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Just in time for Labor Day, the real recipes from Butler's Barbecue

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.

She tried.

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.


Eastern North Carolina Barbecue Pork

1 pork butt, 5 to 6 pounds (do not trim fat)

16 ounces apple cider vinegar

1 tablespoon crushed red pepper flakes

2 tablespoons salt

Dash of black pepper

Roast pork in a big roasting pan without a lid in a 350-degree oven until meat is tender and falls off the bone. Chop meat while still warm.

Heat vinegar to boiling. Add pepper flakes, salt, pepper. Mix well. Add sauce to warm pork and mix well by hand. Add more vinegar and seasoning to taste.

Serves 12.

Source: Alice Butler, St. Petersburg


Layered Banana Pudding

1 large package instant vanilla pudding

3 cups milk

½ cup sugar

1 cup sour cream

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 (8-ounce) tub of Cool Whip

10 to 12 bananas, sliced

About 1 ½ boxes vanilla wafers

Beat pudding mix and milk until thick. Add sugar, sour cream and vanilla. Mix well. Fold in Cool Whip.

In a 9- by 13-inch pan, put a layer of vanilla wafers, a layer of pudding, a layer of sliced bananas, a layer of pudding, a layer of wafers, a layer of pudding, a layer of bananas, a layer of pudding, a layer of wafers, topped with remaining pudding mix. Refrigerate.

Serves 12.

Source: Alice Butler, St. Petersburg


Tomato Pie

1 9-inch deep-dish frozen or homemade pie shell

4 to 5 ripe tomatoes, peeled and sliced

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon black pepper

2 teaspoons chopped basil (fresh or dried)

1 teaspoon garlic powder

¾ cup mayonnaise

1 ¼ cups mild cheese, shredded

Bake pie shell at 350 degrees until barely brown.

Peel tomatoes, slice and layer half of them in the pie shell.

Mix seasonings and sprinkle half over tomato layer then repeat, layering rest of tomatoes and rest of seasonings. Mix mayonnaise and cheese, and spread on top of the pie. (Add more cheese to the mayonnaise, if desired.)

Bake at 350 degrees 40 to 45 minutes, or until brown. Cool before slicing. (Best if reheated in the microwave until cheese on the top starts to melt.) This is good for a brunch with a salad.

Serves 6.

Source: Alice Butler, St. Petersburg


Hush Puppies

2 cups self-rising flour

1 ½ cups cornmeal

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

¾ cup sugar

2 eggs

Buttermilk, enough to mix well

6 cups peanut oil

Mix dry ingredients; add eggs and buttermilk. Set aside for several hours or refrigerate overnight. Drop by spoonfuls in deep pot with oil that's been heated to 350 degrees. Fry until golden brown, turning the hush puppies during the cooking process.

Source: Adapted from Alice Butler, St. Petersburg


Strawberry Cake

1 package Duncan Hines white cake mix

1 small package strawberry Jell-O

2 pounds fresh or frozen strawberries, chopped coarsely

1 cup sugar

1 (16-ounce) tub of Cool Whip

Grease and then line two 9-inch cake pans with wax paper. Mix cake and bake as directed on package. Do not remove from cake pans. Mix Jell-O as directed on package. Punch holes in cake layers with a fork, and pour Jell-O mixture over both. Let stand for three to four hours or refrigerate overnight.

Mix the strawberries and the sugar.

Put one layer on a cake plate and frost with half the Cool Whip. Put half the strawberries on top and then add the second layer. Frost with the remaining Cool Whip and decorate top with remaining strawberries.

Source: Alice Butler, St. Petersburg


Green Tomato Cake

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened

2 ½ cups sugar

3 large eggs

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 ¼ teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon nutmeg

2 ½ cups diced green tomatoes

1 cup golden raisins

1 cup chopped pecans

For the icing:

½ cup (1 stick) butter

1 cup confectioners' sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a Bundt or regular tube pan.

In large bowl, beat butter, sugar and eggs until creamy, adding eggs one at a time and beating well after each addition. In separate medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg. Gradually add dry ingredients to butter mixture, beating well. Stir in tomatoes, raisins and pecans. Spoon batter into prepared pan and bake 1 hour, 10 minutes. Cake is done when toothpick inserted in middle comes out clean. Cool completely before removing from pan. Cool before icing.

To make icing, in medium saucepan over low heat, melt butter. Cook 6 to 8 minutes or until lightly brown. Add sugar and mix. Spoon over cooled cake.

