Four college students walk into a smoky restaurant, sit at a table under a blaring TV and order up their class work for the day — two slabs of spare ribs dripping with reddish sauce, white bread on the side.
But this isn't lunch. It's writing about barbecue for an A.
The four spent January visiting some of the South's best barbecue restaurants for course credit from Birmingham-Southern College in a self-designed class that combines heaping mounds of meat with academics, all spread across five states.
They've eaten sweet sauces and dry rub, ribs and sandwiches, cole slaw, potato salad and banana pudding. "You want sweet tea with that?" a waitress asked at Dreamland Bar-B-Que in Tuscaloosa, stop No. 17 on the journey.
'It's been great but...'After cleaning their plates and licking their fingers, the group would leave each joint with bulging bellies to document their experience with stories, photos and video posted on a blog and the Web site they built, southernbbqboys.com. Those components, along with a final essay each one is currently finishing, are being graded by the English instructor who helped them design the class.
So what do you learn in such a course? Eat enough barbecue and you'll gain weight, get sick, or both. And 3,100 miles is a long, long way to drive for dinner in a 1998 Ford Expedition with a plastic pig's nose attached to the front.
"It's been great," said senior Art Richey, who came up with the idea for the epicurean odyssey. "But I'm definitely not going to have barbecue for a while after this."
Barbecue is sacred food in the Deep South. It's worshipped in roadside chapels with neon signs, outdated calendars and cramped booths. Friendships are forged — and strained — by discussions over which kind of sauce is best: vinegar-based or tomato-based?
Project began with a road tripA big fan of barbecue, Richey, of Russellville, wanted to take a road trip and write reviews of restaurants during Birmingham-Southern's monthlong interim period, which lets students propose out-of-the-box projects and complete them for credit. The small liberal arts school's Web site says projects have included overseas travel and topics such as investigating jazz music and compiling an oral history of homeless people.
Working with English instructor Robin Mozer, Richey developed a course contract with Will Foster of Alpharetta, Ga.; Jeff Vaughan of West Palm Beach, Fla.; and Matt Lee of Cullman.
They sketched out a trip through Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. They stuck to places that specialize in pork because Southerners know pork is the only real barbecue.
The group had a few places in mind, but they also created a Facebook group and took suggestions for other stops. They were soon overwhelmed with hundreds of recommendations, many from complete strangers.
"That's how we knew we were on to something, when we threw out the idea and were just covered up with recommendations," said Lee, who designed the Web site.
An exercise in writingThe point of the endeavor, at least academically, was for the students to develop their writing, and they say that their storytelling and descriptive skills have improved as a result. Richey said he learned that it wasn't enough just to say a restaurant's barbecue sauce tasted good. "You have to describe it, say it's sweet as molasses or spicy hot."
At Mozer's urging, they also expanded their focus beyond what was on the plate, capturing the uniqueness of a place like Dreamland, with concrete floors painted crimson, bare light bulbs and walls covered with old license plates and autographed photos of football players.
Vaughan swept through each restaurant taking photos, Richey edited video for YouTube and Foster did most of the blogging.
"They've really put a lot of effort into it," said Mozer. "They're all focused on improving their writing; that's one thing I heard from all of them."
The barbecue guys had few problems along the way. Birmingham-Southern gave them a $700 grant for gasoline, and most nights they slept with friends or relatives.
The trip wasn't without snags, though: Lee got food poisoning after a stop in Raleigh, N.C., but he remained on the trip.
"Two days later I was eating pork again," he said.
Foster's pants are fitting a little tighter — he thinks he gained as many as 7 pounds — but it was worth it.
"We actually calculated that my GPA is going to go over 3.0 because of barbecue if I make an A," said Foster, a junior majoring in business administration. "Who'd have ever thought it?"