Joe Bryant is in it for love.
Once a month for the past two years, the purveyor of Black-Eyed Joe's BBQ stokes a giant smoker with hickory. He buys pounds and pounds of pork shoulder from Sysco (Buckhead Beef Co.'s Butcher Block brand) through a friend's connection, and rubs it with a 2-1 mix of kosher salt and coarse black pepper he picks up at Kroger. Then he barbecues it at his West Knoxville driveway for something like 10 hours.
Next, meat, man, and trailer make their way to a spot below the I-40 bridge near the Knoxville Area Rescue Mission and the Salvation Army, and a squad of volunteers help pull pork and serve barbecue to what Joe estimates is 400-700 people. It's all part of an outreach effort by Lost Sheep Ministries.
He gives them his very best, like the Bible verse about sharing first fruits; to him, that's the way to go about it.
"The food they usually get is fine, and I'm grateful to those who donate and serve it," he says in a friendly, authoritative tone. "But it's pretty modest. I wanted to come down and give them the really good stuff."
This meal, his once a month offering—Joe doesn't kid himself that it's going to lift anyone out of homelessness by itself.
"I think what it does, it lets them know that they're not alone, that somebody cares enough that we want to fix them something really nice," he says. "We'll serve you and love you and treat you like a human."
Barbecue seems like the perfect choice for the meal. "It's special, it almost implies an event, something festive. It's not a high-end food, but it's something you anticipate, and we've made it the best way we know how."
Joe is head of Bryant Boats in Sweetwater; Black-Eyed Joe's is more of a hobby, catering for a few friends, a Young Life Rummage Sale, that kind of thing. He's got four kids, ages 16 down to 10, who come out to help sometimes. "It's excellent for them to see that food doesn't just magically appear," he says. "For my kids, living in West Knoxville—hunger is a weird concept. I doubt they've ever been genuinely hungry in their young lives."
The idea just came to him, almost full-blown, when he caught Atlanta's Cafe 458 on some Food Network show. "They've won best brunch in Atlanta and all this, and almost at the tail end of the show they mention, ‘But if you want to sample this food, you'll have to come on the weekend, because Monday-Friday they serve exclusively the homeless in the area.' It's excellent food, not your usual soup kitchen stuff."
Joe can't say enough about the gratitude he receives, serving. He's glad that some guests are, not critics exactly, but barbecue connoisseurs of a sort—maybe in another life they lived where barbecue is king, or worked at a barbecue joint. And just because they need a meal doesn't mean they don't have opinions on Memphis vs. Carolina, or sweet vs. vinegar sauce. "You'll have someone say, ‘Oh, I'm from Texas, not sure I'm going to like this,'" Bryant says with a low chuckle.
He has pronounced barbecue opinions of his own. "Let the meat speak for itself," he says seriously. "If it takes more than two fingers to count the ingredients in your rub, you're doing it wrong."
He makes a Kansas City/Memphis sauce, a little vinegary, a little sweet. He adds about two liters of Coke to each seven-gallon pot and insists on tried-and-true proportions. "I'm not like those who say they never measure like it's cool," he says. "Once I dial it in, I like it to be the same, and I like to be able to duplicate it."
Rules are for the pit though, not for those who come to share the meal—which is why Joe's a fan of Maxine Raines, who brought LSM to life. "She's a little different; a lot of the missions are rule driven, and you've got to pass whatever bar they set. Here, there is no door, you just come up to the tables. If someone's drunk, Maxine tells them, ‘Just sit down and eat some good food and don't cause trouble.' While I certainly admire all the missions, her approach resonates with me a little more."
It is a faith-based "thing" for Joe; he believes we're called to serve each other. "I'm just not real big on ‘You've got to jump through my hoop before I'll give you anything.' A lot of the people we feed don't like being indoors, or have an aversion to sleeping indoors or in a room with 350 other men, which I can certainly understand. Our model is going to be Jesus. He didn't make you jump through hoops. He'd just love you and hang out with you."