Jones Bar B Que Diner came across my radar as the oldest black owned bbq restaurant in the country, with an establishment date of 1910. The 1910 date by itself may make it one of the oldest bbq restaurants in the United States, not simply black. In the articles I read about Jones Bar B Que Diner located in Marianna, Arkansas, they constantly mentioned “the hole in the ground” In talking about its early days. To most “The whole in the ground” signified nothing, but to me it signified that whole animal barbecue was being done, like hogs, goats, and deer during it earliest days. Today Pitmaster Owner James Jones is known for making one of the best pork(pork shoulder or boston butts) sandwiches served with or without cole slaw on Wonder Bread and a vinegar pepper base sauce that indicative of the oldest bbq sauce in the US. Upon hearing the Jones story, I knew I had to make this trip to Jones Bar B Que diner, because the history of this place is a crown jewel in the American barbecue story. However, to understand why it is a crown jewel, you must truly understand bbq in the south, starting with “The hole in the ground.”
On July 13, 2019 while evacuating for tropical storm Barry to Memphis, my wife encouraged me to take advantage of this opportunity to visit Jones, as she knew it was on my list to visit for over a year to go to Marianna. It was worth the trip for sure, and it is beyond the sandwich. As soon as I walked up to the place, I knew I was at a “Real” pitcooked bbq pit restaurant based upon the smell of the air alone. When I walked in the door, I saw the legend, Mr. James H. Jones and we immediately started talking right after ordering my food. I just ordered two sandwiches, the pork and cole slaw sandwich. One of the first things I asked Mr. Jones, was did his father and grandfather cooked whole hogs in the hole in the ground. He immediately said yes and I said you confirmed what I believed was the case even though the articles just said the diner started as a “hole in the ground. “ Upon talking about the hole in the ground, he described exactly how his father and grandfather would flip the hog in between two pieces of wire identically to how we would in SC. I know this was not a coincidence and so I talked as little as possible to be a sponge of tradition, or rather the confirmation of tradition. He went on to say, that his grandfather whom built the current pits would dig earth dug pits to supplement his cinder block pits on the Fourth of July, when he was a child to meet the demand. Just so people know, the 4th of July and Christmas holidays are one of the busiest times for pitcooked bbq in the American south, which goes back to slavery times. This reminded me of a story I heard at Scott’s Barbecue in Hemingway, SC that referenced using simple metal pits in the back that were used on similar holidays to provide additional capacity for the cinder block pits in the main pithouse. What people don’t realize, holes in the ground( earth dug trenches) cinder block pits, old fuel tanks, old refrigerators, or fancy fabricated metal pits are tools to get bbq. I knew Mr. Jones family was serious about the bbq restaurant based upon what he shared next.
Mr. Jones said at 14 years of age, he would on occasions miss school to help with the family bbq business and it was okay. This sounded so familiar when my own family members would miss school to help picked cotton. Therefore, I knew that he was the real McCoy. The reason, I say he is a crown jewel, is because at 74 years young, he mentioned that his Grandfather Uncle Joe started this bbq tradition and he never met this great great uncle. James Jones is the 4th generation of the Jones Family BBQ legacy. Upon hearing this I was wondering if the Jones family has been cooking bbq continuously since slavery, and based upon my calculations while reading a few other interviews that said the family has been cooking bbq for 150 years, this easily put this family cooking into the mid 1860 to late 1860s if not before. In talking with him, he said that there was no need to change the cooking process as it work for the people whom came before him and it would work for him. His carrying on tradition rightfully earned him the James Beard American Classic award, the only JBF restaurant in Arkansas. I knew from the taste of his food, how the pits were constructed, the verbal description for his coals separater, and finally his vinegar pepper bbq sauce, I knew for certain his bbq is deeply rooted in the American South.
Everything that Mr. Jones described was identical to what I was taught in Paxville, SC which is over 700 miles away in regards to pitcooked bbq. There were some nuances that I will share at another time but the basic processes were similar. He said that the region was a cotton growing area and this was the final evidence I needed to solidify my argument that bbq traditions in the south went with the enslaved, whom picked cotton both in South Carolina and in the Delta. Those “holes in the ground” or trenches overlaid with rods of some sort, whether metal or at a previous time wood saplings, along with the pepper base bbq sauce is all the evidence I need for completing my understanding of bbq. As I tasted his sauce, his sauce also reminds me of Ricky Scott’s BBQ sauce in Kingstreet, SC.
I am very thankful to grow up in a rich and cultural tradition that my ancestors created and perfected in America, even if they were not able to document everything in book for the records. However, what is true that the people carried the stories and passed them orally, the latter in which I did not realized I had until I embarked on the bbq journey. Through my work whether writing or bringing aspects out visually, I know my work showcases what the people before me created. Understanding bbq like I do is why I will complete the black bbq hall of fame in a manner to help highlight those significant contributors to the culture since the bbq hall of fame don’t recognize living black people.
If you are into barbeque culture of America, the $3.50 bbq sandwich makes the costs you have to incur to get to Jones Bar B Que Diner, well worth it. There are not many places in the US that you can buy a $3.50 bbq sandwich made with this much love and tradition in every bite. I am still pinching myself that I had the opportunity to eat at this cultural institution. With eating here and talking to the Pitmaster and owner, I believed I have talked to all the black pitmasters that owned their restaurant in the US, who have a history in cooking in the Hole in the Ground.