Diablo Sandwich: The true story of a 'Smokey and the Bandit' legend
We're makin' it fast, 'cause we know you're in a got-damn hurry
Today: we’re goin’ eastbound and down. Bring your appetite and cue the music.
I was wheeling north of Atlanta on Georgia 400, stuck in some mind-bending traffic, when two thoughts occurred to me:
1. I wonder where the Bandit drove around here?
2. Just what the hell IS a Diablo Sandwich, anyway?
I am assuming that you’ve seen Smokey and the Bandit or, at the very least, know of the existence of said movie. It’s something of a rite of passage down in the South to watch Burt Reynolds, mustachioed and slicker than motor oil on an iron skillet, wheedle his way through the long arms of the law. He was an antihero when Tony Soprano was still in middle school, a wheelman when Dominic Toretto was still on a tricycle, a Southern Han Solo with better jokes.
Based on real life, sort of — there was a time you couldn’t buy Coors beer east of Oklahoma, and it’d spoil if you took too long to ship it — Smokey is as simple as movies get. A couple rich Atlanta boys want some Coors beer, and they want the Bandit and his partner to bootleg a truckload of 400 cases back from Texarkana, Texas in 28 hours. (The math gets a little dodgy here, but roll with it.) The fee: $80,000, which is over $400K in today’s dollars. Not bad for 28 hours’ work.
Like Mad Max: Fury Road and Fellowship of the Ring, it’s a there-and-back-again tale involving a Trans Am, CB lingo, a runaway bride, a lunatic small-town sheriff, and that sandwich … but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The magnificent stuntman/raconteur Hal Needhamcreated and directed Smokey in the same way that you direct a plummeting plane. Jacked on heady doses of testosterone and other influences, the crew filmed all over Atlanta in the fall of 1976. The towns of Jonesboro and McDonough, among others, stood in for east Texas, and Georgia 400 stood in for the highway that connected Atlanta and Texarkana. Watching Smokey today, for Georgians, is like watching The Walking Dead, Ozark or a Marvel movie … you see what’s happening onscreen and you think, hey, wait a minute, I know where that is …
Like with so many other movies of the ‘70s, Needham and Reynolds had an idea, a fistful of money, and a whole lot of alcohol and other mood-altering substances. They had a script, yes, but that was more suggestion than road map. They had the South as their canvas — kudzu, morning mist, lazy rivers, thick forests — and they created something like folk art, raw and ridiculous and just flat-out fun. And it connected with fans of the day, too; the only movie to outgross Smokey the year it came out was some little space opera with laser swords ‘n shit.
Stories of the movie’s filming feel like legends from a bygone era of Hollywood, like the way Needham got Jerry Reed — Snowman in the film — to write the classic “Eastbound and Down” theme song pretty much overnight, or how Needham convinced Pontiac to give him four Trans Ams for filming … all four were wrecked, and on the final day of filming they had to Frankenstein one together from the parts of the others and push it with an off-camera tow truck.
The movie’s real coup was getting Jackie Gleason to play Sheriff Buford T. Justice, the sweaty, spluttering good ol’ boy enforcer of the law. Gleason was a long way from “The Honeymooners” by this point, and he responded to both the comedic potential of the script and the paycheck. Needham wasn’t sure if Gleason ever learned his name — he called him “Pally” when happy, “Mr. Director” when displeased — but Gleason damn sure learned his lines, cocktails or not, and brought the heat on every take.
His key scene came when Sheriff Buford T. Justice thundered into an Old Hickory House restaurant and demanded … well, hell, you know what he ordered:
“Let me have a Diablo Sandwich and a Dr Pepper and make it fast, I’m in a got-damn hurry.” Perfect. Just like the way “I’ll be taking these Huggies and, uh, whatever cash you’ve got” from “Raising Arizona” caused me to be brand-loyal to Huggies for my kids’ entire infancy, I can’t see a Dr Pepper without lapsing into Jackie Gleason’s drunk-swamp-rat accent.
That scene was filmed at an Old Hickory House, a onetime Southern-cooking restaurant empire, in Forest Park, Georgia, right next to the airport. (Also close by: the Avengers compound, at least until it was destroyed by Thanos.)
Alas, there’s not much left to commemorate such a landmark moment in American cinema. Here’s how the ending of the scene looks in the movie, with Frog rescuing the Bandit in his own car:
And here’s the same location today. Look on the site of the Old Hickory House and despair:
Not even a got-damn historical marker or nothing! The travesty of it all!
