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VOL. 40 | NO. 7 | Friday, February 12, 2016

Real Deal Bar-B-Q: A legacy for future generations

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Lillard Davis says he is proud of how his Real-Deal Bar-B-Que & Catering has kept his family employed, happy and healthy for 26 years. He’s got things set in place for business to keep smoking long after he’s gone. In fact, sometimes he ponders adding a second location to keep up with his growing family (literally) of employees. “Maybe we’ll find investors,” he says.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

The Vietnam-era Marine chomps into a jumbo bun bursting with barbecued pulled pork he’s nursed to perfection for the generations, literally, at his restaurant just off the Clarksville Highway.

After 26 years of long nights and days tending pork shoulder and producing other specialties in his section of Bordeaux, Lillard Davis’ health woes have led him to slash his workload, pretty much turning the keys – not just the metal ones that open the doors, but also the keys to hearts and tummies that are his secret recipes and rubs – to two sons and a nephew he figures will keep his family business smoking long enough for other generations to take over.

It’s all about barbecue legacy for this almost 64-year-old.

And no, Lillard doesn’t produce your generic, white hipster neighborhood barbecue in his somewhat battered section of Nashville: It’s the real deal… Really … it’s the product of Real-Deal Bar-B-Q & Catering or, as they proclaim on a storefront sign: “The Best in Town and Know It.”

Yankees, transplanted to Nashville as participants in the Chamber’s heralded It-city immigration explosion, may not yet appreciate pulled pork as much as the rest of us.

Every non-vegetarian in the South has his or her favorite barbecue. And I’ve known a vegetarian or two who have fallen off the wagon, landing in a plate of the succulent stuff.

Back in past lives as a daily newspaperman, I championed and consumed the barbecue of Wilma Rudolph’s cousin, Ole Steve Pettus, the acclaimed family gospel group leader whose penchants for pork and people led him to become a beloved roadside pit master in rural Montgomery County.

And then there was Ruben Toliver, “the barbecue king,” (as he was introduced to me by my late pal, Nashville record-store owner and Guthrie, Kentucky, elder statesman Louis Buckley). Ruben allowed me to help prepare for his Labor Day goat and pork-fueled family reunions/dinners on the grounds of his Sadlersville (Robertson County) church.

He’s gone but not forgotten in that area not far from the state line.

“Mr. Louis used to say Ruben was a whole-hog barbecuer …. a lot of barbecuers will tell you that’s the only way to do it,” says Bill Longhurst, a long-time friend whose Longhurst General Store in downtown Guthrie is a mercantile oasis long-ago frequented by native son Robert Penn Warren.

As for Real-Deal?

Some say firefighters know their food almost as well as big-rig drivers: “It can’t get no better than this,” says Metro Fire Department engineer Reggie Rucker.

“I drive the engine, the truck with the water in it,” he explains, as he awaits his lunch in the tidy confines of Real-Deal’s restaurant and carry-out HQ at 3538 West Hamilton, just on the east side of Clarksville Highway.

Reggie’s “home” base is miles away inside East Nashville’s Engine Company 14 on Holly Street, which means he bypasses other pit offerings to come out here. On this day, Reggie has stopped for a fill-up after interviewing for a captain’s job down at headquarters.

That process has left the 18-year fire veteran feeling pretty professionally optimistic and physically famished.

“I come here three or four times a month,” he says. His mother lives nearby, so he likes to double-up on his “good son” visits by filling his belly while enjoying the company and food at Real-Deal.

On this day, he arrives a few minutes before opening time, but Shannon Davis, one of Lillard’s sons and business partners, turns the door key early to let Reggie duck in from the morning’s chill.

Like most everyone who enters Real-Deal, Reggie is known by face, name and even by what he likes to order.

“I think it’s easy to spend your money when people are nice to you,” says fireman Reggie, smiling as he waits for the Davis family to grill up barbecued chicken and put it in a massive salad that bulges the sides of a large Styrofoam takeout container. That friendly, neighborly manner “just adds to the flavor of the food.”

Reggie looks toward the kitchen pass-through, to where Shannon works on the salad, and reminds him, “No croutons. And ranch and French dressing.” The reminders are unnecessary. Shannon knows this man’s preferred dish by heart.

