The Shack’s barbecue

In an earlier post, we directed you to the research done by Raymond Merritt, Mabelvale High School class of 1960, at www.rrmerritt.com/mabelvale.

His website is filled with memories of life in Little Rock during the 1950s and 1960s.

Merritt includes a separate section on the legendary Shack, sure to please those who cherish their memories of eating barbecue there.

“In the 1940s, my family and many of yours often piled into the car on Saturday evening and drove to downtown Little Rock for a special treat,” he writes. “At 1600 W. Seventh, between Bishop and Marshall streets, right next to the Arkansas State Capitol building, was The Shack barbecue restaurant. We pulled into the gravel parking lot and parked the car. The restaurant was always too full to find a seat, so my dad went inside and bought the sandwiches (we preceded carhops, at least in Little Rock) and we, as did dozens of others, sat in the parking lot and ate dinner.

“In the 1950s, the state of Arkansas cleared all the businesses off the land abreast of the Capitol grounds to make way for the drive which now connects the Capitol Mall Circle to West Seventh, so The Shack closed. Many of you think you remember eating at The Shack in the mid-1950s, but you didn’t. The Shack is not listed in any Little Rock telephone directory from 1954 to 1958. It eventually reappeared at Third and Victory, where the aromas coming from the outdoor smoker easily overwhelmed the smell of spent diesel fuel coming from the Missouri Pacific depot a block to the north. The building was new, but the food was the same, so Little Rockians filled the now paved parking lot as they had once done.”

Merritt notes that after The Shack closed, recipes began to appear in various places for The Shack’s sauce. He says all of these recipes are different while claiming to be the original.

“A Shack barbecue sandwich consisted of meat, cabbage and sauce on a bun,” he writes. “This is a Memphis sandwich. Memphis is the Mecca of the ‘slaw on barbecue’ religion, and the farther away you get from Memphis, the less it is found until you cross into Texas on the west or the Carolinas on the east, where it disappears altogether.

“The meat had a pronounced hickory flavor because it was smoked in a smoker under a shed in back, surrounded by stacks of hickory wood. You could smell the hickory smoke for blocks around. Modern electric smoking ovens that use hickory sawdust for flavor produce bland meat compared to wood-fired smokers because sawdust doesn’t contain the amount of essential flavoring oils that a stick of wood does. When sawdust is produced, the wood cells are ruptured and much of the oil dissipates. Some restaurants don’t even pretend to smoke the meat. They bake it in an oven and depend on a heavy serving of sauce, maybe laced with liquid smoke, to provide the flavor.

“A Shack sandwich was not health food. The Shack cooked its meat in the days before the healthier lifestyle came into vogue and before the cattlemen and hog farmers started breeding leaner animals to accommodate it. A roast suitable for smoking in the ’50s was layered with fat that was trimmed off and discarded just before serving. The fat contributed to the tenderness so modern lower-fat meat is not as tender as what we ate in our youth.

“The sauce was Memphis style. There are a jillion barbecue sauce recipes, but most (especially the tomato-based ones) are all variations of three styles. … North Carolina style is heavy on vinegar, light on tomato, contains mustard. Eastern North Carolina omits tomato entirely. Memphis style is about equal vinegar and tomato with a hint of sweetness. Mustard is heresy in Memphis. Kansas City style is light on vinegar, heavy on tomato, heavy on sweetness. The first three ingredients in KC Masterpiece are corn syrup, tomato and molasses.

“The bun was a plain-Jane gummy bun, and it was slightly griddled, not enough to toast it but just enough to get it warm. I used to sit at the counter at Third and Victory and watch through the kitchen door as the cook tossed buns onto the griddle. The cabbage was very thinly sliced and undressed, and there was only enough of it to provide texture, not taste. The whole thing was wrapped in thin commercial waxed sandwich paper.

“Our memory of the experience is based upon that whole package. If you put authentic Shack sauce on tasteless meat with a poppy seed kaiser bun and a mound of dressed coleslaw, the resulting sandwich would rasp your taster (and you would blame the sauce). The question is not whether we have the actual sauce recipe but whether the recipe we have is close enough that in combination with the three other ingredients it will jog our memory enough to coax a smile.”

