In early 2019, I caught up with Jordan Jackson, the pitmaster of Bodacious Bar-B-Q’s Longview location, which Texas Monthly had named as the state’s fourth best barbecue joint in our 2017 Top 50 list. Jackson, who told me he was tired and stressed from the pressures of working at such a popular establishment, had taken over the pits at the newly renovated Gladewater location of Bodacious, about fifteen miles away. “This is my hiding spot. It’s relaxing,” he said during the interview. With the Longview Bodacious now in the talented hands of Jackson’s protégé, Bryan Bingham, Jackson could get back to focusing on the cooking at this lower-profile joint. “Jordan Jackson is living the dream,” I wrote.

Just a few months later, though, Jackson walked away from Bodacious. He had disappeared from the scene.

In August of last year, I got a call from barbecue blogger Jimmy Ho, who asked if I knew why Jordan Jackson was working in the pit room at Franklin Barbecue, in Austin. I thought it was a joke. The pitmaster of the state’s number four barbecue joint working at the number two spot nearly three hundred miles away? I called Jackson. He confirmed his new place of employment but wasn’t yet ready to explain to the world why he had left Bodacious and Longview behind. We agreed to give it some time.

Fast-forward to October 2020. I was standing, mask on and phone out, in line at Bodacious in Longview when I opened Facebook and noticed that it was Jackson’s thirty-eighth birthday. Struck by the coincidence, I wondered if he was ready to tell his story. While I was there, I also talked to Bingham, who told me he went months without hearing from Jackson, until late last year, when his former boss told him he was living at a rehab facility in Austin. He didn’t know when or even if he would return to East Texas. Bingham still seemed stung by what he saw as an abandonment. Asked to describe their current relationship, he simply said, “It’s not.” He had also grown weary of locals and traveling barbecue fans asking him about Jackson’s whereabouts. He told me simply, “If you want to know, go ask him.”

So I did. I reached out to Jackson, who said he was finally ready to talk.

Jackson had his first drink at 14 and figures he became an addict at age 22. There were more substances than alcohol in the mix, but at 24 he bargained with himself that he’d stick with just drinking, because it seemed healthier to him. It was also easier than confronting his childhood trauma. He wouldn’t go into details, but he assures me, “That shit haunts you.” Coping with his emotions would have been difficult, and he said the alcohol simply made life seem easier. He hid it well. “Even the people I’m closest to had no idea.” Not even his wife, children, or coworkers knew.

A recent visit to Bodacious Bar-B-Q with Bryan Bingham at the helm showed he had things well under control in the pit room. Photograph Daniel Vaughn

The barbecue life is so often identified with drinking, especially beer, that it was easy to hide. Jackson would go on benders after work and lie to his family that he needed to watch the pits all night so he could pass out in the restaurant. At barbecue festivals, his peers would consume more than they usually do. “They didn’t know it was just another day for me,” he says. His worst days included four six-packs, measured by the four coffees he would have in between just to keep himself awake. He went through heavy and light phases; during the latter, he could lie to himself that he was in control.

Then, he was dealt two huge blows that surrounded one large triumph. In 2016, Jackson lost his father to alcoholism. In 2017, Bodacious received its accolades, which was exciting but led to mounting pressures. And then, in September 2018, Jackson’s father-in-law and barbecue mentor, Roland Lindsey, died. It was almost more than he could bear. “I lost my two male role models less than two years apart,” he says.

It wasn’t just a role model Jackson lost when Lindsey died. Lindsey, the founder of the Bodacious Bar-B-Q chain, which he started in 1968, was the whole reason Jackson was a pitmaster at Bodacious in the first place. Jackson had worked the pits at Stanley’s Famous Pit Bar-B-Q in Tyler after graduating from culinary school; he told me back in 2013—a year after he married Lindsey’s daughter Paige, that Lindsey was the best pitmaster he knew, but at the time Lindsey was battling cancer and the original restaurant was closed while he sought treatment. When his cancer went into remission, Jackson asked if they could reopen the place together. They did just that in early 2015. Two years later, we judged it one of the best barbecue joints in the state.

“It made me the barbecue man I am today, just listening to him,” Jackson says of his time under Lindsey’s tutelage. Lindsey taught him “how to cook like a bluesman playing the blues.” It wasn’t about time or temperature, but about feel. Jackson told him a story about what he described as “twinkling briskets.” The twinkle was the fat coming to the surface of the brisket. Lindsey said it meant they were smoking too hot. “From that day on it was my goal to never have a twinkling brisket,” Jackson says. That was the sort of reverence he had for his father-in-law.

