Owner/Pitmaster: Billy’s Old Fashion BBQ; Opened 1986 (estimated)
Smoker: Indirect Heat Wood-Fired Pit
Wood: Red Oak and Hickory
It seems that everybody who drives by Billy’s Old Fashion BBQ in Jasper honks and waves. George “Billy” Mahathay is a popular man, almost as popular as his barbecue. He told me jokingly that he can’t do anything bad around town because everybody knows him.
They all know him because he has ran this barbecue business for thirty years. They also know him because it sounds like he is the go to caterer for any local church functions. You’ll soon read about the lengths he has gone to keep those catering commitments.
Billy and I talked in the tiny dining room that consists of two and half booths. He was guarded and humble during our conversation, but also reflective. We continued talking as I walked to my car to leave, and just then a man drove up. Through his truck window the man asked about an award a church was planning to give Billy. Billy said he’d have to send someone to go accept the award for him. “I’ve got too much meat to cook.”
Daniel Vaughn: Did you grow up in this area?
George “Billy” Mahathay: Yeah. Raised and born right here. I live right behind the place.
DV: Is that where you lived as a child?
GM: Yes. I went to live in Houston for a few years, then moved back. That’s when I was a truck driver. I drove a truck for thirty years.
DV: What part of the country did you cover?
GM: I ran out to California. I pulled a bull wagon out of Huntsville. I’ve hauled logs for every logging contractor in the state of Texas.
DV: In all that time driving around the state, did you have a few favorite barbecue places on your routes?
GM: Oh yeah. I used to love this place in Livingston on 59 just before you get into Cleveland. It was real good. I had some truck drivers tell me that there’s a place in Florida that’s built out of cardboard boxes and he serves his meat on newspaper. When it rains he has to redo his building. The line was a mile or two.
DV: Where in Florida?
GM: I don’t know. Somewhere in Florida. Now all the truck drivers come through and tell me I need to move over to the main road because nobody can find me back here. I tell them “Well, that’s y’alls opinion.” I don’t brag about nothing, I just cook. I let them do the bragging.
DV: Why did you leave the trucking business?
GM: The guy I was working for got sick and went out of business. We already had a little barbecue place over there. It had been there ever since, I think, 1937. Then, I opened it up. The guy I was working for offered to build me a new building, but I wanted to do it on my own. I worked over there so many years ago I can’t remember how long it was, maybe eight or nine years when the place caught fire. I was cooking some meat for a family reunion over an open fire. The grease got down in that fire and the whole thing went up. The building was so old it didn’t take but fifteen or twenty minutes to burn down to the ground.
DV: What was it called back then?
GM: It was Jessie Smith’s Barbecue. That was my uncle, but it was Billy’s BBQ back when I took it over. A fella I used to drive truck for, Willie Sills, he went out of business.
DV: And you were through with driving truck?
GM: My auntie told me “Get out of those trucks and open that little café. You can make a living down there, and take care of that woman and that boy. ” My wife was pregnant with my son at the time. How auntie knew that it would be a boy I don’t know. It wasn’t an easy go.
DV: How long did you have to work at it before you felt like you were established?
GM: I still don’t think I’m established. I’m just working trying to keep the people happy.
DV: After the fire, did you then build this building?
GM: A friend of mine had lost her beauty shop, so we were both looking to find a little building. I told her about the buildings that Mr. Sills had for sale. She went out there and bought three. She took two, and she had one moved up here for me. The Smith brothers from Mississippi, Sam and Dave, they helped save some of the equipment after it burned. They donated me so many thousands of dollars to help me get back in business. They were my main customers. In fact Dave was by here about three weeks ago.
DV: Do they still live in Mississippi?
GM: No. Dave lives somewhere near Tyler, but they’re from Mississippi.
DV: Did you learn to cook barbecue in that previous building, or did you already know how to cook when you first went into business?
GM: I knew how to cook before going into that building. I learned that from my auntie. We been rolling ever since.
DV: What was her name?
GM: Mildred. We called her Old Midge.
DV: What did she teach you to cook?
GM: They did barbecue in the back. Just like me, they did ribs, beef, and old-fashioned homemade beef sausage.
DV: What goes in the homemade links? Beef or pork?
GM: They’re beef.
DV: Are they like Southeast Texas links, like Beaumont style?
GM: Well, Beaumont has a homemade link too. Garlic links and stuff, but we make and stuff those ourselves.
DV: And your aunt taught you how do make those too?
DV: Was she from this area too?
GM: Born and raised right here.
DV: Did she work with you once you took over.
GM: She had gotten old. She’d come down to the building and keep it clean for me. She’d come out every day to clean up and wipe around.
DV: If she’s the one that taught you to cook, did she keep reminding you of that when she came around? Did she keep you straight?
GM: That’s right. I’d been cooking all my life. My mother had blood clots and was in bed for three years. My grandmother was blind. Old Midge never went to town. I had a baby sister and a brother. I had to do the work, like sell papers.
DV: You became the provider of the family at a young age.
GM: I wasn’t no more than twelve or thirteen.
DV: What kind of pit were you cooking on in the old place?
GM: An old brick pit. It’s still over there, but those trees have taken it over now. It was an old brick pit with a lid and a pulley and a string to pull it up. It was a good cooking pit.
