ACKERMAN — By five o’clock Friday afternoon, the cars had begun piling up in the gravel lot in front of two small buildings made of rough-cut timber.
Smoke could be seen billowing from an open shed behind the buildings. The air was thick with the heavy fragrance of meat cooking.
A woman in a green T-shirt shuttled meat from one of two grills to helpers inside one of the front buildings where it was portioned out to waiting customers. A man was feeding a meat grinder with freshly carved meat. A barrel-chested man in a black T-shirt stood in front of a four-foot square fan trimming meat. Images danced on a small flat-screen TV, its sound drowned out by the roar of the fan.
The man in the T-shirt is Sonny Strickland, for whom cooking meat in these smoky confines has been a labor of love for the past 12 years.
Strickland is busy, but not too busy, to talk to a stranger about the origins of his eatery, one of two — the other being Pap’s Place, a fish house on Main Street — that have made Ackerman, this hamlet of 1,500, a culinary destination.
“A group of 12 drove down here from New Albany to eat steaks last weekend,” said Strickland. “And on Saturday, eight guys from Columbus came down.”
Technicians from Oklahoma, working at the nearby Mississippi Lignite Mines, told Strickland his brisket is better than anything they get in Texas and Oklahoma.
He recounts these stories in a quiet, matter-of-fact tone, without hubris, as a way of defining his enterprise.
Like Ole Diz used to say: “It ain’t braggin’ if it’s true.”
As a child of parents who owned a mom-and-pop dry cleaners in Eupora, Strickland spent much of his childhood next door at his grandmother’s house. One day when he asked grandma to make him some teacakes, she refused. Instead, she would help him make them. “You might want to cook someday,” she said. Sonny was 6 at the time.
Not long after that his dad began sloughing off cooking duties at the weekly Sunday afternoon fish fry to his son, who accepted the grown-up responsibility with enthusiasm.
“I’ve always loved to cook,” Stickland says.
Do a good deed and in doing so find your life’s work.
Strickland, a lumber broker, agreed to cook Boston butts, ribs and smoked chicken for a niece in Ackerman, who was trying to raise money to go to a cheerleader completion in Nashville.
A seed was planted.
“People worried her to death saying, “‘When’s he gonna open a place?'” Strickland said.
In 2003, Strickland made the leap. “It’s been real good,” he says. Though not as good financially as brokering timber, something he had done for more than a quarter of a century.
“I could make more money brokering in a couple of months than I can a year of cooking, but I had always wanted to do this, and I’m super glad I did,” Strickland said. “I enjoy cooking and seeing people enjoying my food.”
Two of those people are (Lowndes Supervisor) Bill and Allegra Brigham, who frequent the Smokehouse.
“His food is great, and you always run into somebody there,” said Allegra, adding that for a town its size, Ackerman is uncommonly blessed with good places to eat. In addition to Sonny’s, she named Pap’s, a service station with a good meat-and-three and a couple of sandwich shops.
“I love his (Strickland’s) steaks,” said Allegra. “It’s a good spot to meet people and find out what’s going on.”
At 61, Sonny is working 16 hours a day, and from the looks of it, wouldn’t be anywhere else. As we concluded our interview, I stepped to the side and took out of a paper sack a barbecue chicken sandwich I’d ordered earlier. Sonny snorted when I told him my choice. Two minutes later, a woman handed me a Styrofoam container. “Try, that,” said Sonny “It’s our brisket.”
I opened the container and took a bite. The meat was moist, tender and bursting with flavor. “That is really good,” I said.
Strickland smiled, turned and went back to cutting meat.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.