Growing up I heard the story of Troy Loftis and his 4th of July barbecue over and over. Approximately once a year actually, in an event that came to be known as the Troy Loftis Memorial Barbecue. It was called this because every year when my father would fill his grill with pork butt, beef brisket, chicken and ribs, he would tell the story of Troy Loftis and how he would turn a building into a huge barbecue pit and cook for the entire town. I asked my father to write down this story to share with you. Here is his story…
A tradition began to form in the small town of Fayette, Alabama (population, 4,000) when Troy Loftis returned from WWI and joined the American Legion. Several years later, after the veterans from WWII swelled the ranks of the Legion, they built a large assembly hall. It served as a basketball court and had a place for stage performances at one end, but the stage and all its equipment was never installed. Only a large bare-dirt space was found where the stage was supposed to be, but a different sort of performance took place there each Fourth of July.
Troy took up electrical contracting for his occupation and installed the wiring in many local homes and businesses, but on the Fourth of July, he barbecued for the entire town. The bare dirt where the stage was meant to be was perfectly suited for a barbecue pit. In Alabama, “pit barbecue” means that meat is roasted in the open air over coals shoveled into a pit dug in the ground. No enclosed smokers, no ovens—just a long trench in the ground with steel mesh laid on top.
Since the entire operation was indoors, rain or shine made no difference. Windows reached to the ceiling along each side of the hall, and the top section of each window was opened with a long pole to vent the smoke.
Troy would show up at my father’s grocery store late in the afternoon of the Third of July. He would fill a shopping basket with gallon cans of tomato sauce, onions, brown sugar, vinegar and spices. To apply the sauce during cooking, he bought a new, clean, cotton floor mop. Finally, many boxes of pork shoulders were carted out of the meat market to his work truck.
Cooking began late on the third and continued all night and the next morning. A fire was built at one end of the open pit. Hickory logs were burned on this fire to produce charcoal embers, and then the embers were shoveled under the steel mesh holding the pork. The warm smoke tenderized the meat, possibly without ever raising its temperature above boiling water and never burning the sweet sauce swabbed on it.
On the morning of the Fourth, my mother and Troy’s wife, Ola Mae, would go down to the closed grocery store. They took over the meat market and prepared cole slaw. Fifty-pound bags of cabbage were sliced thin on the cutter meant for ham and bologna which, of course, had been carefully cleaned. The shredded cabbage fell into large mixing bowls borrowed from the bakery; mayonnaise, pickle relish, and other ingredients were dumped in and tossed.
Finally as noon neared, the pork shoulders began to be removed from the pit and passed to Legion members who easily peeled off the skin, removed the bones and sliced the meat.
Then the townspeople—nearly all of them—began to show up and buy barbecue plates. By prearrangement, one could purchase a whole barbecued shoulder. The proceeds went to the Legion activities and charities. A plate included a mound of pork with a ladle of sauce poured over it, coleslaw, bread, and baked beans. Some people sat on the basketball bleachers, conversed and ate, while others took their plates and whole shoulders back home. Everyone agreed it was fantastic barbecue.
The tradition continued for quite a while until Troy and his family moved to Gulf Shores. I think someone else took over the barbecuing for a while, but it wasn’t the same. I have mentioned the Fourth of July feast to many people who lived in Fayette and tasted a plate of Troy’s barbecue, and I’ve never run into anyone who enjoyed a plate of the barbecue and since has forgotten it.
As a child, I was always mesmerized by stories of my father’s that were on such a grand scale (and he had a few). I would listen in my young-foodie zen-like state to him talk about Troy basting the meat with a clean floor mop, and feeding the town from meat slow-smoked on a grill the size of an auditorium stage. After a few years, I would beg for the story to be told. Each time soaking up the story like it was a fairy tale.
I’m not sure I ever really conceptualized the fact that Troy Loftis was a real person and that this event really happened in my father’s small Alabama town on a regular basis until I was well into adulthood. It was just the story and idea that this event happened that made it so entertaining to me as a child. It is still such a wonderful story, and one I love. It’s so emblematic of how Americans embrace and celebrate this holiday in a way that is uniquely our own.