This is one of those restaurants where, as the ancient TV theme song goes, everybody knows your name, is glad you came, etc…. (Makes those of us of a certain advanced “vintage” want to holler “Norm!” doesn’t it?).

“My son Kenya is pretty much running the show now,” says Lillard, who turns 64 on Valentine’s Day.

Cousins Patrick Kelly and Shannon Davis – “my street name is Baby Joker,” he jokes – work side by side in the Real Deal kitchen

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

He began this barbecue business in 1990, opening it in a trailer – long before food trucks/trailers were “cool” or had their own television series. For 16 years, he parked his trailer outside the Citgo convenience market at West Hamilton and Clarksville Highway.

A decade ago, tired of dealing with the frequent management changes at the market, he moved 50 yards away into a four-walls and no wheels storefront in a strip shopping plaza that’s also home to, among others, The Lord’s House Ministry, Café Hope, Nia’s Love Nail Studio, Manna from Heaven Dinner House and Youth About Business Training Center. Here he’s found a solid foundation for his legacy.

This isn’t Lillard’s first career. Just his favorite.

“I cut dogs’ hair,” he recalls. “Dog groomer. Then, I went to Nashville Tech to learn how to fix human hair. I already knew how to cut dog hair, so I thought this would enhance me.

“But once I got into the people aspect, it wasn’t me…”

Triangle Chemical Company then offered him the job as traveling hair-products salesman catering to an African-American customer base. Easy decision.

“If I sat here all day and cut 25 heads, I couldn’t make the money I’d make in one sale of hair-care products.”

He stuck with that latter occupation and enjoyed it for a decade. But he really wanted to be home with his wife of 42 years, Sharon, and their children, so he began building his legacy by introducing that mobile restaurant into the sometimes-threateningly urban – other times pastoral – Bordeaux landscape.

For a long time Real-Deal was mostly a one-man operation, but now his two sons and a nephew run the joint: Kenya, 38, Shannon, 36, and Patrick Kelly, 41.

“I’m a first cousin,” says Patrick, smiling as he admits his pleasure in being a partner in the family business.

The joy of working together is evident in the interplay between the three younger men as they with precision prepare and assemble meals to pass through the small opening to the dining room.

“I really like working with family,” adds Kenya, from his small swath of the kitchen nearest the pass-through.

“We all bring our various strengths to it and work well together. Each of us has strong suits.”

Cousin Patrick nods as he chops barbecued chicken for a salad.

Then it’s time for Shannon – “My street name is ‘Baby Joker’” – to add his “version.”

A Real Deal pork plate beans, fries, pulled pork and buttery bread is ready to go out the door.

-- Tim Ghianni| The Ledger

“Yeah, I like it most of the time, too,” he says as he fills a Styrofoam container with a pound of pulled pork. “But sometimes my dad can be a butthead.”

He says it, though, with affection, his eyes brightening as the other young men laugh at this assessment.

“I got another son, Brandon, 30, and we’re going to find him a space here, too,” Lillard explains. “He’s incarcerated right now for what they call non-payment of child support. And my daughter, Bria, 26, works for Apple.”

What pleases him most is that he has 16 grandchildren for whom he’s building this legacy.

“I’m not really in here working much now. Broken down,” he says, adding he recently went to the hospital for an ulcer in his esophagus and for a hernia.

He’s also having a bit of trouble with his right knee, which ironically was injured by an accidental gunshot when he was home on leave from his years as a Marine while the nation engaged in war.

“My brother had a pistol in the car. He came to the airport to pick me up and while he was bringing me home, the gun went off.”

It was the most dangerous arms fire he witnessed during his Marine career.

“Drew No. 13 in the lottery,” he says. I add that since we are the same age, it is likely we both were in the same draft lottery, a dangerous and potentially mortal “Power Ball” scheme concocted by Uncle Sam in which America chose the order of drafting its young men by drawing birthdates like Bingo numbers.

“I drew No. 280,” I say, remembering the day I realized I was neither bound for the jungles nor the wind-swept north.

I well-remember the melancholy celebration and grim farewells of that day spent in the TV room of my Iowa State dormitory floor.

My now-late Uncle Moose, a Red Oak, Iowa, cattle and corn farmer, drew No. 3 that day and had to report to Uncle Sam. He died of cancer a few years ago.

