Barbecue loses a legend
May 8th, 2013
10:00 AM ET
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Editor's note: The Southern Foodways Alliance delves deep in the history, tradition, heroes and plain old deliciousness of barbecue across the United States. SFA filmmaker Joe York wrote this remembrance of pitmaster Ricky Parker after attending Parker's funeral on Wednesday, May 1, in Lexington, Tennessee.

They buried Ricky Parker yesterday. A few miles down the road from the cinder block pits where he cooked whole hogs for more than half his life, from the sliding glass window where he sold sandwiches, from the creosote-stained door where he hung the “SOLD OUT” sign every afternoon to let the latecomers know not to bother, they gathered to say they were sorry, to say goodbye, to say that they didn’t know what to say.

They dressed him as he dressed himself. In blue Dickies, a tan work shirt with a pack of Swisher Sweets peeking from the breast pocket, and his burgundy and brown ball cap resting on the ledge of coffin, he went to his reward. The only thing missing was his greasy apron. I imagine it hangs on a nail somewhere back by the pits where he left it.

They came to eat at Scott’s Barbecue long before I did. For years it was run by its namesake, Early Scott, who grew the business from a roadside stand into a place of pilgrimage. Along the way, he took Ricky in and he raised him as his own son, though he wasn’t. Ricky recalled how he came to live and work with Early in an interview I did with him in 2005:

“When I was sixteen, me and my dad got into it and I hit him with a baseball bat because he was whooping up on my momma. I went to school the next morning and when I come back he had all my clothes sitting out on the front porch. So I called Mr. and Mrs. Scott and I’ve been with them ever since."

"Ever since" lasted thirty-five years. In that time Early taught Ricky how to cook hogs, how to coax smoke and vinegar into every nook and cranny of the carcass, how to burn down the leftover hickory scraps from the local ax-handle factory into the perfect catalyst for their edible alchemy, how to load the shovel, where to put the fire, when to stoke it, and when not to. Mostly, he taught him how to work and how to wait, the only two ingredients that really matter. Somewhere along the way Early faded into the smoke and Zach and Matthew emerged from it. Ricky taught his boys what Early taught him, and through it all they came.

They came to the tiny, glass window and asked for shoulder, and ham, and middlin. They asked for extra slaw and extra sauce. And whether it was Early or Ricky or Zach or Matthew that handed the sandwiches and trays and cans of Coke through the window, it always tasted the same, always smelled the same, and they always came back and came back and came back. And when they ran through one hog, Ricky and the boys would go back and lift another from the pit to take its place.

It was fitting then, and crushing, that it was those same boys who lifted their father’s casket and carried him to the front of the sanctuary at the Sand Ridge Baptist Church in Lexington, Tennessee, yesterday, where the parking lot was so full and the lines were so long that you’d swear you were at Scott’s.

They filled the church and they sat quietly as the preacher spoke. They bowed their heads when he bowed his head. They amen’ed when he amen’ed. And when there we no more words to say, they stood and came one by one to say goodbye to Ricky Parker.

They filed past his body, looking down at the restless man turned still life. I was with them. He was there and he wasn’t, more something ready-made for a wax museum now than the man who roamed the pits, who burned more hickory in his fifty-one years than lightning ever did, who spent his days here transforming hogs, and himself, through an inscrutable transubstantiation of fire and smoke into the embodiment of two of our greatest human virtues, patience and hard work.

I paused over him and noticed that in his right hand someone had placed a single cigar between his index and bird fingers. His thumb rested, anticipatory, on the business end of the Swisher Sweet and in that moment I couldn’t help but imagine a scene in which Ricky saunters up to St. Peter, looks him up and down and says, “Well, Pete, you got a light for me or what?”

They will still come to Scott’s. The smoke will still rise behind the old wooden store that Early built and passed on to Ricky, that Ricky passed on to his boys. One morning not too long from now, they’ll get up before any of us would dream of waking. They’ll drive out to the edge of town and light a fire. They’ll heave a hog on the pit and shovel a load of coals under it and wait. And when the fire and smoke have done what their daddy told them it would, they’ll reach up and grab the greasy apron from the nail where Ricky left it and get to work.

