Despite rumors of its demise, New Zion Missionary Baptist Church’s famous barbecue operation is still smoking in Huntsville. “A lady from Dallas called and said, ‘Y’all are on Netflix, and they said you were closed,'” owner Tameka Edison tells me. She’s referring to an episode of the new Netflix series High on the Hog, which spotlights Black culinary contributions, including those of her father Clinton Edison, a pastor at the church and former pitmaster at the restaurant. At the end of the segment, the show’s narrator says Clinton “closed the place down for good.” Tameka says watching the episode was a bittersweet experience: she saw her father rightly honored, then realized how many potential customers wouldn’t make plans to visit. “We need to get in touch with them and do a redo,” she says.
The restaurant formerly known as Church BBQ did close for several months as pastor Edison cared for his ailing mother, but last year, Tameka and her husband Jerry “Blue” Greathouse reopened it. The city and state treated it like a new business rather than a continuation of the old Church BBQ, so she was forced to make upgrades to the building and decide on a new business name. She decided on Holy Smoke BBQ. (Motto: “Where we love Jesus, barbecue, and you.”) The restaurant’s profits continue to support the church next door, where the couple have been members since moving from Alabama in 2006.
When Holy Smoke BBQ opened last February, it was a slow start. Once COVID restrictions closed the dining room a few weeks later, it only got worse. “We were here all day, and nobody was coming in,” Tameka Edison recalls. They gave all the food away and shut down until May. It gave them time to make more repairs, and to plan for the future of the restaurant.
I stopped in recently to find the old steel smoker that had sat dormant on the front patio back in use, while the stainless-steel rotisserie that had replaced it was nowhere to be found. Lawrence Pickett was stoking the pecan fire and checking on the chicken halves inside the smoker. He’s a New Zion barbecue veteran, and helps Greathouse with the cooking duties. He welcomed my daughter and me into the dining room a few minutes before the official opening time of 11 a.m. They were ready to serve.
The menu is largely unchanged from my last visit, back in 2016. Edison added a simple coleslaw and a “loaded” macaroni and cheese that includes chunks of smoked brisket. Both are welcome additions in my book. A barbecue platter came with the sauce on the side, and I happily dunked the tender pork ribs into a tangy barbecue sauce that didn’t seem as thick or sweet as it did last time. Edison says there’s nothing new about the recipe, though she did offer that “whoever made it then, probably tried to make it by memory.” She and Greathouse stick to the recipes left behind by founder Annie Mae Ward, who passed away in 2010. “I want to keep that old feel to it, and stick to how we’ve been doing it,” she says.
Edison was tempted, however, to tweak the potato salad. Ward’s version calls for mustard, mayo, pickle relish, a little sugar, and not much else. Edison tried adding eggs and fresh onion, like she prefers at home, until she realized it didn’t last in the fridge as well. Old-school fans of New Zion will still recognize the simple potato salad after all, along with savory pinto beans, sweet tea, and pecan and buttermilk pies. They might eventually notice some of the changes that are in the works, like outdoor seating and a more prominent road sign. Reverend Edison still comes in often. He’s not there to offer advice on running the place, but rather as a proud father happy to eat the fruits of his family’s labor. “I have a special tab on the register that says ‘Dad,’” Tameka Edison says.
David Smith is another customer who appreciates the consistency. His photo is taped to the dining-room wall because he was Ward’s first customer two times over; Smith convinced Ward to sell her barbecue to the public, was the first to buy it when she did, and then became the first customer once the restaurant was built. Smith visited Edison recently. He told her the story, and pointed to his photo. They cried together as Edison realized just how much her mission to resurrect Church BBQ meant to the joint’s loyal following.
Returning customers still ask, “Does it taste like Sister Ward’s?” As hard as Edison tries, she admits it’s hard to duplicate a memory. She also understands the meaning of keeping the fires stoked at a historic place like New Zion. “It’s a landmark in the community,” she says. Huntsville is known for two things to many outsiders, and one of them is a prison. Edison wants to make sure the legacy of the other famous institution in Huntsville remains strong. “Sure, we want to make a living off of it,” she says. “But we also want to make a difference.”
Hours: Thursday–Saturday 11–6
Pitmasters: Jerry Greathouse and Lawrence Pickett
Method: Pecan in a steel smoker
Year reopened: 2020