DV: Was it direct heat?
GM: The fire was right up under it. Back in them days they didn’t have no firebox. That’s why it burnt up. A hole got in that foil paper and dripped down on that fire. I was in there waiting on some customers. I smelled something and opened that door. When I did, hot tar and stuff fell on me. When I looked up that fire was in bloom. Guess what? I didn’t lose none of the meat.
DV: None of it?
GM: I didn’t lose none of the meat. The building had burned down, but that pit had finished cooking meat. I still did that party for the Southwells at the First National Bank.
DV: Did they now the story about the fire?
GM: Oh yeah.
DV: I hoped they tipped you well for that one.
GM: They did. It cost me my building.
DV: Was it better or worse than the barbecue you made before the fire?
GM: It was exactly the same because of that big old iron lid. That heat didn’t do nothing but keep cooking those briskets. They were just beautiful. So pretty and gold, and tender as a mother’s love.
DV: What was one the menu back then?
GM: The same thing. Hamburgers, cheeseburgers, sliced beef, chopped beef, homemade links, and ribs.
DV: Did you used to serve full spare ribs?
GM: Yes. We might go back to them, but these St. Louis ribs do real good. They don’t take as long to cook it.
DV: But now you have an offset smoker, right?
GM: I got two big ones. I’ve got them in a little room over there so if it catches fire it won’t burn my whole building down. And it has caught fire. My help I had back there put wood in the firebox and he left the lid up and forgot. I was a Wal-Mart. When I headed back I saw all the smoke as I came through town. All of them was out of there, thank God.
DV: Did you have a feeling the smoke was from your place?
GM: Oh yeah. I knew something happened. When I topped the hill over there I saw the fire truck parked in the driveway. I had an antique CJ-5 Jeep parked right in front of the pit building, and a firemen knocked it out of gear and pushed it out of the way and saved it.
DV: When you opened in this building here, how many employees did you have?
GM: I don’t have any employees. My sister-in-law and my wife come down and help me. I feed them and buy them a pack of cigarettes or two. It’s just a family deal.
A link that I ordered late arrives at the table.
DV: This is a good sized link. Do you use beef casings?
GM: No. Hog casings.
DV: What else is in there? Garlic, paprika, chili powder…
GM: Yeah. All that.
DV: Where do you make the links?
GM: Right back there. I have one of those old hand stuffers.
DV: You don’t have anything back there to make it easier on you.
GM: [Laughing] Ain’t nothing easy! I guess I’ve been making them for so long, I just cut ‘em, tie it off, and do it again.
DV: What kind of wood do you cook with here?
GM: I use red oak and hickory. The hickory is a little bet better to me, but hickory’s getting scarce.
DV: Is the price going up on you?
GM: I cut my own wood. I buy some when I get in a bind or if it gets too wet and I can’t get out there and get it. I know some of the guys out there. I go saw it, load it, and bring it back.
DV: Do you stack it up here to dry it, or just use it green?
GM: I use it green. It don’t make no difference, but it cooks faster when it’s seasoned out. I can’t tell the difference in the taste.
DV: You were named to the Texas Monthly Top 50 almost two years ago. How did you hear that you made it on the list?
GM: Let me see. I don’t know if I heard it over the radio. I can’t remember. But I do know that the station came over to take some pictures, but I knew it before they came over.
DV: Have you seen a bump in business since you made the list?
GM: I was doing pretty good, but Texas Monthly put me on the map. With people coming through, they want to stop by and nobody has any complaints. Y’all put me out there. I keeping my head above water, but I ain’t getting rich. I can tell you that.
DV: Does anybody get rich in the barbecue business?
GM: Yeah, but you gotta find somewhere to get your meat at a decent price, and do it all by yourself. There’s overhead, and taxes, and all that. I’ve been at it for thirty some years and I just keep my head above water.
DV: How many of your customers are regulars?
GM: All of them. The ones out of town, when they get the gospel they come back.
DV: When did you start cooking here?
GM: I don’t want to lie to you. It was 1986 or maybe ’83. It’s been so long I just can’t remember.
DV: Billy’s is not on an interstate, and you’re a few blocks off the highway through town. It can’t be easy to bring in new customers.
GM: Me being in the location that I’m in, I think I do well.
DV: You certainly work hard at it.
GM: Seven days a week. All day and every night. You sell out all the meat you buy, then I go back and get some more.
DV: You make these links, then you’ve got to cook the brisket and ribs…
GM: …then make the potato salad.
DV: We certainly appreciate that you haven’t made it easy on yourself. I guess that’s what you have to do to make the good barbecue.
GM: Oh Yeah. The main thing is to keep the customer happy.
DV: How many days are you open?
GM: Six days, but it’s seven days when I have to cook for the churches.
DV: You’re past retirement age. Do you feel like you have plenty of good barbecue years left?
GM: I feel as good as I always have felt. I just want to quit working as hard as I am.
DV: Does your son have any interest in taking over the business?
GM: No. He’s out of college and he lives in Houston. He’s going into the real estate business.
DV: If you ever get tired of all the hard work, what’s going to happen to the place?
GM: I’m just going to put a closed sign out there.