Delve into more barbecue goodness from the Southern Foodways Alliance blog Dig in.

More on food, grieving and comfort:

Sharing comfort food after a tragedy
Serving up gratitude in troubled times
South Carolina barbeque and the human condition
Bringing healing to Newtown, one pie at a time
Filling the void – eating after a funeral
Roasted chicken soup for the banged-up soul
Pouring whiskey in the wound – eating and drinking after 9/11

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Filed under: Barbecue • Barbecue Digest • Bite • Content Partner • Favorites • Meat • Rituals • Southern Foodways Alliance


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  4. willscc

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    May 15, 2013 at 2:27 pm |
  5. Tucker

    Joe comes by his ability to write honestly.
    His late brother, Jake, was a fine poet.
    This poem of his is a fine example, and on point:

    Grace

    by Jake Adam York

    Because my grandmother made me
    the breakfast her mother made her,
    when I crack the eggs, pat the butter
    on the toast, and remember the bacon
    to cast iron, to fork, to plate, to tongue,
    my great grandmother moves my hands
    to whisk, to spatula, to biscuit ring,
    and I move her hands too, making
    her mess, so the syllable of batter
    I’ll find tomorrow beneath the fridge
    and the strew of salt and oil are all
    memorials, like the pan-fried chicken
    that whistles in the grease in the voice
    of my best friend’s grandmother
    like a midnight mockingbird,
    and the smoke from the grill
    is the smell of my father coming home
    from the furnace and the tang
    of vinegar and char is the smell
    of Birmingham, the smell
    of coming home, of history, redolent
    as the salt of black-and-white film
    when I unwrap the sandwich
    from the wax-paper the wax-paper
    crackling like the cold grass
    along the Selma to Montgomery road,
    like the foil that held
    Medgar’s last meal, a square of tin
    that is just the ghost of that barbecue
    I can imagine to my tongue
    when I stand at the pit with my brother
    and think of all the hands and mouths
    and breaths of air that sharpened
    this flavor and handed it down to us,
    I feel all those hands inside
    my hands when it’s time to spread
    the table linen or lift a coffin rail
    and when the smoke billows from the pit
    I think of my uncle, I think of my uncle
    rising, not falling, when I raise
    the buttermilk and the cornmeal to the light
    before giving them to the skillet
    and sometimes I say the recipe
    to the air and sometimes I say his name
    or her name or her name
    and sometimes I just set the table
    because meals are memorials
    that teach us how to move,
    history moves in us as we raise
    our voices and then our glasses
    to pour a little out for those
    who poured out everything for us,
    we pour ourselves for them,
    so they can eat again.

    May 10, 2013 at 9:36 am |
  6. Andy

    I was raised in Lexington and now live in Knoxville, , Tennessee. Whenever we visited family in Lexington we always had Scott's BBQ. It was a delicious and highly anticipated traditional dinner at my dad's . Mr. Parker was well known and appreciated for his barbecuing. "Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will stand before kings. He will not stand before mean men." Proverbs 22:29.

    May 9, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
    • lisadw632

      Andy,

      Thank you for the verse from Proverbs, I know Rick is in heaven watching over us now.
      Lisa

      May 9, 2013 at 3:35 pm |
    • wayoutmegook

      My father was also raised in Lexington and now lives in Knoxville. Every time we would go back to visit family, we never missed the opportunity to go to Scott's. Small world, eh?

      May 13, 2013 at 9:08 am |
    • chelebrumley

      Lovely tribute. Never enjoyed his restaurant, but can so appreciate the tribute.

      May 14, 2013 at 6:49 pm |
  7. Jennifer

    Where is this place at in Lexington? I am in Huntingdon and we would sure like to try it when it reopens.

