AMERICANA

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THERE WAS A great urge to headline this piece something cute, like “Praise the Lord, and Pass the Barbecue Sauce” or “Holy Smoke” or “Heaven Can Wait; I’ve Just Ordered the Three-Meat Platter.” But blasphemy concerns aside, that would have been a galloping injustice to the institution Annie Mae Ward, a faithful member of the Huntsville, Texas, New Zion Missionary Baptist Church and a barbecue cook extraordinaire, established three decades ago.

Now in her 90s, she’s retired and lives quietly with family 75 miles south, in Houston. But the story of how she established a dining legend in her hometown is still oft told.

It was in the mid-1970s, and her husband was helping fellow deacons with some paint and fix-up work at the church. She suggested that he transport his barbecue grill to the New Zion parking lot so she could prepare lunch for the team of volunteers. Soon, the sweet aroma of post-oak smoke wafted along winding Montgomery Road and passersby began stopping to ask if the beef and pork ribs she was cooking were for sale.

An idea was born: The New Zion elders offered to underwrite a roadside business if Ward wished to cook regularly. A portion of whatever she earned would go into the church coffers. For two years, the venture was a roaring success -- until the city fathers visited and cited a lengthy list of licensing and health codes Ward and her benefactors had innocently overlooked.

Church members quickly came to the rescue, though, remodeling a small frame building on a vacant lot next door. So in 1979, the church-owned New Zion Missionary Baptist Church Barbecue restaurant, fully licensed and up to code, officially opened for business. The rest, as we culinary storytellers like to say, is barbecue history.

It’s Saturday and the church parking lot is full; across the way, a lengthy line of hungry customers winds alongside the two smoky barbecue pits, waiting to enter the low-ceiling frame structure and claim one of the 60 folding chairs tucked under the wooden tables positioned along faded yellow walls. There are bankers and bikers, vacationers and locals, truck drivers, lawyers, and college students -- diners young and old -- all here to enjoy what some insist is the best food on planet Earth. In addition to the ribs, brisket, sausage, and chicken that pit master Robert Polk has been watching over since before sunrise, there are beans and potato salad. For dessert, the choices are, as usual, buttermilk, sweet-potato, and pecan pies.

And standing in the place so long occupied by Ward is the Reverend Clinton Edison. Tomorrow, on Sunday, he’ll move next door to deliver a sermon to his congregation called “The Marks of True Believers,” but on this Saturday, he is putting in a 10-hour day of taking food orders and lending help to the three church-member employees in the kitchen.

“In Sister Ward’s honor,” Edison, 57, says, “we haven’t changed a thing.” The ingredients for the dry rub used on the meat Polk prepares and the sauce that’s slathered onto the finished product are Ward’s recipes. (“She always told people they weren’t secret -- she just wasn’t telling,” Edison says.) And her unbending house rules remain in place: No drinking, no bad language, everybody has a good time, and nobody leaves hungry.

In truth, there has been one small change. Since New Zion Missionary Baptist Church Barbecue was a bit of a tongue twister, the name of the establishment has since been abbreviated to simply Church Barbecue.

Glowing testimonials are easy to come by. One has only to look and listen. Houston-area bank president James Ebrey and his wife, Angela, former students at nearby Sam Houston State University, have brought their daughters -- Maddie, 10; Lily, eight; and Hallie, six -- for their first sample of the barbecue that Mom and Dad were originally exposed to as undergrads. “It was great then, and it’s great now,” Ebrey says.

Across the room, vacationing Ron Nelson and his wife, Joan, from Freemont, Nebraska, are good-naturedly discussing whether the buttermilk or the sweet-potato pie -- delicacies neither had ever before tasted -- was better. “I’d had friends insist that we stop here the next time we were in Texas,” Nelson says. It exceeded his expectations.

Edison estimates that the restaurant’s clientele is equally divided between longtime local patrons and travelers who take the exit off Interstate 45 for lunch or dinner.

All this popularity is accomplished by word of mouth, occasional warm mentions from food and travel journalists, and a recent appearance on the Food Network’s cult-followed Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.

“We’ve never advertised,” Edison says. Neither do they cater. And they’re open only on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, from 11 a.m. to six p.m.

So, in a part of the world where there are more barbecue restaurants than Starbucks, what lures customers to the south side of Huntsville? What is it that encourages diners to patiently stand in line, waiting to finally sit elbow to elbow with fellow barbecue lovers?

For many, the quest to find the absolute best ribs, brisket, chicken, and link sausage is a never-ending pursuit. It’s almost like a religion.

And next door to the New Zion Missionary Baptist Church sits the holy grail.