Lillard has similar flashbacks to that day when he drew No. 13.

“My lips dropped to the ground,” he says. “I thought ‘oh, no, I’m gone’” – as in leaving Nashville in one piece and returning in a body bag after helping Uncle Sam get out of his “terrible jam way down yonder in Vietnam,” as Country Joe would put it.

Kenya Davis fills containers of mustard to go out with a catering order during another hectic lunch hour in the Real Deal kitchen.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

Lillard drew mostly stateside duty, though, and the only action near the land where Duvall loved the smell of napalm in the morning was as a Marine on a ship offshore during the evacuation of Saigon as it quickly transitioned into Ho Chi Minh City.

He admits now “it was the mistake of my life” not to make a career as a leatherneck. But plenty of sweet, barbecue-smoked family memories have filled subsequent decades.

Barbecue masters all have their secrets as far as recipes, rubs, cooking time, wood choice and more.

Lillard’s secrets are deeply rooted in Nashville’s musical history, as the recipes he relies on came from Mamie McCrary – “she was the best cook in Nashville, and she taught me” – wife of Sam McCrary, vocal heart of the legendary Fairfield Four.

“Sam was my hunting partner,” Lillard says of the great lead tenor from Music City’s most famous gospel quartet. “Mamie was my wife’s cousin. Mamie and Sam are both dead now, but their daughters are doing really well.”

Indeed, the McCrary Sisters vocal group has cut a broad swath across the musical landscape, well beyond Bordeaux’s borders.

Lillard won’t share Mamie’s secrets with me, of course, but he did teach his sons and nephew. “The pork, ribs and baked beans recipes haven’t changed from her recipes,” Patrick says. “For some of the other things, we took some of her recipes and altered them to bring them up to today’s taste buds.”

Lillard loosens a bright smile.

“I want to have some kind of legacy so my family, my grandchildren, have something to lean on. In black families, we don’t normally have any inheritance.

“I want my grandchildren to be able to say someday ‘my granddaddy did leave me all right’” by building up a thriving family business before tipping his hat and passing through the final curtain.

He’s motivated by mortality. “I’m 64 now; my mom only lived to be 76. My dad only to be 74.” He figures the gene pool indicates he may have about 10 years to put that legacy in place.

Suddenly, though, he stops talking about his own death and instead turns it to the decay of the neighborhood where he not only lives but where he is building that family future.

“We’re holding our own (business-wise),” he points out. “We don’t do hardly any whites. They won’t come out to this part of town.

“This is the worst ZIP Code in the state; 37207, I think it is. There are so many convicted offenders, felons living in this neighborhood.”

He points out there is plenty of open space around for development, but fear discourages it.

“That’s why we ain’t got a McDonald’s over there,” he says, waving across 41A. “That’s why we got no O’Charley’s here.”

After his dad leaves, Kenya points out things are changing, that indeed I’m not the only Caucasian to nurse my car to the storefront on this or any other day.

“Look out there now,” he says, nodding from the kitchen to the dining room, where white families are eating at two of the three occupied tables.

“I think the best thing about this business as a whole is it’s a community center,” Kenya says. “We understand each person who comes here.

“We are so tied to the community,” he adds, referring to the fact folks know they can come here, talk out their woes and leave with bellies filled with some of the best ribs, pulled pork and meat-dressed salads to be found this side of the MLK Bridge.

Oh, yeah, and as seemingly everywhere – from roadside shacks to the Colonel’s bleached drive-throughs – Nashville’s famous hot chicken wings are a popular item. Shannon says about 1,000 wings were prepared for pickup the day before Super Bowl Sunday.

Kenya enjoys watching the business’ evolution. “It’s become a whole lot more diverse than it was. We have so many people from different nationalities moving back into the city, and they are finding their way here.”

As the Real-Deal reputation spreads, word-of-mouth, across the nation’s “It” city, Kenya promises a bright future.

“Our barbecue is still slow-cooked over hickory. Our food has a lot of soul and character within its own self,” he says. “You are going to get the experience of being in here by eating our food. Can’t get it any other way.”

Kenya turns back to the pass-through, where he takes an order from another white customer.

“Food is universal,” he says. “No matter what the color of your skin you can relate to good food.”

Lillard’s legacy is in good hands. And mouths, of course.

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