    May 9, 2013 at 12:53 pm |
    • David

      Jennifer, It is in Lexington, TN. It is on the main highway 412 headed to Jackson. Next to last building on the left right next to Anderson's Sporting goods and Remaxx. It will be well worth the trip.

      May 9, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
    • David

      Forgot to mention, they are back open starting this week.

      May 9, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
      • Jennifer

        Thanks!

        May 13, 2013 at 10:52 am |
  8. Patricia R.

    It was on our honeymoon and it was a wrong turn that lead us starving and angry to the door of Scots BBQ. I will say that it was the best wrong turn we made 17 years ago, for we ate and my husband dreamed. Now there are few weekends he doesn't crawl out of bed early in the morn and fire up the grill, its hazy smoke and the tangy aroma of hickory or apple wood filling the house, and the neighborhood. in fact the picture of us on that day hangs in his man-cave pride of place above his spice rack. For every pit master there are few deeds that fill the heart with joy as they gaze upon their legacy of smoke and love. the greatest is the love, respect and memory each and every one of you have given and the dreams of others he has fathered along the way, and we await the coming accomplishment of his "boys". Good luck and god bless

    May 9, 2013 at 9:21 am |
    • RICKY KENDALL

      Great article it's refreshing to see a tribute to an American Icon.....

      May 9, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
  9. PackDaddy

    One of the most well written pieces I have ever seen on CNN.

    May 9, 2013 at 8:44 am |
  10. Annette

    Boys you carry on what Mr. Scott started he was a good man You will do a fine job I love you and I am so proud of you both Love Mom

    May 9, 2013 at 7:41 am |
  11. WWWTexan

    Condolences to the family and friends. Mr. York, that was a damn fine tribute!. I can't wait to get back to the good ol' USA and get some BBQ.

    May 9, 2013 at 3:40 am |
  12. lisadw632

    Mr. York,
    Thank you so much for this beautiful article about Ricky, I had known him all my life, and we had only been married a year and half when he passed. He loved doing bbq it was his life, and you do not get to meet many people that live and die doing what they love and he truly did. He taught his two sons this art and they now will carry on where he has left off. Yes, his greasy apron is right where he left it on the nail by the door. Again I thank you for this tribute to Ricky He thought of you as a good friend he had mentioned you to me several times with a big ole smile. We love and will miss him very much, your kind words mean so much to us. Thank You Lisa Parker.

    May 9, 2013 at 1:33 am |
  13. John

    St. Lawrence is waiting for you Ricky

    May 9, 2013 at 12:53 am |
  14. Glenn

    And I thought people named Early were only on Squidbillies! Nee haa!

    May 9, 2013 at 12:47 am |
  15. Susan

    The story fails to mention that Parker had 4 children, the two daughters being useless to him as he devalued women. He was a wife beater, an alcoholic and I doubt he needed a light from St Peter as I am sure ther is fire in hell.

    May 9, 2013 at 12:42 am |
    • John

      I recon never speaking ill of the dead is something you haven't heard before with that callous heart. I hate being perfect too. If he is in hell..... care to bet there is a pig or two that he is roasting..... perhaps he'll offer you a sandwich when you arrive.

      May 9, 2013 at 12:50 am |
      • Terri Martin

        John I don't know if you know me but my name is Terri Martin I have worked for Rick for many years it hurts me & his family for people to say things like Miss Susan but that ok she feels the way she feels & I'm truely sorry for that but the man she is talking about I did not know the man I knew was good to eveyone I have seen this man pay for rooms when people had no money & no where to stay i have seen him feed people when they had no food give when he really didn't have anything to give he has never been nothing but good to me & my family & I have known him for about 33years I really don't understand why this would make Miss Susan feel good about her self to come on here and talk about this great man after his death but I guess does Miss Susan I really wish you had knew the man I did he was nothing like you say. Thank you John for takeing up for Rick I smiled so very big when
        read what you had wrote thanks again Terri Martin & Lisa Parker (Scotts Bar-B-Que)

        May 9, 2013 at 2:15 am |
        • RusTy Washburn

          God bless you Terri.

