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Monday, February 24, 2014

At Big Bubba Buck's with Mario Batali and Anthony Bourdain

Gloria Ragland and Robert "Big Bubba Buck" Chapman
The last place I ever expected to see celebrity television chef Mario Batali was at Big Bubba Buck's Belly Bustin' BBQ Bliss in Munfordsville, Ky.

Admittedly, Batali really wasn't at this simple place just off exit 65 on Interstate 65.

His talk-food program "The Chew" was on the big screen surrounded by the largest collection of ceramic pigs I've ever. Gideon Bibles were on the table next to the napkins and the salt and pepper. The Ten Commandments are on the wall next to a copy of the Bill of Rights.

"Our BBQ restaurant is CHRISTIAN owned and operated. Ask Bubba about JESUS," suggests the menu, along with details about the ribs, the barbecue burger, catfish, fried green tomatoes, fried dill pickles and the house specialty -- "nanner pudding.'"

The admonition seems a little inconsistent given that they also say the "barbecue is so good, it'll make you slap your Mama!"

Since our visit, a fire destroyed Big Bubba's in early July. But they are working to reopen down the road at exit 58 at Horse Cave, Ky.

We're hoping that the new location will be just as much a slice of south central Kentucky.

One of Bubba Buck's pig smokers
Owner Robert Chapman -- a.k.a. "Big Bubba" -- is a god-fearing man. He told me his story, about how the restaurant was God's plan for him, going back to 2001, when he paid $200 for a tent from which he sold barbecue.

He then bought a boat trailer and rigged a grill on it -- "looked like something out of Fred Flintstone" -- and sold barbecue at festivals and catered events. After a couple more years, he reached a turning point and decided it was fateful that he open Big Bubba's.

"After the third year, we was struggling quite a bit, trying to make ends meet with five kids," Chapman told me late last year. "We sold our home that we lived in, we lived in a trailer, sold it and then moved in with my parents."

One day he sat down to reflect on where his life should go next. He said he was making only $6,000 a year doing construction and other $3,000 making barbecue.

"I went in and sat down and started praying to the Lord and asked him which way I should turn, what I should do," Chapman recalled. "I stood up and started back out the door and before I got out the door this man knocks on the door and asked me if I'm still catering barbecue. I took it that the Lord right there wanted me to do the barbecue.

"We've kept the Lord in it the whole time. We've not gotten rich … we've gotten what he wants us to have."

After the recent fire, it doesn't sound like Big Bubba has gotten bitter, as indicated on his Facebook page: "We appreciate and love each and every one of our supporters and customers and the prayers that you have given us. Please continue to pray that God will show Big Bubba and his family what His plan is next for them. Thank you again so much."

A few weeks before our visit, the television show "Barbecue Pitmasters" filmed at Big Bubba's in conjunction with Munfordsville's annual Big Buffalo Crossing Barbecue Cook-Off.

He didn't meet Myron Mixon or Aaron Franklin and didn't end up cooking on the show because they were looking for someone who prepares mutton -- a specialty in western Kentucky.

When she isn't waiting tables, Gloria Ragland is on the CB.
Many customers at Big Bubba's have been truck drivers, who manager Gloria Ragland chats with on a CB radio in the kitchen. In between waiting on customers like us, she sweet-talked drivers about their food and the ample parking for big rigs and took their orders.

I had a nice conversation with Gloria and with "Mrs. Big Bubba," April, but my recorder failed to capture it.

We learned about Big Bubba's when we stopped at a rest area about 50 miles north on the interstate.

We enjoyed our food, although my mother is safe (I didn't "slap my mama"). We went for the pork sampler, which consists of a half pound of baby back ribs, sliced shoulder steak and shredded pork, and the tilapia encrusted with barbecue potato chips.

As we ate, the television at Big Bubba's kept us company -- who can carry on a conversation while you're eating barbecue? After "The Chew," it was time for soap operas. However, after a couple minutes another customer asked for the remote and changed the channel to "Sports Center."

But only after a couple of minutes, it was time for Anthony Bourdain's program "No Reservations." It only seemed appropriate.

New location:
Big Bubba Buck's Belly Bustin' BBQ Bliss
Horse Cave, Ky.

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