Sneak Peek

Season 4, Episode 07

Cooking With Fire

Return to Episode: Cooking With Fire

Cooking With Fire: Century Old GA BBQ Stand Comes To National TV

Fresh Air Barbecue Captures Keeps An Ancient Art Thriving

JACKSON, GA The first thing you notice – after the tantalizing smell of course – is the color of the ancient pine paneling on the walls at Fresh Air Barbecue, established in this tiny Georgia town almost 100 years ago. The wood itself is classic rural Georgia décor; the color is not, a deep, rich almost-mahogany that doesn’t look like any finish or stain you’ve ever seen. That’s because this color could never come from a can: This masterstroke can only be painted by generations and generations of wood fire smoke.

That same smoke has made Fresh Air a legend in this part of the world – and far beyond. Barbecue aficionados comes from all over to get the simple but substantial fare that’s a callback to only the best parts of decades gone by.

The art of controlling and cooking with fire dates back 10,000 years or more. It’s something that’s beginning to disappear. In New York and San Francisco, restaurants can no longer use wood as a fuel source. Even New York City’s famed pizzerias have all gone electric. Home barbecue chefs – and many restaurants – have switched from wood and coals to electric powered cookers that deliver smoke from compressed wooden pellets.

They’re all great – delicious, in fact – but even in the best of those there’s something lacking, something fine and authentic that speaks of endless hours of toil, a true labor of love. The hams hit the smoker, which contains a blend of three different woods to impart just the right tang, before 7 a.m. at Fresh Air, and they don’t come off until the team returns to work the following morning.

That’s what brings the RFD-TV Network’s (DirecTV, Dish, Cable, Sling) hit show Where The Food Comes From to Fresh Air in an episode called “Cooking With Fire.”

Producer and host Chip Carter is a native Georgian who’s been coming to Fresh Air since he was born in the 1960s, no matter where he lived at the time. And making this episode has been on his list for a long time.

“I’m pretty sure barbecue was more discovered than invented – sometime shortly after the first caveman came upon the aftermath of a forest fire,” Carter jokes. “Not too long after that I began my quest to find the world’s best barbecue. I didn’t have far to roam. But I went everywhere. I’ve eaten every kind of barbecue there is all over the world. But when it came time to tell this story, I knew there was no place like home.”

Fresh Air was founded by Dr. Joel ‘Doc’ Watkins in the pine forest on the outskirts of Jackson in 1929. The idea was to keep it simple – pulled pork barbecue sandwiches from carefully smoked hams, some coleslaw, and a legendary Brunswick stew from a carefully guarded family secret. Toots Caston was the masterchef and he took over not too long after Fresh Air became a hit. He built a special firepit – still in use today – that imparts an otherworldly smokiness to Fresh Air’s offerings. He also created the astonishing Brunswick stew, made with lean prime roast beef and fresh vegetables in a huge vat so special it has its own building on the grounds.

Those were pretty much the only things Toots changed. And his grandsons George and David Barber haven’t changed much of anything either. They’ve been in charge around here for years now. Several decades ago the State made them replace the original sawdust floor with concrete. A couple of decades ago an additional dining room was added to make more room. But the menu is the exact same as it was when Toots was cooking with fire.

“We’re not trying to create a dining experience where people sit and linger,” George says. “We have a lot of traffic and our goal is to move hungry people in and out. Now of course that doesn’t mean people can’t stay and sit a spell. It just means they don’t have to.”

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