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Time In a Bottle

Sweet sauce and hoop dreams

by Jack Neely

Maybe 20 years ago you were in a Cumberland Avenue bar late at night wishing there was something more to life than one more dang Budweiser. And as the bartender turned on the lights and stacked all the chairs on tables around you, somebody'd say, "Let's go to Brother Jack's!"

And you'd drive to a dark part of town your mama warned you about and go into a small cinderblock building with a faded sign that said MEAT MARKET. And then you'd push through the screen door and crowd toward the counter where two sturdy-looking men in greasy aprons were chopping meat, dousing sauce, and occasionally taking a bite of a hot pepper. One of them was Brother Jack himself. The other was Brother Jack's brother, who was called Jeep. They'd let you eat there, but only if you stood up at the counter. When everything else was closed, Brother Jack's was packed shoulder-to-shoulder. Sometimes at 3 a.m. this tiny place could remind you of a New Testament miracle, somehow feeding dozens of people at once. Brother Jack had several specialties, chief among them his immortal Pigburger, a ground-pork sandwich with something extra we never figured out.

Brother Jack's opened on University Avenue around 1946, but its origins go back much farther. The original Brother Jack was Charles Jackson, who learned the barbecue trade while working as a "shoo-fly boy" for pork butchers on Market Square before World War I. He opened his own butcher shop in 1922, but soon got a reputation for his barbecue, a secret recipe he said he learned from a German butcher. Brother Jack's son Clifford was known to his friends as "Tip," but as Brother Jack reached retirement age, people started calling the younger Jackson "Brother Jack."

Everyone mourned when Tip's health forced him to close in 1989. He recovered just enough to reopen, with some friends' help, on Cherry Street, but eventually that place closed, too. A few years ago, Tip Jackson, a.k.a. Brother Jack, died.

But look on the barbecue sauce shelves in some local groceries and you're likely to see a familiar apparition, a black man wearing a graying mustache and soul patch. He's on the label of "The Original Brother Jack's Gourmet Barbecue Sauce."

Boyd Anderson is about six and a half feet tall and shaved bald as Michael Jordan. When he played basketball for Drake University 20 years ago, in fact, Anderson was #23. Sitting on the front porch of his comfortable brick house on Linden Avenue on a sunny April morning, he's proud to tell you of his projects. One is the brand-new fenced basketball court next door. The focus of his organization, the Youth Action Movement, it will open on May 22. Anderson, divorced father of an 8-year-old son, hopes the basketball court and other YAM projects will keep a few kids off the street.

His other project is Brother Jack's barbecue sauce. Anderson sees the sauce and the basketball court as inseparable parts of the same being. One tenth of the proceeds of the barbecue sauce go to fund community sports.

Anderson talks about 200 words a minute and frequently digresses, especially to talk about the will of God and the fate of the young people who live in East Knoxville. "I'm sorry I got off the subject," he says. "But you've gotta understand..." and then he launches back into his mission to save kids through sports. But along the way, you might pick up parts of his own story.

Boyd, who grew up eating Brother Jack's barbecue, became an All-American basketball star at Catholic High. At Drake, when he was known by his first name, Eugene, his teammates called him "Lucky Yoo," because he hit impossible shots. Anderson was courted by the NBA, but a head injury in a boxing match left him disabled, ending his basketball career. He watched as his old teammate Lewis Lloyd played with the Houston Rockets.

Meanwhile, Boyd got to know Tip Jackson. When Jackson opened his last place on Cherry Street, Boyd helped him run it, working as business partner and barbecue chef. Tip would say, "Honey Chile, you get you a barbecue place. I'll help you." Jackson died without a will, but his family agreed to let Anderson run with the sauce idea.

It was Lewis Lloyd—retired from the NBA and back in Knoxville—who told Anderson, "It's time for you to bring Brother Jack's back."

"Most sauces have the same generic taste," Anderson says. "This sauce is completely and utterly different. It's the Rolls-Royce of barbecue sauces." It's also the only barbecue sauce to bear the UT logo: "That way you know it's the authentic recipe," Anderson says.

Brother Jack's is now bottled in Mississippi, but Anderson hopes to see it made in a factory in East Knoxville someday. Right now, it's only in Food City and Food Lion stores; Anderson says Kroger won't carry it because the labels are wrinkled.

I bought a bottle at the Food City on Magnolia. So did a friend of mine, a lawyer I'll call Charlie who knew Brother Jack's well. This sauce tastes like the real thing, we agree, though it's a little sweeter, clovier than we remember. (This is, by the way, Brother Jack's mild sauce, not his much-feared hot sauce; Anderson may concoct that later.) Charlie suggests that maybe it tastes sweeter because the bottled sauce isn't cut with moonshine, as the original was rumored to be.

Anderson may even open his own restaurant someday. "Everybody wants to do the pigburger," Anderson says of the memorable sandwich he says was Brother Jack's invention. Other barbecue places in town have "pigburger" on the menu. "But nobody has the secret to the pigburger." Ground pork with Brother Jack's sauce tastes good, he says. "But it's not a pigburger. There's something else to it, too." Boyd Anderson smiles, and for the first time in half an hour, stops talking.