I grew up near the convergence of Highways 41 and 42 in Monroe County. I sang in the church choir at First Baptist Church of Forsyth, fished and hunted along the banks of the Ocmulgee River, I cheered for the Mary Persons Bulldogs from the stands of Dan Pitts Stadium, and I ate Fresh Air Barbecue.
From age 10 until age 20, I was mostly unaware that barbecue places sold anything other than pulled pork with a vinegar sauce, slaw, stew, and some white bread. And still today, it is about all I order at any barbecue place.
Fresh Air is in Jackson, just up the road a bit from Indian Springs State Park. Its iconic awning is held up by tree trunks and hangs over a sawdust floor. Once you walk through the swinging screen door, you first see a menu on a wall. You can get a Pulled Pork Plate. Or a Pulled Pork Plate Deluxe. That’s it. There are no ribs. There is no brisket.
Your plate comes with a sweet tea with shaved ice in a styrofoam cup. After paying at the counter, behind which sits the pit, you can either sit at a long community style table inside, or you can head back outside and find a spot on the on picnic tables on the sawdust floor. Once seated, I recommend pouring the slaw out of its ramekin next to the barbecue in order make scooping them both at the same time as easy as possible.
Oh, and don’t waste all your bread on a makeshift sandwich; you’ll need it for the bottom of your bowl of stew.
While I consider Fresh Air to be the best and most authentic barbecue flavors in Georgia, mimicked by some and matched by none, I’m acutely aware that it’s not just the pork that makes this place. It’s that this is what we ate at our family’s church picnics, before our high school’s football games, and at countless meals with grandparents, parents, and friends. The original Fresh Air is, to a large degree, an identity marker for many middle Georgians.
Barbecue is not politics, and there have been a whole host of clumsy metaphors thrown around over the years equating the two. But, given how partial deacons of each barbecue church are to their hometown’s barbecue place, it cannot be denied that there is something to some of those metaphors.
If you are an avowed barbecue enthusiast from anywhere outside middle Georgia, Fresh Air may not taste like home to you like it does to me, but there is no denying that Fresh Air is a Georgia institution that deserves your attention. And just because Fox Brothers or Sprayberry’s –both institutions in their own rights– is your top choice, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the drive down to Jackson to pay homage to this almost century old establishment.
After you see the amount of love a community has for this haunt, something inside of you should come to love the idea of it. And I assure you, after you’ve finished your pulled pork plate, you will be able to at least understand what those of us preaching the Fresh Air gospel are trying to get at.