The "holy smoke" rises early from the little wood frame annex of the New Zion Missionary Baptist Church. It is there that Annie Mae Ward and other members of the congregation say they are working on the Lord's work — firing the meat smokers, fixing the beans, whipping up potato salad and blending the secret sauce.
Wednesday through Saturdays, it's praise the Lord and pass the ribs at the church, which serves the need of all denominations of the barbecue faithful —ribs, brisket, chicken and sausage.
On Sunday, the church serves the spiritual needs of its flock. The barbecue is close to the church and so Ward, who is 84, and the others are able to attend services.
Ward and her barbecue are godsends to the little church — raising money to keep it going and raking in far more than the collection plate. For years, Ward gave all her profits to the church. But, she couldn't make a living by giving everything away.
"I told the pastor of the church, 'This is too much for me, the Lord don't expect me to work this hard for nothing,'" said Mae.
Now, she keeps a little cash for herself.
It all started about 20 years ago. Ward was cooking lunch for her husband, who was painting the church, when the aroma from her cooking made people pull off the highway to buy her barbecue. Her husband never did get his lunch.
Now, barbecue believers come in droves — making the pilgrimage to the unassuming Mecca of barbecue.
People now line up to enjoy what many have called the best of the state's estimated 1,300 barbecue joints. One national magazine called it the best barbecue place in the world. And, the price is right: all you can eat for $8.
Reverend Clint Edison says his church and the community are blessed by Ward's presence.
"Many people don't ever see the countless people that eat here and doesn't have a dime," he says. "Her heart is just so big and she's so dedicated. [She is] one of the hardest working people at her age that I know."
Ward says there is no secret to her barbecue. But she will not be sharing her ingredients with just anybody.
"I cooked it to taste like I wanted it to taste," she says.
Some see a little divine intervention. At the church, the minister blesses the barbecue.
Some say the Lord works in mysterious ways, while Ward does it the old-fashioned way — putting in 10-hour days. She knows how to run a business, too. But, most importantly, she can cook well.
After trying to find the secret ingredient of the New Zion Missionary Baptist Church Barbecue for 20 years, some are starting to believe it may not be the smoke or the sauce that makes the food taste good. It just might be Annie Mae Ward.
(Original Airdate 11/24/02)