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All We Can Eat
Posted at 08:00 AM ET, 10/18/2011

Smoke Signals: A booth worthy of its own memorial


The MLK Memorial preserves the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr., while the one of restaurants where he first imagined those dreams has died off. (Carolyn Kaster - AP)
On Sunday, during the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the Mall, I wondered whatever became of that lumpy booth set against the back wall of a barbecue joint in Atlanta called Aleck’s Barbecue Heaven.

Along with Paschal’s, also in Atlanta, Aleck’s was what we might call today a “remote office” for King and his lieutenants. As I wrote years ago for the American Airlines magazine, American Way, it was not “one of those little places you stumble upon. It was the type of place you knew about. In the ’60s, it served as an unofficial headquarters for the civil rights movement: Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young, among others, would plot strategy over heaping plates of sauced ribs.”

The piece continued: “Despite its fame, I had no idea what to expect when I stepped off the sidewalk and into Aleck’s Barbecue Heaven. The place was a dive. In front of the small open ‘kitchen’ — actually a grill and deep-fryer — was a small raised counter with a peeling Formica top and, behind that, a few stools with rips in their red plastic upholstery. A skinny aisle of cheap tile floor separated the stools from four or five ragtag booths along the wall. A small black-and-white TV with a crack running diagonally across it sat on the near end of the counter, tuned to a talk show. There was no air conditioning, and it was hot inside because it was hot outside. The air in the joint was heavy and greasy.

“Anyone who appreciates a great dive knows exactly what I’m about to say next: It was love at first sight.’”

One booth in the rear of Aleck’s had a wreath resting on its seat. A tattered poster of King loomed above it, with the dates, “1929-1968.”

Who knows what was discussed at that booth? Whatever transpired, I have no doubt it occurred over some of Aleck’s phenomenally tender pork ribs in the eatery’s legendary “come back” sauce — a snappy vinegar-and-black pepper tomato-based concoction.

John T. Edge, one of the nation’s food-writing treasures, talked about the importance of restaurants to social movements in an interview with Eater last year. “If you look at the civil rights movement and think about the stories of Martin Luther King, Jr. and how his lieutenants eating at Paschal’s or Aleck’s Barbecue Heaven in Atlanta and planning marches resulting in civil rights advances, those are examples [of] how restaurants and food can be an incubator of good,” he said in a piece titled, “On Race and the Redemptive Power of Food.”

He went on to talk about the converse, the gathering of mean men hatching evil plots, also over plates of food. “A lynching of Lemuel Penn outside of Athens, Ga.,…was hatched and celebrated at a restaurant called the Open House in Athens,” Edge said, then added: “If you take a group of good-hearted people, open to communal experience and put them in a room, good things happen. If you take a bunch of [bad men] and put them in a room, bad things happen.”

Good things happened in the dumpy little room that was Aleck’s, maybe even at that modest back booth. Aleck’s, which had been called the best barbecue in Atlanta and among the best in the country, went under some years ago.

I don’t know, and have no idea if anyone knows, where that booth is now. I’d like to think that someone took the booth and is storing it in a basement or, for that matter, using it, as King would, as a place to sit and enjoy the company of others. In my dream of dreams, I think about the Smithsonian hunting it down and putting it in the National Museum of American History.

Wherever the booth is, its spirit is alive, not so much in the memorial on the Mall, but in the everyday life of people who want to change the world for the better.

By  |  08:00 AM ET, 10/18/2011

Categories:  Smoke Signals | Tags:  Jim Shahin

 
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