There is a national Barbecue Hall of Fame in Kansas City. Of course there is. Because, America, y’all. And until this year, Alabama’s John “Big Daddy” Bishop wasn’t in it, and Guy Fieri was, which is either a criminal omission or professional ignorance, if not both.
Quick, a name association. Alabama football: Bear Bryant. Alabama politics: George Wallace. Alabama music: W.C. Handy. (Or Wilson Pickett or Hank Williams or Sam Phillips.) Alabama weather: James Spann. And Alabama barbecue: Big Daddy Bishop, a 2019 Hall inductee.
There is no one else. (Sorry, Big Bob Gibson in Decatur.) Bishop wasn’t Alabama’s first BBQ king, but the joint he opened in Tuscaloosa in 1958 — Dreamland Bar-B-Que — slowly piggy-backed off the success of Crimson Tide football to become both a Southern destination and successful restaurant chain in three states.
Back in the day, everyone had a Dreamland story. Football fans heard Keith Jackson drool about Big Daddy’s ribs during Saturday afternoon telecasts. Former Tide coach Ray Perkins was a famous convert. Notable sightings — football stars, coaches, politicians, entertainers — weren’t unusual in Bishop’s ramshackle place in south Tuscaloosa.
Like the South itself, Dreamland was different and complicated. Big Daddy was black. His restaurant sat in a largely black Tuscaloosa neighborhood. His clientele was black — until it wasn’t, until Jackson and Perkins and white football fans began pouring into the place and brought a slice of Alabama a step closer to modern equality.
Barbecue trumped race.
Big Daddy opened his restaurant the same year Bear Bryant became Alabama’s coach, and it took more than a decade before his ribs drew raves from white Alabamians, just like it took more than a decade for Bryant’s teams to feature black players. Alabama’s past is decorated with other Dreamlands — black-owned businesses in black neighborhoods that white people don’t frequent, or won’t, until they become trendy and chic.
“At the time I’d left home, there was no white traffic,” Jeanette Bishop-Hall, Big Daddy’s daughter, told The Tuscaloosa News. “By the time I moved back, there was hardly no BLACK traffic.” She laughed when she said that, by the way.
In 2008, USA Today proclaimed Dreamland “the best college football joint in the land,” asking if “every college town (has) one place where fans gather religiously for food and fellowship, football talk and adult beverages?” Yet, “few, if any, can touch Dreamland.”
USA Today even lauded Dreamland’s minimalist approach. “A full slab of ribs, slathered with Dreamland's non-pareil sauce, with Sunbeam white bread to sop it up and a Pepsi chaser. Unlike Dreamland's ... other locations throughout Alabama and Georgia, the original location adheres to the original menu. A half or full slab. Sauce. Bread. No side dishes. Golden Flake potato chips.”
Bishop died in 1997, and today the Bishop family operates 10 Dreamlands, one in Florida (Tallahassee), two in Georgia (Roswell and Duluth) and seven scattered throughout Alabama. The original Dreamland is a charter member of the Alabama Tourism Department’s Barbecue Hall of Fame. Online you can order Dreamland ribs and Dreamland sauce and Dreamland sides and Dreamland baked beans and Dreamland T-shirts.
For $239.99, not including shipping, Dreamland will ship 10 slabs of ribs, three quarts of Dreamland sauce and two loaves of white bread to your front door. That would feed The Star’s newsroom, by the way. (Hint.)
We can argue till the cows come home about the “new” Dreamlands, if they’re as fine as the original.
Which they’re not. Ambience matters.
We also can argue about which region has America’s best barbecue ribs (be quiet, Texas and the Carolinas), or if brisket is as good as pork, or which Calhoun County rib joint is tops. If anything, they’re ubiquitous — Dad’s and Brad’s and Cooter Brown’s and Betty’s and Big Daddy’s and Local Joe’s and all the rest.
Someone should organize a taste test or a BBQ contest. I’d be happy to judge.
But we can’t argue about John “Big Daddy” Bishop’s rightful place in the national Barbecue Hall of Fame. If you do, you’re just not right.