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Saturday, July 19, 2014

Georgia pitmaster Wiley McCrary shares secrets that other "men take to the grave"

Earlier this year, the travel site Trip Advisor generated much debate around the country when it announced that Georgia was the No. 1 state in the nation for barbecue, drawing the ire of folks from Texas, North Carolina and points west.

But there is no doubt that the Peach State is worthy of the attention, due to places such as Williamson Bros.Bar-B-Q in Marietta (and now also in Canton and Douglasville), Heirloom Market BBQ in Atlanta and Fresh Air Barbecue in Flovilla, and celebrity pitmasters Myron Mixon and Robby Royal.

However, down in the historic oceanside community of Savannah, is Wiley McCrary, owner of Wiley’s Championship BBQ with his wife Janet. After nearly 30 years of catering events in Atlanta and successfully competing in barbecue competitions around the country, they opened their business in 2005, initially as Savannah BBQ and the restaurant three years later.

In May, Trip Advisor chose Wiley’s Championship BBQ as the fourth best barbecue restaurant in the country, just behind more famous Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas, Oklahama Joe’s BBQ &Catering in Kansas City, Kansas, and Bogart’s Smokehouse in St. Louis. Mo.

In 2000, Wiley McCrary was the focus of a CNN feature, “Hog Heaven,” and has finished first in ribs and brisket at the National BBQ Festival in nearby Douglas, Ga. The couple has been National BBQNews Caterers of the Year, state champions in Georgia and South Carolina and reserve grand champions in Alabama and North Carolina.

This spring, the McCrarys published a cookbook, “Wiley'sChampionship BBQ: Secrets That Old Men Take to the Grave (Gibbs Smith),” along with Amy Paige Condon, digital editor of Savannah magazine. It also features great photos by Chia Chong.

He writes in the book’s introduction that on winter days Janet still wears a red cowgirl hat with five pins that note the times they’ve earned perfect 180 scores in Kansas City Barbecue Society competitions.

“Barbecue is surrounded by myths, folklore and downright lies,” he says. “The truth is that although barbecue is an art form based on good craftsmanship, the skills are transferable. The wheel can be reinvented only so many times.

“We, who’ve gone before, owe it to the universe to teach you, just the way someone taught us. I couldn’t have gotten to where I am without the wonderful teachers I’ve been blessed with throughout my life.”

Wiley and Janet McCrary
He counts among his mentors Miss Alberta, the family cook when he was growing up; his father, nicknamed “Slick;” Big Jim Harris, a pitmaster who cooked for Alabama Gov. Big Jim Folsom and later, Ed and Muriel Roith, winners on the barbecue circuit and KCBS board members.

Wiley McCrary seems to be quite the character. He produces a sauce, called “Better than Sex,” which has this disclaimer, “If you still insist that your sex is better than our sauce, write us. Store in the rear of refrigerator out of sight of rabbis, priests and ministers.”

But as demonstrated through the cookbook, he appears humble (unlike another Georgia pitmaster we know). “I’ve always enjoyed learning new things. I’m somewhat of a foodie and like to taste dishes from all over the world, especially from home cooks and backyarders who carry with them knowledge of ingredients and techniques passed from one generation to the next.

“Some of the best cooks in America never went to culinary school; they simply learned standing next to a grandmother in her kitchen or beside an uncle who built his own barbecue pit out of a recycled drum.”

Perhaps that’s why the McCrarys are sharing the “secrets that old men carry to the grave.” Not only do they provide their own recipes, featured every day in their restaurant on Whitemark Island, but those of others as well. There’s Big Jim’s beer BBQ sauce, a salmon recipe from fellow Savannah foodie Damon Lee Fowler and a grilled lobster dish from Buddy Babb of Paradise Ridge Catering in Nashville, Tenn.

The book is designed to be used regularly, as suggested by its ringed binding, and its thorough presentation of the essentials – what kind of tools and accessories you’ll need, how to build your fire and spices and seasonings. A great piece of advice that it provides is that you get a notebook so you’ll remember what works for you.

Photograph by Chia Chong,from Gibbs Smith
The key to consistently good barbecue, the McCrarys say, is knowing the internal temperature of your meat. “Internal temperature always prevails over time,” they write. “An inexpensive digital meat thermometer will become the mightiest weapon in your barbecue arsenal.”

The 215-page book covers all the proteins – pork, poultry, beef, lamb, fish and seafood – as well as sides and deserts. As a Greek, I was pleased to find several recipes for lamb (including a rub) and successfully used the book’s recipe for smoked leg of lamb.

A standout section in the book is the chapter on fish and crustaceans, which reflects the influence and tradition of the Atlantic coastal region and includes Janet’s award-winning recipe for shrimp and grits.

“You cannot carry on a heritage if you are keeping secrets,” Wiley says. “You have got to tell those stories and eat hearty while you can, because there may not be good barbecue in heaven.”

Wiley's Championship BBQ on Urbanspoon

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