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Owner of Eli's Bar-B-Que in Dunedin makes meat sing

DUNEDIN

With a strong wind, the smoke from Eli's Bar-B-Que can travel 3 miles north to the Dunedin Causeway, to the fishermen, who have been known to track the scent back to Eli and the grill and his famous Georgia ribs.

By midmorning Friday, the smoke has already started to pour from Elijah Crawford's grill house, the Big Foot, and rise up through the oak trees above his stand on the Pinellas Trail. He's been working since sunrise, already sweated through his apron, and the 11 a.m. lunch rush hasn't even begun.

On the grill: two hand-stuffed sausages, six whole chickens, a dozen 3-pound slabs of ribs and a drove of Boston butts, delivered from a Georgia slaughterhouse and slathered in his secret seasoning. The meat fills two racks of the 8-foot grill and drips into the fire pit.

The grill thermometer slides past 210 degrees. Eli eyes the fire, eyes the pit, then scatters a handful of chopped onions to tamp down the flames.

The wood man comes and unloads a truck of red and white oak logs, which Eli pays for with a half-rack of ribs and a box of chicken. Not a bad deal, he says.

Eli has a dozen business cards from people wanting to buy his business.

Locals have offered to pay for him to spit a pig, Hawaiian style, at their house parties.

His chopped pork is so good a woman spent $120 overnighting 3 pounds of it to her sister in Alaska.

His ribs are so fall-off-the-bone tender that a diner once removed her dentures, ate a plate and forgot to put them back in.

Eli's stand — open Fridays and Saturdays, 14 hours a week — has turned him into a local legend. People ask him how he does it, at the age of 68, and he smiles and flashes his gold tooth.

"Ain't no secret," he says. "I just ain't ready to quit."

• • •

Eli was born in Valdosta, Ga., in the "barbecue belt," with seven brothers and seven sisters. At age 17, after years of delivering groceries on his bicycle, Eli was hired at a corner store in Dasher, Ga., where he began learning how to kill a hog and grind it, season it and stuff it into sausage.

After years of chasing New York City butcher jobs and applying stucco alongside the high-rises of St. Pete Beach, Eli opened his own small barbecue cart on Highland Avenue in Clearwater. He grilled and smoked and crafted his own Georgia-style rub, but he wanted something bigger.

Ten years ago, he rented an old ice cream stand on Skinner Boulevard in Dunedin and made it his own — laying concrete, reworking the prep kitchen and building an outdoor screened shack. In it he installed an old scrap water tank his friend had welded into a grill. Outside the stand, he planted a small Georgia cotton tree.

The diners from Eli's cart began to mix with a new clientele of snowbirds and cyclists reeled in from the trail. They dressed Eli's picnic benches with tablecloths and left with pounds of chicken and coleslaw. A flock of gulls learned when Eli threw the gizzards out.

He had planned to leave the business to one of his three sons. But when one went to Italy with the Air Force, and another went to a detailing shop in South Dakota and the third, Elijah Jr., said he didn't like to cook, Eli thought the grill might die with him.

His daughter, Stephanie, the first-ever female coach of the Hillsborough High boys basketball team, offered to run it, but Eli said no, that it was a man thing. In Eli's house, he cooks his wife, Veronica, breakfast every morning.

Last month, Eli woke up and felt like something was wrong. His "get up and go" felt missing. He was taken to the hospital, where medical staff examined his blood. Eli, they said, was anemic.

A doctor asked Eli how he could be anemic eating all that meat. Eli said maybe he wasn't eating enough.

Doctors kept him hospitalized for a week, pumping him with blood and monitoring his platelet count. He had never been in the hospital before. The barbecue stand closed for the week.

"This is where I think I give it up," he said Friday. "Right here."

The screen door to the Big Foot swung open.

• • •

When Eric Davis was in the first grade, he would sneak into the kitchen to cook stacks of pancakes and scrambled eggs. At age 20, he bought his first grill. Within 10 years, he had set up his own smoker cart, the Big Daddy, off Alt. 19 in Tarpon Springs.

"I asked God what he wanted me to do, and he said, 'Feed his people,' " Eric said. "This is how we started out, making meat over an open fire. This is the beginning of time."

To Eric, now 40, there was something spiritual about grilling, something lost in the cleaned-up cooking of modern kitchens.

Eli, he said, felt that way, too. When Eli worked, Eric would swing by, just to watch his skill over the open flame. Eli seemed to have a true "pitmaster's eye," he said, and he asked if he could get help finding his.

For the first two years working for Eli, Eric made no money, just learned. By the third year, Eli taught him the recipe to his secret seasoning.

"He treats me just like I'm his, like I came out of his seed," Eric said. "He treats me like a son."

Eric got to the grill around 11 a.m. Friday, just as customers had begun dotting the picnic benches.

"Take your medicine, Pop?" he asked Eli, flashing a smile and his four gold teeth. Eli said he had. Come next year, Eli said, he might relax a bit, let Eric run the grill.

"A barbecue pitmaster," Eli said, "has to have the eye. He's got it."

Eric began tossing ribs onto the fire. Eli left the grill and sat at an old picnic table, shading his eyes.

"He can handle it now," Eli said, watching him. "Old man can sit back."

Contact Drew Harwell at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

if you go

Eli's Bar-B-Que

360 Skinner Blvd., Dunedin; 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Friday-Saturday.

Owner of Eli's Bar-B-Que in Dunedin makes meat sing 08/21/10 [Last modified: Saturday, August 21, 2010 4:04pm]

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