ST. PETERSBURG — Few spots in Tampa Bay worship the pig quite like they do in a strip mall along 94th Avenue, the home of Butlers Barbecue.
But these days, the rib customers are spare.
Blame the swine flu. Co-owner Lynne Butler does.
"The thing with them putting pigs and pictures of pigs on TV, people have the misconception they're going to get it from pigs," she said. "I can't think of anything funny about it."
The lean economy is tough enough. Her husband, Rex, skinned his staff to the bone.
Now comes the swine flu. What can he do but slap a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statement on his front counter for all to see:
Go ahead, eat your bacon. You cannot contract swine flu from eating pork. It's safe to eat properly handled pork if it's been cooked to an internal temperature of 160 F, which kills of most bacteria and viruses, including the virus that causes swine flu.
Thursday was Butlers Barbecue Pig Pickin' night, a monthly event that sometimes draws such large crowds, people have to eat outside.
Not this week.
"All this swine flu," said manager Jack Greene. "People just don't understand."
He tended a smoker that belched a savory-smelling invitation for blocks around. Inside, a 90-pound pig had been decapitated, gutted and split open, laid on its back on the grill.
But only the most loyal of customers followed their noses. They lined up with foam plates of hush puppies, baked beans and fried green tomatoes, waiting for Greene to dish out peppery, vinegar-basted North Carolina barbecue.
Those regulars turn their snout at the swine flu.
They got a fever, all right. A fever for pork.
Not the flu.
"I don't think you catch it from eating pork," said Virginia Gaddis, 64, who claims to have eaten pork as long as she's had teeth. "And until they tell me otherwise, I'm not going to stop."
The Butlers do their best to fight misinformation. Rex's mother, Alice, who makes the Nana Puddin', tells people they're safe eating here.
The Butlers won't serve pork that the Food and Drug Administration hasn't approved. Sometimes Rex Butler roasts wild hogs for hunters, who offer him extra meat to sell. But he won't do it.
"If it doesn't have that blue stamp from the FDA," he said, "we don't serve it."
Butlers Pig Pickin' night has taken a beating before. A couple months ago, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers told Rex Butler the country music house band couldn't play cover songs. The band disappeared, driving away a biker crowd.
But he straightened things out. Thursday, the Channel Cats played Got My Mojo Working.
Pigs teach patience. Rex Butler knows you can't rush meat. So he doesn't sweat over the swine flu. He just waits for it all to get done.
"You have to look at the big picture," he said. "You have to look at the week. Then the month. Then the year."
As the restaurant prepared to close, a man idling at the bar overheard him, stood and started coughing.
He rubbed up against Rex as he passed by and asked, "Is that a symptom?"
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.