After the joint made the Top 50, Jackson said Lindsey was “tickled.” Lindsey didn’t know Jackson suffered from alcoholism, nor did he realize the toll that the honor placed on Jackson. The attention on Bodacious increased dramatically, and the restaurant now had to meet incredibly high expectations from diners traveling hours for a meal. New customers sought cooking advice from Jackson, as did others through unsolicited phone calls. A naturally shy person, Jackson preferred to be left alone, but it was still rewarding to work with Lindsey in the new version of Bodacious they had built.

After Lindsey died in 2018, the memories inside the building became too painful. “The whole time I had been there was with him,” Jackson said. He responded by retreating to the Gladewater location, leaving Bingham—whom Jackson had hired soon after the Top 50 was published—behind in Longview to sink or swim. “I was supposed to be serving the community, but I made it about me,” Jackson admits now. Theoretically, he could now spend more time with his family, but his drinking only got worse.

Bodacious was invited to cook barbecue for the annual Pints in the Park in Waco last year. Jackson woke up on May 18, the day before the event, to prepare. He had chosen drinking over family time the previous evening, and Paige begged him to stop drinking for the rest of the weekend. “I was like, ‘Of course. Of course I can,'” Jackson recalls. However, “It wasn’t twenty minutes later I was drinking a beer.” He had a few more while setting up in Waco, and then Paige called him. “She could hear it in my voice. She was so disappointed with me,” he says. “At that moment, I knew I had a problem.”

Bryan Bingham outside the original Bodacious Bar-B-Q, which he now runs. Photograph Daniel Vaughn

Back home they found a treatment facility nearby in Tyler. Jackson detoxed on his own, but says he had to go to the hospital one night because the withdrawal symptoms were so severe. He took some medication and slept for most of the next four days. Still, he saw the stint in rehab as a quick fix for his life and his marriage. “I thought, ‘I’m going to go there and just go through the motions,’” Jackson admits. He figured he’d be back to drinking “responsibly” after the 21-day program ended, but while in rehab, he says he was diagnosed as having bipolar disorder, which is marked by extreme shifts in mood. He realized everyone else wasn’t the problem in his life and that he hadn’t learned to cope with the realities without alcohol. If he was really going to improve, Jackson would require more treatment.

“I knew if I was going to even remotely beat this thing, I needed to get into somewhere else,” Jackson says. So he moved to Austin to enroll in a facility there. Too embarrassed to tell anyone besides his close family what he was going through, he abandoned both restaurants—as well as Bingham—and essentially disappeared. “Even my former employees didn’t know what was going on,” he says, adding, “I had to completely remove myself from all of it.” The strategy worked for his sobriety—he’s been sober for about 19 months. But it left his previous life in Longview in shambles. He still has explained to few outside his family why he left. “It was shitty of me to just leave like that without talking to people,” Jackson admits. “They were good to me. I was not good to them.” He knows that his silence, then and now, stems from his own pride, which he hopes to overcome as part of his recovery. He’s also trying to be the best dad he can while going through a divorce. I asked Paige via email if she agreed. Her brief reply read, “We hope Jordan can recover, and we wish him well in his choices,” and she signed her maiden name.

One of the people Jackson left behind, of course, was Bingham. The irony here is that one can’t help but compare the special relationship Jackson had with his father-in-law to the one Bingham had with his own mentor—Jackson.

In 2010, Bingham was kicked out of the Christian metal band A Bullet for Pretty Boy. He was metal enough but explains, “I was casually drinking beer, and they didn’t like that.” The Rowlett native had moved out to East Texas to pursue a record deal with the Longview-based band a couple years earlier. He felt blindsided by the forced departure. For the first time, he began to consider a life outside the music industry, with few prospects. “That was a dark time in my life,” he recalls.

Bingham’s journey from that low point to being the pitmaster at the original Bodacious Bar-B-Q location on Mobberly Avenue in Longview was an unlikely one. He had little interest or curiosity when it came to food before meeting his future wife, Kimmy. She expanded his culinary horizons, which oddly enough began with an awakening over a California roll at GZ Asian Bistro & Sushi Bar, in Longview. “I was blown away by all the flavors,” he says, adding that after the meal, “I wanted to eat everything.”