Go to Merritt’s website to see the various recipes he has collected and then decide which one you think is the most authentic.

Back in June, my friend Kane Webb wrote about The Shack for Sync.

“You’re standing outside a barbecue place. Any barbecue place. Anywhere,” he wrote. “Breathe deep. Ahhh. What do you smell? If you are ‘of a certain age,’ if you have more gray than not in your hair, if you grew up in these parts, you smell The Shack. Doesn’t matter where you actually are, doesn’t matter what kind of barbecue, just matters that the smoky, hickory air is smoky, hickory air. The past takes care of the rest.

“Smell may be the most powerful of the senses when it comes to evoking memories. A smell can transport you to a place, a day, a moment. Smell is a snapshot sense, stopping time in its tracks. So when a few generations of Arkansans smell barbecue, they inevitably, instinctively, return to The Shack.

“On this weekday afternoon at lunchtime, at Smokehouse BBQ in Conway, I breathe deep and find myself in the back seat of my father’s old station wagon. We are parked on the lot at Third and Victory, the last location of The Shack, after a forced move from West Seventh thanks to state government ‘progress,’ and we are dining on pork sandwiches, the wrapping paper unfolded and spread out on vinyl seats. Dueling sandwiches separate my sister and I in the back seat, while mom and dad eat theirs on laps up front. It is late evening. Hot. Summer. Windows rolled down, which lets the sandwich smell out but The Shack’s outdoor smoker smell in.”

There are a number of restaurants that claim to be direct descendants of The Shack. Smokehouse BBQ in Conway, which Kane mentioned, is one of them. So is Smitty’s in Conway. There’s also the Smoke Shack in Maumelle, Jo-Jo’s in Sherwood and H.B.’s in Little Rock.

Casey Slaughter opened The Shack in 1934. The last incarnation of the restaurant closed in 1988, soon after I had dined there with former Gov. Orval Faubus while working on a magazine profile of the aging politician.

After news of The Shack’s closing reached Los Angeles, Little Rock native Anne Fewell wrote this letter to the Arkansas Gazette: “My sister Carol broke it to me as gently as she could over the phone, but in that next second after she told me, a lifetime of memories swiftly sifted through a kaleidoscope of emotions from grief to outrage. … I told her if I’d known ahead of time, I would’ve flown to Little Rock and done something, even started a picket line, or, if it got down to it, pled with whoever to keep it alive. After we hung up, I recalled my first taste.”

Here’s how Kane put it: “When the shuttering of a barbecue place reaches the status of death of a loved one, you know it was more than a barbecue place.”

So here’s the question: Does The Shack have a real descendant? Which restaurant is it?

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4 Responses to “The Shack’s barbecue”

  1. Brian says:

    Dreamland in Tuscaloosa?

  2. rexnelson says:

    I stumbled onto some small-town Alabama places I like when I worked over there for the Delta Regional Authority.

    Try the Green Top in Dora and the Twix & Tween in Centreville. Both pass the “pickup truck test” — Rex

  3. cole says:

    HB’s BBQ on Lancaster, LR was opened by H.B. Slaughter after G.Cook, et al bought ‘The Shack’ name, dirt/bldg and most likely, receipes, from the Slaughter family about 1970.

  4. Doc Dave says:

    The Shack came up in a discussion I had recently with a visitor from Colorado. The gentleman’s father and grandfather owned the Rackensack or Capitol Hill apartments back in the 1940s and into the 1950s. At one point, he informed me, his father paid the proprietors of The Shack “a small fortune” for their sauce recipe; in the early 60s the father (who also co-owned a Denver hotel as well as the Riceland Hotel in Stuttgart) opened a drive-through BBQ place in Denver which apparently did well until the city ordered it closed on account of trafic tieups. Thus, edible BBQ in Denver was by this account a victim of its own success. It’s better there now, but we still have the ‘cue advantage.

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