Growing up in Midland, Harvey Clay’s life revolved around football, barbecue, and live music at his father’s clubs. After graduating with the last class of segregated Carver High School in 1968, he left for the University of Wisconsin. It was in the barbecue wasteland of Madison that he came to appreciate the brisket and ribs that he so missed. Now, more than a half-century later, he serves Texas-style barbecue to folks in the brisket-deprived city of Shreveport, Louisiana, at Real BBQ and More.
“The only thing I liked there was pizza,” Clay said of Wisconsin. He was stunned to learn they didn’t have iced tea, hot sauce, chili powder, or cornbread. “There was not even a conversation about barbecue in ’68,” he said. It was a culture shock, so he set out to learn the craft himself.
Clay had a solid barbecue background in Midland to draw upon. Unlike the big city barbecue shacks that mainly served sandwiches at the time, in Midland they served smoked meat on butcher paper like you’d find in Central Texas. Sam’s BBQ was closest to the Clay home, and the family would carry home Sam’s barbecue in a cardboard beer box that was lined with butcher paper and topped by another beer box. At a joint called Smitty’s, they would eat ribs, brisket, sausage, and ham.
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The Clays lived in a black neighborhood called the Flat, where Miss Mozetta’s was located. “That was the best barbecue I had in Midland,” Clay remembered. It was a one-woman operation, and Miss Mozetta used a brick pit. “We always got ribs, brisket, and sausage,” Clay said, but it would sell out quickly, sometimes by one o’clock in the afternoon. He also remembers Mr. Black, who smoked with mesquite in a gambling shack by the tank farms east of Midland. Clay’s dad, Lawrence, ran a club nearby, so he got to sample the barbecue often. “It was black, but it wasn’t bitter,” he said of the bark on the brisket.
White barbecue joints were off limits to the Clay family in segregated Midland. Football games and the music joints his dad owned, the Swanky Club and later the Cobra Club, were some of the few public venues that were integrated, “because white kids wanted to see Chubby Checker. They wanted to see James Brown,” Clay said. Legendary musicians like Bobby “Blue” Bland, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and B.B. King all played at the Cobra Club. They’d stop over on road trips between El Paso and Dallas or Houston, usually on Sunday nights.
Football was just as much a part of Midland’s culture in the sixties as it is today. “Every Friday night, somebody filled that stadium with 18,000 people,” Clay said reminiscing about the 1968 season at Carver High. The region was in the midst of an oil boom. Life was good in his hometown, but he earned a football scholarship from the University of Wisconsin (thanks in part to his seven-foot height) and moved to Madison that fall. “That was like torture for me,” he said, speaking about the absence of his favorite foods. After getting that primitive smoker, he got to work on his brisket method. Clay loved Smitty’s barbecue sauce and begged owner Mr. Smith for the recipe. Smith wouldn’t reveal all his secrets, but he provided Clay with an approximation. Clay would pour the sauce over a partially smoked brisket, wrap it in foil, then continue cooking until the brisket fell apart. His friends loved it and would beg him to cook another batch of what they called his “loose meat.”His time in Wisconsin was cut short before his first year of school was complete. Clay became politically active and helped lead the campus-wide black student strike of 1969. He was arrested while protesting and lost his scholarship soon after, so he left the university. Clay married, moved to Houston, and got a job cleaning buses. The marriage didn’t work out. He went back north, but this time to attend the University of Hartford in Connecticut, and he eventually got a degree at Antioch University in New Hampshire.
Clay’s next job, at a car dealership in Massachusetts, didn’t get him any closer to good barbecue. During that time, watching a TV episode featuring the Cajun chef Justin Wilson cooking barbecue was too much for him to bear. “He drove me crazy with that grill and that brisket,” Clay said. So he called the Cajun Grill company in Lafayette, Louisiana, and had one shipped to Connecticut. He carried it with him to other dealerships in Kilgore and Shreveport, eventually upgrading to a smoker from Houston’s Pitts & Spitts, which he carried with him to eastern Tennessee when he bought a Ford store there. After a couple years, the economy tanked, the dealership closed, and Clay reassessed the direction of his career.
Shreveport was a city Clay hadn’t spent much time in, but his daughter with his wife, Shirley, and his new grandchild lived there. They moved without much of a plan for employment. “I woke up one day, and my wife told me we had $600,” Clay said. He needed to make money quickly, so he fell back on his passion for barbecue. The Pitts & Spitts smoker went from fueling a backyard hobby to being the foundation for a new barbecue business.
In 2010, Clay set up on a Shreveport sidewalk selling barbecue. He opened Real BBQ Place as a brick and mortar in the Cedar Grove neighborhood in 2013 and added snow cones to the menu. A historic building, the Fairfield Grocery, became available in 2017 when another restaurant moved out. Real BBQ Place became Real BBQ and More when it reopened in the middle of 2017. Clay thought he had it made, but the sewer line under the building collapsed and required repair. Street construction closed off access to his parking lot. The restaurant barely survived, but, as Clay said, “There ain’t no point talking about it. You get your ass up, and brush your teeth, and put your clothes on, and go to work.” The street construction was completed last year. The Clays dug themselves out of that financial hole, and Real BBQ and More is now making money again.
Just like the barbecue joints Clay grew up with in Midland, Real BBQ and More specializes in brisket, ribs, and sausage. The sausages use brisket as the only protein. Clay has them made by Bill’s Meat Market in Carthage, Texas, and Country Meat Packers in Mississippi. He buys the collagen casings and sends them along with the seasoning blend. The meat markets grind it, mix it, and stuff the sausages. Clay smokes it at the restaurant.
The seasoning is powerful on the links. It’s got a punch of garlic and some decent heat as well. I enjoyed each juicy slice, especially after dipping it into the glossy, tomatoey sauce. It’s not too sweet and has a velvety finish. It complements the sliced brisket well too. Clay smokes only flats. Each slice has plenty of fat and bark, but I longed for the juiciness that fattier slices would provide.
I preferred the spare ribs. They had a powerful seasoning from an aggressively applied rub. Clay was good friends with the late Roland Lindsey of Bodacious Bar-B-Q in Longview. He uses the Bodacious rubs, which are sweet. While I prefer a simple salt and pepper pork rib, it was easy to love these ribs bursting with flavor. On the side you won’t find simple slices of white bread. Clay takes a jalapeño cheese bun and turns it into garlic bread with plenty of butter. Classic versions of mac and cheese, beans, potato salad, and slaw come along with the well-smoked meats.
I probably wouldn’t have bothered visiting Real BBQ if not for Chris Jay. He works for the Shreveport-Bossier Convention and Tourist Bureau, and he brought a to-go platter of Clay’s barbecue to a Shreveport radio station where I was being interviewed by noted barbecue hound Patrick Netherton. One bite of the ribs told me I needed to visit the restaurant, and I’m glad I did, if only to get Clay’s remarkable story. Sitting there in Shreveport, a town without much good Texas-style barbecue, it only seems appropriate I’d get it from Real BBQ and More. After all, Clay’s lifelong mission seems to be bringing Texas barbecue along with him to anywhere he can’t find it.
Real BBQ and More
5863 Fairfield Ave.
Open Mon-Sat 10-8