Barack Obama isn’t the only one who’s been celebrating a half-century birthday recently. Clay’s Popeye Barbeque’s 50th anniversary is this year. That’s a long time for any business to be in business, and especially noteworthy for a restaurant. Most have a much shorter lifespan. But Popeye’s has stood the test of time.
Popeye’s Barbeque, which opened in 1961, was founded by Benson “Popeye” Jones. Born in Little Rock, Ark., Jones acquired his nickname as a young child. The other boys “popped” him so much that he continually had a black eye.
“He was a character, that’s for sure,” says Mary Clay. Clay began working for Jones in 1976. “Popeye, he loved to tell stories,” she says.
Many stories were about Jones’ childhood and how he’d been educated in the art of barbecue by his grandfather. At just 9 or 10 years old, he’d “learned to cook the barbecue, because his granddaddy’d whup him if it wasn’t right.”
There were other stories as well. Stories of his involvement in the burgeoning civil rights movement in Little Rock; stories of bravery in the face of oppression; fear hidden beneath courage. “He was a real trailblazer,” Clay says. “With barbecue, and in other ways, too – he was very consistent about his business.”
“He moved to Illinois because he wanted to make a better life for himself and his family,” says Clay. “Same as me. I came here from Memphis for the same reasons.”
Popeye’s advertises its sauce as “World Famous” with good reason. Customers have come from as far away as China, Europe and Africa. They’ve served an array of famous folks, including many Illinois politicians. Elizabeth Montgomery (star of TV’s “Bewitched”) ate at Popeye’s when she was here filming a ’70s TV mini-series, “The Awakening Land.” She loved the sauce so much that she had it mailed to her for years.
Popeye’s Barbeque has had several locations over the years. The longest was at 1100 S. 18th St. When Benson Jones died in 1992, his family continued running the restaurant until 1995, when Mary Clay and her husband, Jeff, took it over.
The timing was fortuitous for the Clays: the coal mine where Jeff had worked closed. And it was fortuitous for Popeye’s many loyal customers. Mary had been learning Jones’ methods and recipes for almost 20 years. “Everything I learned, I learned from Popeye,” she says. “Popeye used to say that when he died, the [sauce] recipe was going to die with him, but he changed his mind – he wanted it to go on. That recipe is over 150 years old.”
These days, Clay’s Popeye’s Barbeque makes its home at 1121 South Grand Avenue East. There’s an old-time charm to the place: the tin ceilings, the round stools at the counter, the plants in the windows, the mural, painted by local artist Tommy Griffith, based on the Clays’ former backyard, and the many framed pictures of famous folks, friends and family.
Mary and Jeff (he’s in charge of cooking the ribs) have stayed true to Popeye Jones’ take on barbecue. The meat is smoked over hickory. And the distinctive sauce, which comes in mild, medium and hot (Dee Blazin’ Heifer Sauce) is the same I remember from 18th St.
They’ve added a few items, though, including fried catfish and walleye, and the fried green tomatoes that are always hugely popular at Springfield’s annual Blues and Barbecues Festival.
There are also desserts. “Popeye said people who ate barbecue don’t need dessert,” says Mary. “But I make ’em every day, and they sell out.” They’re classics such as layer cakes, peach cobbler, sweet potato pie and gooey butter cake.
For Popeye’s Barbeque’s 50th anniversary, Mary says they’re “taking a page out of Major’s book.” Major is the Clays’ grandson, currently attending Indiana State University. At Lanphier High School, he was the High Jump AA champion in both 2006 and 2007. Currently he’s ranked 10th in the U.S. and 17th worldwide, and is training for the Olympics.
“Major says he always raises the bar a little higher,” Mary says. “And that’s what we’re going to do here at Popeye’s. My message to folks who’ve never had our barbecue is that it’s about time to get over here and see us. This is some good stuff.”
Contact Julianne Glatz at email@example.com.
Clay’s Popeye’s Barbeque is featuring a 50th Anniversary rib special: Buy one and get the second at 50 percent off.
Fresh peach cobbler
Peach cobbler is one of Mary Clay’s signature desserts. This is my version of that summertime classic.
- 2/3 – 1 c. sugar
- 1 T. cornstarch
- 1/2 tsp. cinnamon, optional
- 1 c. water
- Ashley’s amazing biscuit dough, using 2 T. sugar
- 3 heaping cups ripe peaches, peeled or not, cut into bite-sized pieces, including any juice that accumulates when cutting them.
- Coarse sugar (sometimes labeled Sugar in the Raw or Demarara) for sprinkling
Preheat the oven to 400°.
To peel peaches easily, cut an X into the blossom end (opposite the stem) and drop into boiling water for 30 seconds. Plunge into ice water, and peel as soon as they’re cool enough to handle.
Prepare the biscuit dough up to before forming into biscuits, and set aside.
Mix the sugar, cornstarch and cinnamon, if using, in a large saucepan. Bring the water to a boil in a microwave, then whisk it into the sugar mixture until smooth. Return to a boil on the stove over medium high heat, then stir in the cut peaches.
Pour the hot peach mixture into an approximately 10-inch x 6-inch baking dish, then, using the drop method, place 6 equal dollops of biscuit dough evenly over the peaches. Brush the biscuits with melted butter and sprinkle them with coarse sugar.
Bake for 30 minutes or until the biscuits are golden brown on top and cooked through, and the peaches are bubbling. Serve warm, either as is, drizzled with a little heavy cream, or a small scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Ashley’s amazing biscuits
These biscuits are amazing because they’re so delicious and so incredibly easy. They’ve become known as Ashley’s biscuits in our house, but not because she devised the recipe.
It comes from the cookbook Fanny at Chez Panisse, a Child’s Restaurant Adventures with 46 Recipes, written by the legendary Alice Waters. The recipes are simple yet delicious, and, unlike those in many children’s cookbooks, use only real food: no mixes or highly processed ingredients.
I’d given her the cookbook when she was in grade school. She immediately wanted to make these biscuits. I tried to get her to use my grandmother’s biscuit recipe which I’d always made. It was a bit more work, but I was sure that Fanny’s easier and quicker recipe couldn’t be as good.
Fortunately, Ashley prevailed. I was wrong; the Fanny biscuits were fantastic. We’ve used this recipe ever since, not only to make biscuits, but also for making scones, shortcake, dumplings and cobblers.
- 1 3/4 c. flour
- 1 T. baking powder, preferably a brand without aluminum salts, such as Rumford (available at Schnuck’s and Food Fantasies)
- 1 T. sugar
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1 c. whipping/heavy cream, plus a little additional cream or milk if needed
- Melted butter
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Mix dry ingredients thoroughly. Stir in the cream. After a dough is formed, knead it about 30 seconds. You may need to add a bit more cream or milk.
You can either pat it into a disc about 3/4-inch thick on a floured surface and cut it into rounds, or use the “drop” biscuit method. (Scoop into 6 roughly equal portions with a large spoon.) Either way, dip the formed dough into melted butter, and place on an ungreased baking sheet. (Line the baking sheet with parchment paper for easy cleanup.) Bake 15-20 minutes. Makes 6 biscuits.