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The Church of the Immaculate Barbecue

Heaven has its smoking pits too -- at New Zion Baptist Church in Huntsville

And there is parable, fittingly enough. The tale of New Zion Missionary Baptist's barbecue enterprise has been passed down and chronicled for years in southeast Texas; the discerning friend who brought me my first eyewitness account of the place invariably glorified it, in tones of the highest respect, as "The Church of the Immaculate Barbecue."

In the beginning A was it 15 years ago?, nobody's quite sure anymore A there was only Houston painting contractor D.C. Ward and his wife, Annie Mae. Mr. Ward took some time off work to paint his mother's little East Texas church; Annie Mae took off from her dry-cleaning job and came along to New Zion to keep him company. The first day, a Thursday, she smoked him some barbecue for lunch, right there by the side of the road.

Lured by the smoke, people stopped. And smelled. And wheedled. And bought. On Friday and Saturday, Mrs. Ward cooked extra. She sold it all. By Sunday, she was asking New Zion's pastor to give his blessing to an idea that had seized her: she would sell barbecue and donate the profits to the church. The rest is history, complicated by a brief unpleasantness when the health department made the volunteers move their operation indoors, where kitchen facilities were available. Barbecue profits built the air-conditioned parish hall, where congregants are now fed from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. sharp, every day but Sunday and Monday.

One comes away from New Zion filled not only with ribs, but with a sense, however transitory, of the rightness of things. There is peace inside this modest building, and a connection to a rural past that still holds Texans in its mythic sway, however urban we have become. That connection, more than anything, is the holy grail, the reason that we drive forth in search of barbecue.

New Zion Missionary Baptist Church, 2601 Montgomery Road (

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