ST. PETERSBURG — Alice Butler is ready to give up her secret recipes.
The woman behind the Eastern North Carolina Barbecue Pork and the beloved Pumpkin Cake at Butler's Barbecue, which closed in 2011, has always held her formulas close to the chest. No one outside the family has ever known what made the meatloaf so tasty. (It's dried Lipton Onion Soup Mix, among other ingredients.)
So why the change of heart?
Her willingness to share the recipes began when her daughter, Allison, asked her to assemble a collection of her recipes for an online cookbook for all the people who have asked for her mother's recipes for the "sauceless" pulled pork, meatloaf, tomato pie and other comfort food delights that kept Butler's customers coming back to the restaurant for more. It was located in a strip mall off Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. Street at 94th Avenue N near a Kmart, which is also now gone.Over the years, the You Asked For It column has had several requests for the recipes, especially the Pumpkin Cake. (See our test of the recipe, Page 5E.)
After looking at the recipes, it's easy to see why customers were in love with Mrs. Butler's cooking for a dozen years. They don't have a lot of fancy ingredients. Some even starting with boxed cake mixes. This is food like your mama made.
"They are all my recipes," Mrs. Butler said in her Southern drawl. "In fact, the barbecue pork recipe has been in my family for generations.
"I make things with the original recipe; if there's something in there I like, I add more; if not, I leave it out," Mrs. Butler said.
Learning to cook
Adaptability. It's what makes Mrs. Butler such a good cook.
And, it's what has made her who she is today, for she's not just adaptable when it comes to cooking; she goes with the flow when it comes to life.
She was born 79 years ago on a farm in Weldon, N.C., just south of the Virginia line. Her father grew things and her mother, one of 15 children, gathered them. Dad raised chickens; mom sold eggs. Dad had an orchard; mom picked the apples. Dad raised cows; mom sold the milk and churned the cream for butter.
"We didn't have much money but we always had plenty to eat," Mrs. Butler said.
You'd think cooking would come naturally to the daughter of a mother like that but it didn't.
When she married Lou Butler, 60 years ago in March ("He came to sell me an insurance policy but he sold me himself instead"), Mrs. Butler said she couldn't boil water but was determined to learn.
He was outside tending to the grape arbor in the back yard as his wife told her favorite story of what a miserable cook she was as a young bride.
"When you get married, your husband says, 'Honey, you don't have to do this or you don't have to do that,' but once you say, 'I do,' you better know how to cook," she said.
Especially the day her husband brought home some salt mullet for her to cook. She said she remembered her mom soaked them and then fried them up in butter. So, that's exactly what she did.
When they sat down to eat, she said, the fish was a little tougher than she remembered.
"You just didn't scale them real well," her husband said, trying to make her feel better.
"Scale them? I didn't scale them at all," she said.
That fishy faux pas only increased her determination to be able to make dishes her husband would like.
So, she ordered a cookbook, a two-volume set from the cooking expert of the day — Meta Given's Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking — published in the 1930s and revised into the 1960s. She still has the books. It's almost unbelievable — in this day and age when we go online and how-to-make videos of just about any food — to see that these cookbooks don't have any photos, just type. Recipe after recipe. Cooking instruction after cooking instruction.
With stories on the side
Buried among its recipes for things like muskrat, rabbit and squirrel (still appalling to Mrs. Butler all these years later) is a recipe for meatloaf.
It was one of the first meals she made for her new husband and she dared to adapt the recipe to fit his tastes.
"Lou didn't like the raw onions in the cooked meat so I substituted Lipton dried onion soup."
It was a winning substitution and a dish that Butler's Barbecue customers loved.
The Butler family had moved to Myrtle Beach, S.C., before eventually settling in St. Petersburg in the late 1980s.
Mrs. Butler doesn't remember how all her recipes have evolved but she does have a story behind most of them.
The banana pudding came from her husband's sister before she died. As did the tomato pie.
But the barbecue pork, "I can't remember when we didn't have it.
"I was born with that pork in my mouth," she said.
"They dug a hole and put wood down, then a piece of wire. They split the hog in half and lowered it into the pit and cooked it all night. Someone sat up to watch it," Mrs. Butler said. But it was never her job. It was always a man.
"Women cooked everything else but men barbecued," she said.
When the Butlers and their son, Rex, opened the restaurant — it was in business 12 years, she said — they continued the whole-hog tradition the last Thursday of every month but the rest of the time, they made the pulled pork with pork butts, seasoned the Eastern North Carolina way with vinegar instead of barbecue sauce.
"You better not put red sauce on it," she says with the conviction of a chef watching someone about to cover a filet mignon with ketchup.
The end . . . and memories
They worked hard to keep operating the restaurant that wasn't exactly located in a high traffic area. The economy finally forced them to shut down.
The Butlers depended on nearby workers and word-of-mouth for their customers. She and her husband, who worked in real estate, helped out when needed and did some catering.
"My son held on as long as he could," she says.
Now, all that's left are the memories.
Customers called her Nana or Grandma or even Granny. They were like family.
"I always enjoyed everybody. I miss them all," she said.
Patti Ewald can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8746.