Louisville, Kentucky is often called the gateway to the south. But for one native son who now calls Tucson home, it’s a gateway to the mouth.
Not long after his retirement from Raytheon Missile Systems, Ken Alexander decided that his next life venture would be a tribute to his childhood home of Louisville. Growing up with a mom, five brothers, and a sister all under one roof, he knew the concept of family had to be at the center of the experience.
So what do you get when you combine a loyalty to Louisville and a love of family?
Barbecue, of course, a natural response since Alexander started cooking at the age of nine, and it came to pass with Ken’s Hardwood Barbecue, 5250 E. 22nd Street.
To prepare my palate for judging the annual Nugget Rib Cook-off in Nevada on Labor Day weekend, where more than 500,000 people will consume more than 260,000 pounds of ribs, I sat down with Alexander to get his perspectives on the art and soul of ‘cue.
“When you grew up, you always had that favorite uncle who cooked barbecue, and everybody in the family would go over to his house, grab a rib, and do some socializing and fellowshipping,” Alexander said. “That’s Ken’s Hardwood Barbecue.”
While I don’t have an uncle in Louisville, I can only guess that Alexander nailed it with the setting; Red and white checkerboard tablecloths. A roll of paper towels on each table that’s quickly spun down by sticky-fingered occupants. A countertop display of house-made sauces in cloudy plastic bottles. A soulful soundtrack in the background, and the aroma of pecan smoke slowly breaking down the ribs, brisket, pork butts and chickens that are carefully arranged in the pit every day.
While the setting was enough for me to appoint Alexander as my honorary Uncle Ken, it’s the food that represents Louisville love.
In “The Kentucky Barbecue Book,” author Wes Berry notes that Louisville seems to be a melting pot of barbecue styles, without any “distinctive styles linking the barbecue places in these cities or their environs.”
“On our menu we have Carolina, some Texas, some St. Louis, even Sahuarita which is where we get our pecan wood,” he said. “All of our recipes come from my family; the collard greens, the macaroni and cheese, the green beans, as well as recipes from Tennessee, Kentucky and Oklahoma that have come from generations before ours.”
During our fireside chat, Alexander shared more Louisville lore when I asked him about libations. While he features a range of local brews to pair with his ‘cue, he insists that the true Louisville experience is to wash it down with Big Red, a cream soda-style soft drink created in 1937 that was first marketed exclusively in Louisville, central and south Texas. Earlier this year, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer proclaimed May 16 as Big Red Day, marking the 80th anniversary of the soda’s arrival in Derby Town.
“You can’t have barbecue without Big Red,” Alexander said. “Big Red is a big thing, and if you go to any barbecue restaurant in Kentucky or Texas you’re going to find it, and you can get it here at Ken’s.”
Now I’m off to Nevada to execute my judicial duties at the rib fest, but I’ll be eager to return home for more fellowshipping around the pit with Uncle Ken.
Contact Matt Russell, whose day job is CEO of Russell Public Communications, at email@example.com. Russell is also the host of “On the Menu Live” that airs 5 to 6 p.m. Saturdays on KQTH 104.1 FM, as well as the host of the Friday Weekend Watch segment on the “Buckmaster Show” on KVOI 1030 AM.