If you are interested in finding out more about the history of real pit barbecue or the small town where my father grew up, I highly encourage you to check out my dad’s site at froglevel.org (http://froglevel.org/short_stories.html). He has written a fictionalized version of his childhood in this small Alabama town called The Sipsey Swamp Stories, and if you like stories about growing up in small American towns like this you’ll enjoy the book.
This year I decided to continue the memorial barbecue. Since I was short a floor mop, a stage and a few hundred pork shoulders, I settled on my gas (yes gas) grill, the brisket from our grass-fed side of beef (half the brisket actually), a few handfuls of mesquite and apple-wood chips, and lots of time. The finished product was as good as any I’ve had in Texas or elsewhere. It was fork tender, smokey, flavorful and everything you expect from good ole American barbecue. The sauce never touches the meat until it’s completely finished, lending flavor without messing around with the smokey goodness of the meat and rub. It’s just about the perfect Fourth of July Meal–especially when paired with my Firecracker Coleslaw and Blueberry Crisp with Ground Toasted Almonds.
Smoked Barbecue Brisket on a Gas Grill
This same method would work for pork butts and pork shoulders. Please note that this cooking process takes about three days from beginning to end (including marinating time). It is not a short, quick way of cooking, but the finished product is as good as any barbecue meat you’ll have at a barbecue joint.
8-10 pound brisket, trimmed as little as possible
1 recipe all-purpose rub (below)
3 cups wood chips or chunks, soaked for several hours in water
heavy duty aluminum foil
grill-safe roasting pan or foil pan
Alabama Red Barbecue Sauce for serving
24 – 36 hours before you plan on smoking your meat, prepare the rub and spread the entire amount evenly on the meat.
Cover well and let it marinate for at least 24 hours. Soak your wood chips in water for several hours. About an hour before you want to start cooking, remove the brisket from the fridge so it can warm up a little before cooking. Line a large grill-safe roasting pan or aluminum foil pan with heavy duty aluminum foil. Place the brisket in the center of the foil and wrap the foil around the sides, but not over the top of the meat. Place the foil-wrapped meat in the roasting pan and set aside.
When you are ready to start the grill, wrap 1 cup of soaked wood chips in aluminum foil and cut several holes in the top and sides of the foil to let air in and smoke out. Leave the rest of the wood chips soaking in the water until needed. Place the foil packet under the grill surface. If your burners run front to back, place the packet on one side where the grill will be on (the meat will be on the opposite side). If your burners run side to side, place the wood chip packet at the front. If your grill has metal covers over the flames (Weber calls these “Flavor Bars”), then place the packet under the grill grates. If your grill has exposed flames, then put the packets on top of the grill.
Prepare your grill by heating it on medium heat. Allow the grill to continue to heat at a medium temperature until you can see and smell the wood smoke. Place the meat in the roasting pan on the opposite side of the grill from the wood chips and turn the heat off directly under the meat. Turn the heat to low under the wood chips.
Allow the meat to smoke for about 8 hours, turning over once halfway through the cooking process. You will need to replace the wood chip packet as the previous one burns out. I started the second and third wood chip packets smoking over a low burner on my stove-top. If you do this, be very careful, and do it at your own risk.
After about eight hours on the grill, your meat will be smoked, but not falling apart tender. Wrap the foil tightly around the meat, so that all liquid is trapped next to the meat. Move the roasting pan to the oven and allow to continue to cook for another 10-12 hours on 200 degrees. I let my oven run overnight with the brisket on.
When the brisket is finally cooked, it will slice very easily. Be sure to slice the brisket across the grain to prevent long strings in the meat. Serve with barbecue sauce alone or in a sandwich.
The rub is very important to help keep the meat from drying out, sweetening, salting and flavoring the meat. It and needs to sit on the brisket for at least 24 hours.
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon salt (I like to use a coarse grind like kosher)
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon ground mustard
1 pinch cinnamon
Mix all the ingredients together. The rub can be stored in an airtight container for several months.