Boxed Possum and Brother Jack’s

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One of the many necessities required by those working late into the night is knowledge of where to find great food after 2 a.m. Or food that is at least palatable.

When I was working at the Journal in the late ’60s, my usual guide was cohort Grady Amann, who seemed to be a regular at every dark-of-night hangout in Knox County. When the time came–2 a.m.–he would stop by my spot on the copy desk with a “Wanta scoff some grease?”

Grady was discerning when it came to food, whether it was fresh-picked corn “found” in a field in south Knox County, chili slaw dogs at Dis & Dat on Chapman Highway, or barbecue from Brother Jack’s.

Though Brother Jack specialized in barbecue, it’s probably more accurate to say he created food products made from pig parts. There were ribs and pulled pork, to be sure, but also on offer were pig burgers, hand-made ground-pork patties, grilled and stuck between two slices of white bread.

The meat could be had with chips and a cold soft drink. And hot sauce.

When Jack, a large black man, took your order, he would smile and say, “You want that hot, don’t you?” And then he would sauce it from a squeeze bottle, the contents his own recipe. And it was capital-H hot.

But the limited menu was not the only distinguishing aspect of Brother Jack’s. First, there was no sign telling the seeker that he had found it; second, the food was to-go only; and third, the place was open until 3 a.m. or so.

Brother Jack’s was on University Avenue, only about a mile from Fort Sanders and its population of UT students–but on the wrong side of the interstate. The proximity and the hours led to the place becoming popular as a late-night must for students. Just as getting drunk on prodigious amounts of beer at the Roman Room was a rite of passage, so were experiences at Brother Jack’s.

One popular stunt was taking a sorority-girl date to Brother Jack’s after a big dance, cautioning her about getting the sauce on her gown as you drove back to campus with a sack full of pig burgers.

In Real Barbecue, the definitive guide authored by Vince Staten and Greg Johnson, Staten recalls taking one date to Brother Jack’s and telling her to wait in the car while he went in to get a couple of sandwiches. She insisted that he give her the keys: “I’ll come back and pick you up in 10 minutes,” she said. “I’m not going to sit here, even with the car doors locked.”

I was with Staten when he visited the place in the early 1980s during research for the book–the only time either of us ever stopped there in daylight.

Sometimes, we would tease dates by telling them they were in for a treat–barbecued possum.

I had picked up possum lore at an early age. When I was about 10, my friends and I spotted a furry animal up a persimmon tree in a wooded lot near my home in Burlington. Someone in the group recognized it as a possum and said we should “shake” it down.

Our possum-savvy companion then climbed the tree to get to the limb where the animal was clinging and started shaking it. When the animal lost its grip and hit the ground, it appeared to be dead. And I learned the origin of the term “playing possum.” On a dare, I picked up the possum by the tail–only to be taken by surprise when it quickly curled back and tried to bite my hand.

Eventually, we managed to get it back to my house, where my dad was working in the yard.

“He’s not hurt,” he informed us. Then he got a cardboard box and we placed the possum inside. “Come on,” Dad said and we climbed into the station wagon, carefully placing the boxed possum in the back.

Three miles later, we stopped at the house of a black man my dad knew. “He’ll want it,” he said. The possum was transferred to its new owner, who then informed us that after it was fattened up it would make a fine meal.

On the trip back, Dad told us how the animal would be caged, then fed persimmons and table scraps until it was “eatin’ size.” Possum fattened on corn-bread, he added, was particularly tasty.

I never took the stories of Brother Jack’s serving possum seriously–until Grady told me about an experience he had with Brother Jack.

“Me and Danny West and Herschel Peek had gone in one night for pig burgers,” he said. “Jack said he wanted to show us something and motioned us behind the counter to his stove. There in a big roasting pan was a large animal cooking on low heat. Its head was still intact–all it needed was an apple in its mouth. We thought that the rumors were true. So I said, ‘That’s a big possum, Brother Jack.’

“He chuckled and said, ‘That’s no possum, that’s much better. That’s a raccoon’. But it ain’t ready yet–I’ll save you some if you want to come back tomorrow.”

“We laughed and told him we’d stick to rib sandwiches and pig burgers.”

“Of course,” Grady added with a grin, “Who knows what kind of meat he used to make the patties for the pig burgers? Maybe we’ve been eating possum and raccoon all along.”

Chris Wohlwend's Restless Native addresses the characters and absurdities of Knoxville, as well as the lessons learned pursuing the newspaper trade during the tumult that was the 1960s. He spent 35 years working for newspapers and magazines in Miami, Charlotte, Louisville, Dallas, Kansas City, and Atlanta. As an editor, he was involved in winning several national awards. He returned to Knoxville in the late 1990s and now teaches journalism part-time at the University of Tennessee. His freelance pieces have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and numerous other publications.

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