Going Whole Hog
photo by Randal Crow
Owner and cook Zach Parker carries himself through his Lexington, Tennessee restaurant with the egoless confidence of a man twice his 25 years. As he walks past the line of guests waiting to order, he greets each one in a manner too familiar to be perfunctory and in an accent as thick and as rich as his sauce. He comes by all of this naturally.
Zach is not only in his place, he is of his place. “There are customers whose faces I remember from when I was a child. I was so small when I started working here, I couldn’t put meat on the tray to put it on the scale. I had to wash dishes and wrap sandwiches until I hit a growth spurt and got tall enough to see over the scales.” Aside from a three day standoff when his father, Ricky Parker, told a teenaged Zach he could no longer work in the restaurant until he cut his hair, he’s been here ever since, his hair neatly trimmed. He inherited the place when Ricky died in 2013.
Lexington is a small town of some 7,500 people situated in Henderson County ten miles south of Highway 40, the main artery that connects Memphis to Nashville. A tiny urban patch in a lush quilt of pasture, field and forest devoid of airy affectations or lofty pretentions. This is the mine from which the ‘salt of the earth’ comes. It seems not only appropriate, but utterly obvious that this would be home to one of the best barbecue joints in the country.
“ It made Daddy proud that I wanted to run the place and I still kinda live on that every day.”
photo by Randal Crow
Scott’s Barbecue started in 1962 as a shack on the side of the road cooking whole hogs. While local lore leaves the matter of its exact genesis unclear, the business and its reputation was built by namesake B.E. ‘Early’ Scott, who may or may not have come into ownership through a fortuitous trade with his brother involving two buses and a bus route. Regardless, Ricky Parker began working for Early when he was 14 years old because, as Zach explains, “Mr. Early liked my dad because he was a hard worker and didn’t grow his hair out long like the other boys did.” He worked for Early before and after school and would be checked out each day between 11 and 1 to help with the lunch rush.
The Scotts were childless and, after a volatile disagreement with his abusive father, Ricky was homeless. Given that he was already like a son to them, the Scotts took him in the next day. From that day forward, he learned everything he could about cooking pigs and running a restaurant. He bought it from Early in 1989. When Ricky took over, Early told him, “I’ve been the best I can, but you can be better.” He was right. The business continued to grow. Then, in 1991, Zach was born, the unwitting crown prince of pork. “I wouldn’t really say that this is something that I was ‘born to do’, but it is something I was born doing. It made Daddy proud that I wanted to run the place and I still kinda live on that every day.”
“We cook whole-hog barbecue on block cinder pits, over hickory coals with cardboard insulation. No thermometers. No gas. I cook by feel,”
Since his father’s death, the younger Parker has not deviated at all from the recipes and processes that made his birthright the place it is today. With framed awards and acknowledgements from the esteemed culinary likes of ‘The Southern Foodways Alliance’, ‘Bon Appetite’ magazine and ‘Garden and Gun’ magazine lining the walls; one would be hard pressed to offer a compelling argument against his approach.
“We cook whole-hog barbecue on block cinder pits, over hickory coals with cardboard insulation. No thermometers. No gas. I cook by feel,” explains Zach, who is unwaveringly committed to going whole hog. “It would be a lot easier to cook just shoulders or butts. More money to be made. Less waste. No kill fee. But our clientele knows exactly what they want; middlin’ or tender loin, chopped or pulled, fat or no fat. You can’t get that with a butt or a shoulder.” Indeed, they know what they want. And in the week of July 4th alone, they wanted 84 whole hogs worth.
“Daddy always said if he ever had to quit cooking whole hogs, he’d quit in general and that philosophy has sort of rolled over on me. I understand because why do something that everybody else is doing when you could be that one different person?”
Zach pays the price for being that one different person, sometimes driving up to the restaurant to check the pigs several times overnight (depending on weather conditions) during their 24 hour cooking process. While he does employ a staff, he insists he’s the only one that knows exactly how it’s all done, including the recipe for Scott’s sauce, a concoction he will describe only as “vinegar-based and a little sweet.”
photo by Randal Crow
This guardedness is one reason why there is not a second Scott’s location. “I can teach somebody how to make our barbecue, but there’s a trust factor. How do I know they’re not going to take my methods, quit working for me and try to open their own place? I don’t want to train potential competition,” he explains. As it is, his trusted circle includes his brother and an uncle who Zach describes as ‘one of my right hand men’. “I’ve thought about opening another location, but the quality just wouldn’t be the same because it wouldn’t be us doing it. I think it would be hard to replicate something this special.”
There’s no question that this is the truth. From the swine-themed kitsch of the dining room to the low-ceilinged labyrinth of the original cooking space, Scott’s Barbecue smacks of unrepeatable authenticity; an uncontrived amalgam of organic excellence that is born only of age, experience and effort. A spectacularly singular barbecue joint built by a family that was in a sense, itself, built by barbecue. And that’s the kind of stuff you just can’t make up.