Source: Alice Butler, St. Petersburg


Hershey Bar Cake

6 regular (1.55-ounce) Hershey bars

1 cup (2 sticks) margarine or butter

2 cups sugar

4 eggs

¼ teaspoon baking soda

1 cup buttermilk

2 ½ cups flour

Pinch of salt

1 cup chocolate-flavored syrup

3 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 cup chopped pecans

For the frosting:

1 small can evaporated milk

1 ½ cups sugar

6 regular (1.55-ounce) Hershey bars

¼ stick butter or margarine

Melt chocolate and set aside.

Cream margarine with sugar. Add eggs, one at a time, beating thoroughly after each. Dissolve baking soda in buttermilk and add to sugar mixture alternately with flour and salt. Add chocolate syrup, vanilla, melted chocolate bars and pecans. Pour into greased and floured tube pan. Bake at 300 degrees about 1 ½ hours or until toothpick inserted comes out clean. Cool and remove from pan.

For frosting, combine evaporated milk and sugar in saucepan and boil 10 minutes. Remove from heat and add Hershey bars and butter. Beat until cool and thick enough to spread. Frost cake and serve.

Tip from Alice Butler: I set the pan in ice water to beat; the frosting cools quicker. Also, I frost the hole in the cake; that's the part my family always wants.

Source: Alice Butler, St. Petersburg


Juicy Pineapple Cake

Alice Butler's sister from Norfolk, Va., gave her this recipe.

1 box pineapple cake mix or yellow cake mix

2 cans (20-ounce each) crushed pineapple in natural juice

¼ cup sugar

1 box instant lemon pudding mix

1 large (16-ounce) tub of Cool Whip, thawed

Prepare cake according to directions on box, dividing evenly into two 8-inch cake pans lined with wax paper. Cool.

Combine one can of crushed pineapple — juice and all — with the sugar and heat until sugar is melted. Set aside.

Combine the other can of crushed pineapple — juice and all — with pudding mix, mixing well. Add Cool Whip and mix thoroughly.

Put first layer on cake plate and punch holes in cake with a fork. Pour half of the pineapple juice mixture over layer. Spread half of the Cool Whip mixture on top.

Place second cake layer on top; punch holes in it. Pour the remaining pineapple juice mixture over the top and then spread the rest of the Cool Whip mixture on top and sides. Refrigerate.

Source: Alice Butler, St. Petersburg


Brunswick Stew

This is Alice Butler's mother's recipe.

1 whole chicken, rubbed with salt

1 large onion, chopped

2 (28-ounce) cans whole peeled tomatoes, cut into small pieces

4 large Irish (white) potatoes, diced

2 (16-ounce) packages frozen baby green lima beans

2 (16-ounce) packages frozen white corn

Salt and pepper, to taste

¼ to ½ cup sugar

Cook chicken in enough water to cover. Reserve the broth and let chicken cool enough to debone and slice.

Add chopped onion and tomatoes to chicken broth and cook about 1 hour.

Add potatoes, lima beans and sliced chicken and cook until lima beans begin to test almost done; add white corn. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and add sugar, to taste.

Cook until stew begins to thicken enough to eat with a fork, but isn't too dry.

Source: Alice Butler, St. Petersburg


Chicken Salad

This is Alice Butler's mother's recipe. It was a favorite at Butler's Barbecue. It was one of the specials once a week and usually sold out.

1 large chicken, cooked in water until falling off the bone

1 medium onion, finely chopped

3 to 5 celery ribs, finely chopped

3 tablespoons sweet pickle relish

1 to 1 ½ tablespoons sugar

Salt and pepper, to taste


Remove chicken from broth; skin and debone it, and dice.

Add chopped onion, celery, sweet relish, sugar, salt and pepper. Mix well and add enough mayonnaise to make it creamy.

Source: Alice Butler, St. Petersburg



This was a customer favorite at Butler's Barbecue.

1 egg

1 pound ground beef

½ teaspoon garlic powder

⅓ cup finely chopped green bell peppers

1 package Lipton onion soup mix

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup grated cheddar cheese

1 ½ teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

1 tablespoon sugar

½ teaspoon black pepper

1 cup coarsely chopped saltine crackers

1 cup ketchup, more for top

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Mix egg with ground beef. Add green pepper, onion soup mix, salt, cheese, Worcestershire sauce, sugar and pepper; mix well by hand. Add saltines and mix, then incorporate ketchup. (If mixture seems too dry, add more ketchup.)

Put mixture into loaf pan. Spread more ketchup on top. Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Serves 6.

Source: Alice Butler, St. Petersburg

Just in time for Labor Day, the real recipes from Butler's Barbecue 08/27/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 4, 2013 4:34pm]
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