing the slow burn of a quality pepper sauce settles in for the perfect level of discomfort. And as you finish the bite, a hidden wave of grapefruit sourness creeps up from behind to clean the palate and order your brain to add twice as much sauce and never stop eating. This sauce is also available by the gallon, but I didn’t realize until I was back in Atlanta that I could have bought a disposable container of sauce and poured it into plastic for my flight home. I still wake up every morning with the horrible feeling that I’ve failed life.
With time to kill and no one to hang out with I decided to forgo a visit to the Georgia Aquarium in favor of a walk around L5P. I hit up all the record, comic and book stores and a couple of vintage shops before grabbing a great slice at Little Five Points Pizza. I made my first trip to Target since July for some much needed clothing, but decided this wasn’t the time for a Best Buy Guitar Hero break. After some more walking I stopped back at my hosts’ place for a chat. I really wanted to hit some more places on my list of insider tips, but at this point my stomach was almost empty and I had bigger things to fry.
The destination was Mary Mac’s Tea Room, a longtime favorite of locals and tourists for Southern food whose quality had recently fallen into dispute. Several couch surfers had given me the thums up, so I felt obliged to investigate.
Mary Mac’s sports a dazzling neon sign and an expansive yet cozy interior designed to recreate the experience of being at the whites only table of 1960s Georgia. I had read several complaints about the service here, but knew before I walked in that they were completely false. I don’t know what leads so many people to issue warnings of horrible service. In my experience, average service in American restaurants is more than anyone could ask for and great service rarely adds anything to the meal itself. Atmosphere and service are not one and the same, and being waited on hand and foot is far from my idea of good atmosphere. Nothing gives me more pride than sitting down at Jodie’s counter in Albany CA, bargaining for the privilege to not have onions in my food, and being asked to take a breakfast plate to the customers waiting outside because Jodie has better things to do. Friendliness is an overspent commodity in the service industry. Dignity is another story entirely. Mary Mac’s has both to offer.
Scribbling menu items on a paper menu, I had just finished making my choices when the waitress brought out a complimentary of potlikker and cornbread. Tasty! Next was a bread basket with three rolls: cornbread, white dinner and cinnammon. A bottle of Sweetwater Georgia Brown, a brown ale brewed to put Newcastle in its place, soon followed. Then, the main course: smothered country fried steak, okra, and fried green tomatoes.
The funniest thing about DBBBBQ is that when I wasn’t killing myself with barbecue I was killing myself even harder with the deep fried gravy soaked wonders of the South. I should have stuck with fried chicken at Mary Mac’s, because the steak was tough and the fry job was worse than the number Coco’s used to do on their country fried steak when I was a kid. While my choice wasn’t stellar, a glance at the chicken and sweet potato feast at the next table assured me that this place was perhaps lacking in consistency, but not in quality.
Everything else in my spread was delicious. Each roll was pleasant, even the cinnamon bun, which scored extra points for being so damn cute. The okra and tomatoes were very hearty but not overwhelmingly salty, just the way I like it. The fried green tomatoes were sweet and tart, optimally sliced and embalmed in a fluffy jacket of deep fried batter. Hell, I could eat sandwiches made with these, topped with BBQ slaw and dipped in Brunswick stew for hours, and easily set the record for world’s biggest smile. Sweet Georgia Brown was the perfect complement, easing the deep-fried morsels of tomato and beef along with a sweet current of beer “smoother than a Bill Clinton apology.”
I waddled out of Mary Mac’s fat and happy and called up a couch surfer who wanted to meet up for a drink. He was being held up by work and I was in a coma mood, so I headed back to L5P, grabbed a six pack of Georgia Brown for the road and turned in for the night. The next morning I had leftover Brunswick stew for breakfast and started making my way to Tennessee.