Always on the search for the best barbecue when in East Tennessee, I’m directed to Sweet P’s on the water in Maryville outside Knoxville. The 15-minute drive through the gently rolling countryside is reminiscent of other favorite places where the landscape is carved from rivers and finger creeks and where many homes and small farms are lucky to have a fresh pond and perhaps a dock. Places that bring me joy, lyrical in the sounds they produce as I drive at a comfortable pace, windows rolled down – Northern Neck, Virginia, or central Ohio, the South Coast of Massachusetts or Tidewater Maryland.
The scenery y is draped in lush spring green, a singular color that occurs each year in the six-week window before summer fully takes over. The fresh air is filled with aromas of freshly mowed lawns, which have been carefully sculpted by sit-down tractors the size of small pickup trucks.
What’s familiar, too, is how the best food is tucked out of the way, preserved for the locals who drop in nightly for pulled pork, beef brisket and smoked ribs – in the same way that city folks eat in or take home from the neighborhood sushi bar or burrito joint. We travelers find these gems usually because someone who is local gives us a tip. That’s how I came to experience The Original Sweet P’s Barbecue and Soul House (at 3725 Maryville Pike, Knoxville, Tennessee). The subject came up because Sweet P’s has now opened a second location in barbecue-starved downtown Knoxville (410 W. Jackson Avenue). Owner Chris Ford has made a big reputation here (and beyond) in the last decade with his Southern-style smoke foods, a fresh take on soul food classics prepared daily. As one who loves barbecue, but not heavy foods, this will be my go-to place whenever I’m in the area. The light vinegar-led barbecue sauce (among several choices) was a slam-dunk. But more below on the food…
Following the twisting back roads, I arrived at the low-slung clapboard restaurant bordered by a deck and a tent cover (for those wishing to eat outdoors in view of the quiet Little River – one of the many waterways in TVA-land). As I walk in, at the open “kitchen” on my left a greeter takes my order – selected from the enticing pickin’s on a chalkboard menu. I pay, grab some plastic utensils and choose a small picnic table outside with a view of tranquil Little Creek.
A local band with a guest artist from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, was entertaining inside and, having been inside myself all day, the fresh air was welcoming – a small marina in one direction, a modest permit-only dock in the other. In the distance some fish make a splash and I wish I could seize one of those bass boats and head out to the sheltered coves as the sun begins to set.
Before me lay a large portion of hand-pulled, lean “smoke-and-soul chicken” and two sides – pinto beans slow cooked with onion, garlic and spices and “sautéed greens and things” – a soul-food staple with a country twist. Those collard greens sauteed with carrots, black eyed peas, celery and bacon were the best ever. It would be ludicrous to think that wine would be served with barbecue, but we Californians always ask. Instead a selection from a long list of beers became the right idea. All for under $15.
My brother who is a chef once (or more) entered a major barbecue contest in Tennessee and told tales of roasting the pig overnight, lovingly nursing that sucker along to perfection. I always remember that story because of the care that goes into Southern cooking. In the “farm to table” movement that has taken over our culinary critique, the simplicity and focus of Sweet P’s on creative ingredients, a cooking style that honors generations of traditions and results that keep the legacy alive for both distant and local diners is a “coming home” experience. We who have left these regions and those who have stayed local and expect their traditions to be respectfully preserved yet evolving have combined into an expanded audience always genuinely looking for the real thing.