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Forget Tang and Astronaut Ice Cream, give me freeze-dried BBQ when I'm in orbit
Here’s my advice for the week: always read a restaurant’s framed letters.
Last Saturday, I was on my way to Jacksonville to cover what turned out to be one of the better football games I’ve ever seen. En route, I did what I always do out on the highway: sought out the best barbecue along the route. That brought me to Fincher’s Barbecue on Houston Avenue in Macon, Ga., a restaurant that retains so much of the charm and character it’s had since Doug “Dude” Fincher Sr. opened it in 1935. The yellow-and-red sign against the brilliant blue of the sky, the rows of tin sheds for long-ago drive-up customers in the parking lot, the outdoor walkup window, the circular spinning stools running along the low counter, the well-stuffed red booths … it was all perfect.
My boys Marty Smith and Ryan McGee were chatting softly on the television hung in the corner, the septuagenarian diners around me were conversing the way you do with friends you’ve known your whole life, and the tender barbecue pork and spicy Brunswick stew were pretty damn fine, too. If there’s a heaven, I hope it’s a lot like Fincher’s Barbecue was last Saturday morning.
After filling my belly and paying my check, I went to leave when a framed letter by the door caught my eye. The CERTIFICATE OF AUTHENTICITY indicated that a container full of Fincher’s Barbecue had been flown aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis in November 1991 “in honor of Sonny Carter.”
That sounded like a hell of a story, and here it is.
Sonny Carter was one of those Americans who achieved so much in such little time that it’s impossible to do anything but admire the guy. He was a fighter pilot, a surgeon, a professional soccer player and an astronaut. Born in Macon in 1947, he was an Eagle Scout (of course) who attended Emory as an undergrad, then played professional soccer for the Atlanta Chiefs and attended medical school at the same time. He graduated from medical school and served as a military surgeon before attending the Navy’s Fighter Weapons School — we civilians know it best as “Top Gun” — and eventually landed planes on aircraft carriers 160 times, among many other achievements the rest of us can only imagine.
Since all that apparently wasn’t enough for ol’ Sonny, he decided to become an astronaut, and by 1985 was qualified for assignment on a future space shuttle mission. He got his chance on Nov. 22, 1989, when STS-33 launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
STS-33 was a Defense Department support mission, which means that most of its activities were classified and remain so, but given that it was 1989 and a certain Union was in the process of becoming less so, you can probably take some educated guesses as to what was happening up in orbit. Here’s what we do know: STS-33 made 79 orbits around earth, and it carried some fine middle Georgia barbecue as it did so.
Sonny Carter, like pretty much everyone else raised in central Georgia since the mid-20th century, grew up on Fincher’s Barbecue. A high school classmate of Doug Fincher Jr., son of Dude, Carter knew exactly what to do when the opportunity arose to bring a little taste of home into space. He told NASA about Fincher’s, and in early 1989, a NASA official called Alice Fincher, Doug Jr.’s wife, at that same Houston Avenue1 restaurant and asked if it would be possible to get a sample of the barbecue for possible use on the shuttle.
After Alice got over the shock, she had Fincher’s ship some pork with the sauce mixed in to NASA. A few months later, NASA came back with another request: pork and sauce separately, please.
The Fincher’s pitmasters selected a prime hog from a local farm, smoked it at their own pits, and then sent 12 pounds of smoked shoulder and two quarts of sauce to NASA on dry ice for freeze-drying. (They also invoiced NASA for $3.75 per pound for the pork and $4.80 for the sauce, plus shipping, according to the Macon Telegraph. Patriotism doesn’t pay the bills, you know.)
Carter and crew had the barbecue on board the shuttle, and proclaimed it far better than the freeze-dried turkey and dressing they had for their orbital Thanksgiving. Dude Fincher didn’t quite grasp the marketing potential of the situation, but his children and grandchildren did, and quickly developed slogans (“First in space, first in taste!”) and printed up t-shirts to capitalize on their newfound fame.
Macon has a small but continuous connection to America’s space program; in addition to Sonny Carter, several shuttles have landed at nearby Robins Air Force Base to avoid nasty weather at other NASA runways. Here’s a local newscast on Carter, complete. With that distinctive. Newscaster vocal cadence? That we all know. So well.
Here’s where the story takes a tragic turn. About 18 months after his spaceflight, Carter was on board a commuter plane heading from Atlanta to Brunswick, Ga. One of the plane’s propellors malfunctioned and it dove headfirst into the ground, killing all 23 aboard, including Carter and former U.S. Sen. John Tower of Texas.
After the crash, a NASA administrator visited Fincher’s and brought them some of the remaining barbecue — freeze-dried ‘cue lasts a long time, apparently — as well as that certificate that hangs in the restaurant to this day. NASA sent some more of Fincher’s ‘cue, along with a soccer ball, on that November 1991 mission to honor Carter.
An elementary school in Macon now bears Sonny’s name; his 1989 mission patch is the school’s logo. Here’s the mural honoring him:
Hell of a man, hell of a story. And some damn fine barbecue, too.
Have a great week, friends, and we’ll see you back here next Saturday.
Sources: Macon Telegraph, WMAZ, and me
This is issue #89 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, jump right to our most-read stories, or check out some of our recent hits:
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