Bank on good barbecue — that’s the subliminal message from the windowsills of The Hickory Pit, a charmer of a barbecue joint at the entrance of Canton Mart Square in Jackson. Piggy banks and other porcine memorabilia ring the windows at regular intervals, and I pick up another vibe, too: Go ahead, pig out. We encourage it here.
A lineup of barbecued chicken, pork and beef, in a sandwich or spread out on a plate, plus smoked ham or turkey, ribs, burgers, po-boys and extra fixings echo that urge, while a display case of pie and cake slices practically begs “Take me home!”
Ginger Watkins was just 25 years old when she bought the already existing Hickory Pit in 1979. She kept the name, but over time, she tweaked all the recipes and added more, building to a success so longstanding she’s now serving a third generation of regulars.
At the outset, “I didn’t know anything about the restaurant business,” she says. Raised in the Mississippi Delta, she learned special education in the classroom at Auburn University, but continued to hone her tasting skills off-campus. “It’s right there on the Georgia line, so there was a barbecue restaurant on every corner over there.”
She knew good ‘cue. And, with the Hickory Pit, Watkins praises the “wonderful cook” she inherited, who was open to change. Fresh was her new mantra. It’s telling in the texture to this day, from the crunch of the cole slaw to the discernibly house diced onion and bell pepper in the baked beans. She made up the sweet sauce from scratch in her kitchen. Hot and mild complete the BBQ sauce trio. All are flavorful accents for the succulent smoked meats that are the Hickory Pit’s star draws.
“Being naive about the restaurant business, I listened to every single thing my customers told me,” she says, working the batch of feedback into a unified and pleasing picture. “I listened. I heard. I did.” That includes the Hershey Bar Pie, a rich chocolate dessert with whipped topping and Oreo crumbles. Customer Don Cooper kept telling her about it, she says, and she tracked down a recipe and added it to a sweet fleet of homemade desserts — lemon meringue pie, pecan pie, carrot cake and five-layer coconut cake. It’s become so identified with the spot that “some people call me the Hershey Bar Pie lady.”
Watkins seems hard-wired for service, too. When a tell-tale slurp says I’d reached the bottom of my drink, she hops up to refill it. “It’s like hearing a baby whimper,” she laughs about the rapid response. She can pick out the sound from across a packed restaurant.
Desserts and barbecue sauces are all made onsite in the kitchen, and they cook on the pit daily. And while other adjustments may have come with changing times, the meat of the matter has been standard for decades.
“I’ve eaten a lot of barbecue, and the barbecue is really great. And when it’s that good, there’s no reason to change it,” manager Anthony Zouboukos says of the rub, the homemade sauces and the distinctive hickory-smoked flavor. Pork and brisket are smoked all night long, slow cooked until it’s fall-off-the-bone tender.
Red checkered tablecloths and a front patio surrounded by metal lattice and confederate jasmine have a friendly feel for the dine-in set. The piggy theme and bright red “Best Butt in Town” T-shirts will coax a smile if the enticing aroma doesn’t do it first.
Diners gather year-round on the patio, temperature permitting, where ceiling fans keep up a gentle breeze. It’s even in use when it rains, those drops on a metal roof music to a Southerner’s ears. With a drive-up window, the Hickory Pit does a brisk carry-out business, too, plus catering order deliveries.
The return of big office buildings and banks to northeast Jackson brings an expected boost, and the pull from nearby Interstate 55 is welcome as well.
“It’s kind of surprising the number of Europeans you’ll get because they want to eat local foods,” Watkins says. “Last Saturday, we had a little family from France, and that’s always fun.”
They wanted to taste Mississippi barbecue and ordered a little bit of everything — ribs, chopped pork, barbecued chicken and dessert.
Sounds like they pigged out!
About the author
Sherry Lucas is a Jackson writer with an appetite for iconic foods. This story was produced in partnership with Eat Jackson and The Mississippi List.