At 28, Bingham enrolled in Kilgore College’s culinary arts program, working at Golden Corral, Starbucks, and the local Hilton Garden Inn’s kitchen in his off hours. He bought a smoker and ruined a few racks of ribs and made a memorably terrible brisket before getting the hang of it. Kimmy once again changed the course of his career when she introduced him to Bodacious Bar-B-Q and Jackson. It was his first aha moment with barbecue. “When I first got into culinary school, I thought I wanted to be a chef and I wanted to do all that. Then I found barbecue,” Bingham says. Jackson followed Bingham’s backyard barbecue experimentation on Instagram, and eventually hired him, in 2017, just months after the Top 50 list came out.

The learning curve was steep, but Bingham took in everything about smoking meat that he could absorb. Jackson was a good mentor. “I saw the soul that he had for cooking barbecue,” Jackson tells me now. “He just didn’t have the rest of it.” So Jackson taught him the mechanics. Says Bingham, “I’ll always appreciate the things he did for me, because I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him.”

A little over a year into Bingham’s tenure, he had learned enough about cooking barbecue to be confident in his abilities running the pit, but he didn’t know much about running a restaurant. That’s when Jackson announced he was taking over the Gladewater location of Bodacious.

Both men say the agreement was that Jackson would go back and forth over the fifteen miles between Longview and Gladewater, and Bingham wouldn’t be completely on his own. “Then as time went by, he stopped coming over here altogether,” Bingham says. “He never officially said, ‘Hey, I’m done at Mobberly, good luck.’ He just never came back.”

The recovery for Jackson has been difficult for reasons he couldn’t predict. Dependence on alcohol had replaced so many of his emotions that he had almost forgotten how to feel. Any confidence he had shown was provided by alcohol. As a requirement of living in his sober house in Austin, he needed to be employed. Jackson had long admired Aaron Franklin, so he sheepishly walked into Franklin Barbecue in August 2019 and asked pitmaster Andy Risner for a job. Risner thought he was joking at first, but Jackson started a couple of days later in the sausage cooler, grinding and stuffing links.

“Usually we wouldn’t hire somebody from another barbecue place. That’s not usually high on our list of things to do,” Franklin says when I asked about the hire. Franklin has often said they prefer to hire people without their own ideas about how barbecue should be cooked, but he made an exception with Jackson. “We knew he was going through a hard time,” Franklin tells me, adding that being honest and having a good work ethic trump just about all other qualities. Besides, when you come out of treatment, you’re a different version of the person you were before. Franklin wasn’t hiring the Jordan Jackson who was the number four pitmaster in the state. He was hiring a recovering addict who needed a second chance.

Today, he has learned most every shift at Franklin. Megan Nesland taught him how to cook sausage, and he found it therapeutic to link sausages while listening to stand-up comedy through his headphones. In January he left the seclusion of the pit room to run the front counter at Franklin. He cut every bit of barbecue on a Tuesday despite being incredibly nervous. “I don’t ever remember feeling that way because I was either drinking or drunk,” Jackson says, and that has been his biggest revelation during recovery. Experiencing the good and bad of genuine emotion is something he had shielded himself from. “It’s easy to change the way you feel with a substance and not have to feel real emotions,” he tells me.

Jackson considers himself a success story, despite the challenges he has yet to face back in Longview. His treatment ended in May, but he still attends support meetings. He wants other addicts to know that as painful as recovery can be, it’s a better world on the other side of it. “I didn’t love myself,” he admits. It’s hard to endure the pain of changing when you believe you’re neither worth the pain, nor do you deserve the change. He hopes his message “will help inspire somebody to not want to take another drink, or [to] be vulnerable about a condition they’re going through.” Admitting he had a problem was embarrassing for Jackson, as was leaving Longview, but his personal reward was worth the hit to his own pride. Eventually, he’ll have to swallow his pride once again and face the community he left behind.

Back in Longview, Bryan Bingham is seeing through the vision that Roland Lindsey and Jordan Jackson shared when they reopened the place five years ago. All the accolades the joint has accumulated belong to them, and Bingham is simply the caretaker for now. The barbecue hasn’t slipped a bit, but Bingham wouldn’t mind if he got some credit for holding the line. Every day he fires up the pits trying to meet the lofty barbecue expectations of people who probably don’t know who he is. “I just want to make a name for myself,” he tells me, mentioning the next Top 50 BBQ list, which will come out late next year. “I’m trying to forge my own path.”