          May 9, 2013 at 6:59 am |
        • JPX

          Terri, that's the longest sentence I've ever read.

          May 9, 2013 at 7:59 am |
    • lisadw632

      Just how did you know Ricky? Did you know him personally, or through rumors of a small town?

      May 9, 2013 at 1:48 am |
    • Chris

      If You can't say anything good about him then don't say anything, have some respect. The man is dead and his family and friends probably will read this, I doubt what you said will offer much healing. The Parker family has always been good to me. Just keep You're thoughts to You're self. God Bless Matt and Zakk.

      May 9, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
    • Stephanie

      Hmmm....Mr. Parker must have done something to make you mad. Someone needs to teach you some class, ma'am. Here in the south we give our condolences and respect and keep our nasty comments to ourselves.

      May 9, 2013 at 7:25 pm |
  16. a

    Old pitmasters never die. They become one with their fire.

    May 9, 2013 at 12:31 am |
  17. Splinter48708

    Excellent Eulogy for a man I will never meet. My condolences to his family...his blood kin and his kin through the good eating.

    May 9, 2013 at 12:23 am |
  18. ralph

    WOW! Best thing I have ever read on cnn.com

    RIP and Godspeed Ricky Parker.

    May 8, 2013 at 11:32 pm |
    • Chris

      I Agree, nice story

      May 9, 2013 at 12:05 am |
    • Kat Kinsman

      I'm so glad you said that and I'll make sure Joe hears it. He really is a heck of a writer and even for those of us who never got to meet Mr. Parker, it makes you mourn his loss.

      May 9, 2013 at 12:19 am |
    • Kevin H

      This proves to me that – left alone – journalists at CNN.com can write. How sad we don't see it more often. The WWWWW was all there – and the writing was nearly poetic. We love this kind of writing. Thank goodness.

      May 9, 2013 at 1:25 am |
  19. larry in texas

    Great article I didn't know whether to laugh or cry R.I.P.

    May 8, 2013 at 11:14 pm |
  20. old yeller

    Gosh how I love a good bar b q sandwich.
    RIP

    May 8, 2013 at 10:39 pm |
  21. Brion

    Great article......Almost made me feel like I was there.

    May 8, 2013 at 10:24 pm |
  22. jimdevo

    Quite frankly,I'm surprised that this well written article appeared on CNN.

    May 8, 2013 at 10:24 pm |
  23. AngerBot

    "They filed past his body, a restless man turned still life." This guy's good.

    May 8, 2013 at 9:36 pm |
  24. Randy

    Great article.

    May 8, 2013 at 9:17 pm |
  25. B.

    Peace to his family in their time of loss.

    May 8, 2013 at 7:58 pm |
  26. Bob

    Awesome tribute!

    May 8, 2013 at 6:43 pm |
  27. xxx

    RIP and condolences to the family...one part of the article was not factual. Shame on you CNN. They don't make BBQ in Tennessee. You can only get real BBQ in Missouri.

    May 8, 2013 at 6:14 pm |
    • nothing in the world like West TN barbeque

      You obviously have never been out of Missouri. Try getting out some time. It will broaden your horizons.

      May 8, 2013 at 9:14 pm |
  28. The Flamingo Kid

    Dude made a living off of killing innocent animals. NOT COOL.

    May 8, 2013 at 5:57 pm |
    • Primal 4 Life

      Beyond dumb comment.

      May 8, 2013 at 6:11 pm |
    • Bill Smells

      Too bad you weren't one of them.

      May 8, 2013 at 6:22 pm |
    • mike

      Nature is nature. Get over it.

      May 8, 2013 at 6:29 pm |
    • Loren

      And you are posting as a troll on an obituary. Who is more disgusting and NOT COOL now huh? I think we all know.

      May 8, 2013 at 6:54 pm |
    • BBQ man

      The level of your stupidity is beyond belief. This man did not ever kill anything that he cooked. The product delivered to his pit were DEAD. He just cooked what he payed for. At least he was smart enough to see/know the difference. You, don'tseem to be smart enough to walk/chew gum at the same time. NOT COOL.

