This is the first in a Manic American series about Kentucky barbecue. Check back for more! As always, click on any image to see it full-screen.
It was well past sundown when the little, white Ford Ranger pickup rolled up to us in the shadows behind Roy’s, a beacon of Kentucky barbecue in Russellville. All the employees were long gone for the night, and we definitely weren’t supposed to be there.
The headlights on the truck turned off as it crawled closer, like a predator stalking its prey.
“How y’all doing?!” said a welcoming voice from behind the wheel.
It was Roy, a man we’d never spoken to or met before, coming to check on the flaming cauldron of logs that would burn down to coals overnight. We introduced ourselves and explained our quest. He seemed to expect us. Maybe one of the waitstaff had tipped him off.
“It’s a shame we’re not cooking anything tonight,” he said. “There’d be more to take pictures of.”
Once he saw that the fire was under control — important since the previous cookhouse had recently burned down — Roy took off. He didn’t seem to mind us being the only souls watching over his restaurant, so we kept shooting under the moonlight before heading back to basecamp in Bowling Green.
Inside: Smoked Mutton and Fried Catfish
Our brief exchange with Roy was the cherry on top of a night that started hours earlier. We’d been in Kentucky for two days but hadn’t yet eaten any smoked mutton. Relatively few places serve it, and neither the Smokey Pig nor R&S, which we’ll talk about in the next installments of our Kentucky barbecue series, have any lamb dishes on their menus.
Located about 30 minutes west of Bowling Green, Roy’s is a modest-yet-large corrugated steel building that the internet doesn’t have much to say about, despite the 30-year anniversary banners we found hanging out front. We settled into a table guarded by lots of taxidermy, and ordered a combo of ribs, brisket, and mutton. Our friendly waitress, Krista, made sure that we never ran out of sweet, sweet tea.
Of the three meats, the mutton was by far the most memorable: very naturally greasy, with a rich, hickory flavor, served pulled in a paper tray that couldn’t quite contain all the grease. It was unpretentious and delicious. In fact, that was true of everything Roy’s served us. It was country cooking at its finest.
Meade even added some fried catfish to his order.
Out Back: The Kentucky Barbecue Cauldron of Doom
We stayed at Roy’s as day turned to night, wandering out back to shoot the furnace used to burn down hickory logs. Those logs become glowing coals, and the coals then smoke meat to make Kentucky barbecue.
No one cared that we were out out back playing with their fire. One by one, the employees said hello and waved goodbye, as each went home for the night. Our shutters clicked on, seeking the perfect angle.
Then Roy himself stopped by in his pickup to to check on the cookhouse, and on us, before leaving us to our own devices (literally).
It’s hard to describe the feeling of freedom in shooting by the highwayside, unfettered by anyone or anything, in humid, post-rain, summer air, as the bugs buzz and the occasional vehicle whirs by. That Monday night at Roy’s was one of the highest points of our trip, and our trip was still just getting started.
Article by Rob Bellinger
Photos by Rob Bellinger & Dan Meade
Publication Date: March 5, 2017
Date of visit: June 23, 2014
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