The legend of Lamar Johnson, believed to be the originator of the unmistakable aroma of whole-hog “barbacoa” in the Mineral Park and Owl Hollow communities in the early 1900s, will be revived later this month by Steve Ray and Dan Griess in conjunction with Ooltewah’s Octoberfest.
The term “barbacoa” of Johnson’s era that morphed into present-day barbeque will be synonymous as Ray and Griess host the Lamar Johnson Classic – A Barbeque Event – at Cambridge Square, a group of mixed-use businesses and restaurants, on old Highway 11-64 on Saturday, Oct. 22.
Twelve teams are scheduled to compete, including one of the South’s top cookers, Randall Bowman, of Cumming, Ga. He competes under the team name of Deep South Smokers.
“I really enjoy the grassroots events,” the 43-year-old Bowman said Sunday in a telephone interview. “I grew up all over the Southeast where barbeque is part of the culture. We had Sunday mid-day suppers and all that was related with a family food focus and carried that into our competitive side.
“Plus, my family is from Ringgold and a lot of them still live up there. It meant a lot to me to be able to compete in the Lamar Johnson event. I’ll be able to mix business and pleasure.”
While filling the 12-team field for the classic, Ray, who is promoting the initial event, reached out to possible entrants, but didn’t have to get in touch with Bowman.
“He called me,” said the personable Ray, often tagged as the “Mayor of Ooltewah. “He’s one of the top cookers and this summer organized a national contest at Nissan Stadium in Nashville that we competed in.”
Bowman said in his early years he would compete in 20 to 25 events per year, but in the last couple of years he’s cut back to about 10.
“I was so busy with everything else,” he said. “We started producing cookers about four years ago and it was just a hobby. We would be lucky to build one or two a week and send them all over the world to Australia, New Zealand and South Korea. Now, we’ll build four or five a week.
“And I’ll organize five or six contests around the country. We’re doing barbeque-related things twenty four-seven these days.”
Bowman, who will be competing at a Kentucky event this weekend, owns Deep South Smokers and builds what is widely considered the No. 1 gravity flow smoker in the world. Units come in different sizes – from medium to huge – and can be pulled with a set of axles attached to them. In essence, the smoker doubles as it’s own trailer.
His largest smoker can accommodate from four to eight whole hogs and may require a F250 to haul the monster.
Ol’ Lamar Johnson didn’t have to worry about that.
In Johnson’s day, according to Ray’s research and that of others, the road from Chattanooga to Cleveland ran along the edge of White Oak Mountain through Fitzgerald Pass. Many people came to the area to bathe in the natural springs atop the mountain and frequently stayed at the Mineral Park Lodge.
Down in Owl Hollow, Johnson, an African-American who dressed in “Sunday clothes” and wore a top hat, didn’t require a mobile cooker. In the simplest of terms, a long trench was dug into the ground and filled with coals. The meat, impaled on a long rod, cooked slowly over the open oak-scented flames.
All this was done in the backyard of the small Johnson farm. Customers could buy the meat right off the rod and, as history explains, that became Ooltewah’s first barbeque restaurant. While many records were destroyed in two fires at the old James County Courthouse, old-timers say Johnson tended the pits until around 1910, when the Johnson family moved to Kansas City, Mo.
The exact location of the Johnson farm is up for debate, but there are those that believe it was at the same site as the White Oak Baptist Church, Ray said.
While barbeque was cooked at just a few locations from 1903-10, there are now restaurants, shacks, dives, fashionable facilities and millions of backyards where cooks conjure up tasty meats and secretive sauces at every corner, much like gas stations used to be.
So, the Lamar Johnson Classic will honor the talents and spirit of a man who helped take barbeque out of Owl Hollow and into the mainstream of Americana so many decades ago.
These days, barbeque contests are televised and garner pretty high ratings. Competitors are from across the globe.
The inaugural Johnson Classic contestants are rooted primarily in the southeast corner of Tennessee.
The 12 teams:
** Cambridge BBQ Affair (Barry Payne)
** B&B BBQ (Brian Watson)
** Owls Nest BBQ (the Ray-Griess duo, plus a few more)
** Full Throttle BBQ (Dennis Roby)
** Deep South Smokers (Randall Bowman)
** East My Brisket (Eunice Kim)
** 2 Smokin’ Good (Jim Brewer)
** Smoked on the Water (Mark Northern)
** Red Hot BBQ (Chad Malone)
** Chatty Town BBQ (Will Smith, not the actor)
** Choo Choo BBQ (Shawn Causby)
** River Road Hillbillies (Jeff Thompson)
The teams hail from Ooltewah, Chattanooga, Apison, Kingston and Cumming, Ga.
“What we’re trying to do is make this event fan-friendly,” Ray said. “We’re not trying to make money; each team will pay a $200 entry fee, for a purse of $2,400. The grand champion will receive $500 and category winners – pork butt, ribs and chicken – get $400 apiece.
“Twelve judges – six each at two tables – will consider taste and tenderness, and that’s what makes this event unique, in determining the winners and all this will be in full view of everyone. We’re trying to make it a spectator sport.”
Once the meat comes out of the cooker, teams will prep it with items such as honey, brown sugar and butter, rewrap it in foil and place it back in the smoker to finish the cooking process.
Barbeque sauce will be added when the meat is pulled from the cooker a second time.
Contestants will turn in the chicken for judging at 3 p.m.
Ribs are turned in at 3:30 p.m.
Pork butts follow at 4 p.m.
Griess, a regional manager at Crye-Leike with a broker’s office in Ooltewah, has been competing with Ray for about four years.
“We both watched the BBQ Pitmaster show on TV and said we should try that,” Griess said. “We became partners and it has turned into a great hobby (Ray competed in a wings contest at the Chattanooga Market on Oct. 9).”
Ray’s wife and daughter and Griess’ son often are recruited to help with some events and travel is kept at a minimum – the Owls Nest boys usually compete at events in Chickamauga, Bainbridge and Rome in Georgia, Nashville and Knoxville.
Ray and Griess attended the two-day Donny Bray cooking school – Bray was the 2015 Kansas City Barbeque Association team of the year, which cookers compare to winning the NASCAR championship -- in Bowling Green, Ky., to hone their limited skills with a cooker.
“We didn’t know what we were doing,” Ray recalls, “but after we were there our scores were consistently in the top 30. This year at Calhoun (Ga.) we finished sixth. We’ve never won, but we were in the mix at Calhoun.”
While contestants will often arrive before dawn, the event actually runs from 1 p.m. to around 4 p.m.
“We want this to be a fun contest, in a tight time frame, and have a good competition,” Ray said. “We want to keep it around 12 teams, but would like to eventually make it an invitational contest.”
Be warned, though, Griess said.
“It’s a very addictive thing, it’s fun and the atmosphere is great,” he said.
So, check it out the event on Oct. 22.
And be sure to keep an out for Ol’ Lamar Johnson’s ghost. He’ll be wearing Sunday clothes and wearing a top hat. You couldn’t miss him.
(Contact Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @larryfleming44)