      May 8, 2013 at 7:43 pm |
    • Brenda

      I love sweet and sour flamingos.

      May 8, 2013 at 7:45 pm |
    • Seabass

      If God didn't want us to eat animals , he wouldn't have made them out of meat !!!

      May 8, 2013 at 11:03 pm |
    • John

      Perhaps kosher is something you should look up.

      May 9, 2013 at 12:51 am |
  29. Puckles

    I think they should roast him on a spit and serve him up to his customers.

    May 8, 2013 at 5:56 pm |
    • Loren

      Dude, really? On an obit? Gross.

      May 8, 2013 at 6:55 pm |
    • Walter

      I like my barbecue with dill puckles. Jump in the vat of brine moron, and we'll serve you up in a few weeks.

      May 8, 2013 at 8:11 pm |
  30. GIUK

    He was as American as apple pie. God bless him, and his food.

    May 8, 2013 at 5:47 pm |
  31. Ratt

    Hang in there Boys, you'll do a fine job.

    May 8, 2013 at 4:47 pm |
  32. LSUGRL1

    Ricky was a client of mine, my company handled the credit cards for his company. He was always such a pleasure to be around. So much so, that I attended the funeral, not as a client relationship, but as a friend whom had lost a friend. I am meeting with his son tomorrow and will be sure to take a copy of this with me, as I am sure he will be deeply touched by it. Thank you for such a moving tribute to him.

    May 8, 2013 at 4:27 pm |
    • Kat Kinsman

      I am so sorry for your loss.

      May 9, 2013 at 12:20 am |
  33. Bubba

    Fresh Air BBQ

    Jackson, GA

    Since 1929 the mother church of BBQ in Georgia

    May 8, 2013 at 4:18 pm |
    • Denali

      It's kinda tacky to advertise over someone grave, even if it's virtual. If you're truly from Georgia, you'd know that.

      May 8, 2013 at 5:57 pm |
      • mike

        If he's from GA, I'd expect it.

        May 8, 2013 at 6:30 pm |
  34. Humdinger

    Very nice article. While i'm no pitmaster like Rickey and I never met the guy, it's always sad when a fellow BBQ'er passes away. Godspeed Rickey, we'll see you in the smoke.

    May 8, 2013 at 4:02 pm |
  35. William

    Those 1960's signs with the soft drink sponsors are so great to look at. I wonder how easy it would be for a new business to have one made?

    May 8, 2013 at 3:49 pm |
    • RichardHead@William

      I like the way you think....Most soda vendors offer what is called co-op dollars that can be used in newspaper advertisements....you spotlight their name and they pay for part of the ad. They can also be used for signs,etc. Old time signs can be found at places like Rick's Restorations in Las Vegas,or from American Pickers on an other channel. You might also think about motion Neon..a dieing art form that is really an eye catcher.
      Mr. Parker had a Passion and a quest to produce the Best BBQ ever made.

      May 8, 2013 at 4:46 pm |
      • BBQ girl

        My grandmother sold a Coca Cola sign to a collector for almost $800. Coca Cola paid my grandfather $35 to display it on his shop.

        May 9, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
  36. knewagirl

    What a lovely tribute.

    May 8, 2013 at 3:27 pm |
  37. ZardaBaBy

    I love how this was written. Almost made me cry as if I lost one of my own relatives. I wish Mr. Parker's sons well in carrying on the family business.

    May 8, 2013 at 2:40 pm |
    • Jim Marler

      Nice post...may he RIP. Story was well written.

      May 8, 2013 at 4:06 pm |
    • Wax Man

      Get a life.

      May 8, 2013 at 5:59 pm |
      • Buck

        That's ironic you say that considering you're the pathetic one that apparently gets pleasure off of posting insulting comments in anonymity.

        May 8, 2013 at 6:07 pm |
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