“My appreciation of barbecue is ecumenical,” writes Fred W. Sauceman in his latest contribution to the literature of American foodways, The Proffitts of Ridgewood, a look at one of the most beloved barbecue joints in the Southeast. Sauceman knows his Q, for sure—he knows which regions specialize in which types of sauce, and which legendary pitmasters prefer what cuts of meat. (You might imagine that “Sauceman” is a winky pen name for a food writer, but you’d be wrong.) In The Proffitts of Ridgewood, he lovingly tells the story of a family-owned-and-operated restaurant tucked into the hollows of northeast Tennessee, where they’ve done it their way from day one, drawing curious and hungry guests from the world over.
“This is a story of smoked meat, but in a larger sense, it’s the story of an Appalachian family,” Sauceman writes. In 1948, Ridgewood Barbecue was established near Bluff City by husband and wife Jim and Grace Proffitt, patriarch and matriarch of this pork-smoking clan. Though the restaurant’s name seems to conjure perfectly the landscape of southern Appalachia, it can actually be traced to Florida: vacationing at Daytona Beach, the couple noticed a hotel named Ridgewood and thought it’d make a fine name for the restaurant they were just beginning to envision. Nearly seventy years later, Ridgewood still stands in the same spot in Bullock’s Hollow on old Elizabethton Highway, its structure built by Jim out of hickory wood harvested from his father’s farm.
Ridgewood hits all the right notes for a great foodways story, Sauceman writes, standing out as “the one place in the East Tennessee that is truly worthy of book-length treatment.” From its opening day, the restaurant has been operated by generations of its founding family, serving signature dishes without giving way to “compromising shortcuts.” The Ridgewood spin on barbecue is an atypical one: they smoke only hams—no other cuts of pork—in a pit fueled by hickory wood, and then they thinly slice the meat and pile it high on a bun. There’s also smoked beef, but Ridgewood is best known for sliced smoked ham and the sauce with which it’s drenched.
Speaking of that special sauce: it’s tomato based (as is regionally appropriate), has upwards of twenty ingredients, was developed by Jim Proffitt, and is otherwise the stuff of intense secrecy. Unlike so many books about chefs and famous restaurants, this one doesn’t reveal a single recipe: “I don’t possess the Ridgewood sauce recipe and I would never ask for it,” writes Sauceman. “Secrets should remain secrets. Its mystery is part of Ridgewood’s legacy and lore.” When Jim’s son Larry taught his own daughter Lisa to make the sauce, as the story goes, he had her write the recipe down. But once she’d committed it to memory, he set fire to that piece of paper. “There goes your recipe,” he told her. “I hope it’s in your head. Because it’s only in mine and yours now.’”
To make the Ridgewood experience complete, barbecued beans and blue cheese “dressing” may be enjoyed as a dip with saltine crackers. The menu boasts plenty of other items, too, but the pork and the beans and the blue cheese dressing and the fresh-cut French fries are what guests wait in line for hours to experience. Sauceman honors that time-tested food, but his reverence for the Appalachian ethics behind the Ridgewood’s success is perhaps the real subject.
“In barbecue, just as in life, they have learned that the easy way is rarely the best way,” he writes of the Proffitt family. They are hard workers, frugal and dedicated to family tradition, tenacious in the face of the temptations of change and dollar signs: “When lawyers and businesspeople talk franchising or outright purchase, as they often do today, the Proffitts send them packing,” Sauceman writes. “The Ridgewood, Larry tells them, is not for sale.”
Susannah Felts is a writer, editor, and educator in Nashville, as well as co-founder of The Porch Writers’ Collective, a nonprofit literary center. She is the author of This Will Go Down On Your Permanent Record, a novel, and numerous journal and magazine articles.