So just what is a Diablo Sandwich? Best I can tell, Gleason made it up on the fly; every reference to a “Diablo Sandwich” on the web leads back to the movie. Needham said later that three-quarters of what Gleason said in the film was his own mad creation. The Justice-Bandit scene was Gleason’s idea and almost entirely improvised. (Buford T. Justice popularized the term “sumbitch,” for which Gleason deserves a posthumous Nobel. What a perfect word.)
Old Hickory House, for its part, embraced its connection with the movie and the sandwich, even as its reach faded. The exact restaurant depicted in the movie was torn down a few years after filming, the Old Hickory House collective collapsed, and now there’s just one left on the whole planet, only a single lonely restaurant still telling you to “Put Some South In Your Mouth!”
The last Old Hickory House stands in Tucker, Georgia, and when I visited, I was the youngest person in the entire restaurant (and I’m not young). Perhaps for that reason, the Diablo Sandwich — basically minced pork doused in Texas Pete hot sauce — is now an off-menu item, but you can still get it if you ask. Oh, and it’ll set you back a whole lot more than a buck and a half today:
(No Dr Pepper! Only the unaccredited Mr Pibb! The horror!)
Time rolls on. The Bandit and Sheriff Buford T. Justice are dead. Nobody drives Trans Ams with giant gold phoenixes on the hood anymore. And Coors is what you drink when the good stuff’s all gone.
But we still love fast cars, we still love cold beer, and dammit, we can still love the Diablo Sandwich. Maybe, these days, with a Diet Dr Pepper and a couple Tums on the side, but still.
Make your own Diablo Sandwich!
Since there’s apparently no Original Diablo Sandwich, the door is wide open for you to make whatever you want and dub it Diablo. There are recipes all over the web, ranging from the semi-reasonable (sloppy joes with hot sauce) to the absurd (ground beef, taco seasoning and lettuce and tomato? Get the hell out of here with that crap). Basically, it all boils down to this: based on what we can observe Sheriff Justice eating in the movie, you need:
Hot sauce. Lots of hot sauce. No, even more than that.
The Dr Pepper, of course.
How you get there is up to you. If you’re not savvy with a smoker, one easy slow-cooker recipe is to quarter a Boston Butt, then rub it with a mix of paprika, brown sugar, salt and pepper. Lay it down on a bed of quartered Vidalia onions. Drizzle it with half a can of Dr Pepper, a few slaps of hot sauce and a couple cups of your favorite BBQ sauce.
For both the sauces, buy local or indie. Don’t go with Tabasco — everyone does that — and don’t settle for Heinz or KC Masterpiece. You deserve better than that. (For the hot sauce, I used some of the Super Sick Habanero Ginger I described here.) And if you want to make your own, boil up a 1:1:1 combination of apple cider vinegar, tomato juice and Dr Pepper — use a big pot, it bubbles up huge — and throw in finely diced onion, plus pepper, garlic powder and cayenne to taste.
Cook the pork Beastie Boys style — slow and low — for 10 to 12 hours. Discard the onions, save the juice, shred the pork. Butter and toast some hamburger buns, add the shredded pork and juice, top with some more hot sauce (and maybe cole slaw if you want to get fancy) and serve with an ice-cold … well, you know the rest.
Enjoy the sandwich, my friends, and we’ll see you back here next week!
This has been issue #55 of Flashlight & A Biscuit. Check out all the past issues right here. Feel free to email me with your thoughts, tips and advice. If you’re new around here, check out some of our recent hits:
A journey to the heart of the real America: Buc-ees.
What it was like to cover the Beijing Olympics inside a locked-down China
How Richard Petty learned that Daddy won’t always let you win
The joy of a really terrible Southern accent
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The Bandit’s justification for why they make the bootleg run in the first place: “For the good ol’ American life. For the money, for the glory and for the fun. Mostly for the money.” Words to live by.
I grant you that the Bandit and the Snowman didn’t have access to Google Maps, but even so, their calculations are WAY off. Snowman says it’s 1800 miles there and back to Texarkana; it’s more like 1350. Even obeying the then-mandatory speed limit of 55 miles an hour, that’s just over 24 hours of driving. Plenty of leeway.
His biography “Stuntman!” is absolute mandatory reading. Like, now.