These are times of death, despair, and disorientation. A pandemic rages on. Economic and political divisions are intensifying. You may ask yourself: Why, in the midst of all this struggle, would someone make a bad thing worse by going and stealing a barbecue smoker?
Brandon Cain has been asking that question, and it tells us something about his character that he usually finds a compassionate way of answering it. Maybe someone’s just hungry, he says—“maybe in a desperate situation and trying to feed their family and doing the best that they can do.”
Cain is a chef and a co-owner of SAW’s Soul Kitchen, a barbecue joint in Avondale, Alabama, which is part of a network of spots around Birmingham started by Cain’s business partner, Mike Wilson. (Apparently SAW is an acronym for his longtime nickname, Sorry Ass Wilson.) At the end of March, as the coronavirus shutdowns were devastating restaurants around the country, Cain swung by the SAW corporate offices and noticed that Black Betty, a sleek 18-foot rig that he and the team would take on the road to food and wine festivals, was missing.
“We’re like, ‘Where’s the smoker?’” he recalls.
It should be pointed out that such thefts are not uncommon across the American South. Last summer, in fact, J.C. Reid wrote in the Houston Chronicle that smoker-stealing had grown into an “epidemic.” Barbecue rigs may be hard to hide, because they’re big, but they’re relatively easy to steal, because they’ve got wheels. Criminals can attach them to a truck and drive away. “First, realize that stolen trailers are the ultimate crime of opportunity,” Reid wrote. “Many potential thieves are driving around in a truck with a trailer-hitch ball mount, and an unsecured barbecue trailer may be too much of a temptation.” (Google “stolen BBQ smoker” and you’ll find plenty of examples.)
With two Goldens’ cast-iron grills, two deep fryers, a four-compartment sink, and a smoker, Black Betty represented a ripe target, especially because the SAW’s team had never sullied its gleaming exterior with any insignias or stickers. “It just looked so pretty without all that stuff on there,” Cain says. “We just never got the chance.”
It should also be pointed out that, in comparison to other victims, Cain and his comrades at SAW’s Soul Kitchen are doing pretty well. They never actually used Black Betty to make the barbecue served at the restaurant—for that, they’ve got their own custom-made pit and commercial smoker inside the place, whereas Black Betty only served as a “showpiece” for traveling exhibitions. And they’re still selling plenty of pulled pork and smoked chicken out of a take-out window in Avondale. (Wilson came to Alabama by way of North Carolina, so SAW’s offers an alternative to a lot of what you find in Alabama by serving up vinegar-based, Carolina-style pulled pork. “To me it makes us stand out,” Cain says. “The meat is super-tender. It’s so tender that you can’t chop it because it will turn to mush.”) Business is brisk.
But with thousands of restaurants around the country closed up, and with millions of families unable to pay for food, it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that restaurant burglaries appear to be surging. In that sense, the theft of Black Betty has had a kind of symbolic power for people in the Avondale area, happening as it did at the beginning of a crisis. “That’s what hurt,” Cain says. “We’re supposed to be in this together, guys.”
Since the theft in late March, there has been no sign of Black Betty, and Cain has experienced more ups and downs. Just last week, somebody broke into the Avondale restaurant, setting off an alarm, in an apparent attempt to make off with bread and pork. “Your heart goes out to a person like that,” Cain says. On the other hand, there have been glimmers of hope. “We get a phone call at least once a day with someone just wanting to give us a smoker,” Cain goes on, “which has been really cool. The human spirit—it can really surprise you sometimes.”
Indeed, we here at Esquire feel that it would do wonders for the human spirit if Black Betty somehow made her way back to her family. Got any tips? Heard any rumors? Noticed an 18-foot barbecue rig weirdly tucked behind a suburban pool? Let us (or the authorities) know. We want to #findblackbetty. We could all use some good news right now.
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