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When it comes to feeding the body and the soul, James Stovall is smokin’.
The Graves County native was working as an auto body repairman when two friends talked him into entering a barbecue cooking contest in 1995.
“We were all three teachers in our church and needed funds to take our youth, the Royal Rangers, on a trip,” said the Mayfield resident.
The buddies were confident that with James leading the way, they could bring home prize money by winning some categories.
Out of necessity, James had acquired culinary skills early in life. “My mom went to work and my older sister was supposed to do the cooking. But when I picked on her, she’d get mad and not fix me anything. That’s how I learned to cook. I was motivated.”
Calling their team Larry, Darrell & Darrell, they borrowed a couple of grills and entered the contest in Mayfield. The new team with the funny name beat out some serious competition, winning first place in every category.
Not long after their impressive start, the trio hooked their grills to the back of James’ ‘88 Oldsmobile and headed up the road to Paducah where the competition would be stiffer.
"We drove into that show with the nose of that old car sticking way up in the air, past some fancy RV’s and people were laughing at us,” said James.
They weren’t laughing when judges gave the wise-cracking guys dressed in cowboy hats and overalls their second clean sweep. “We were scared to death, but I guess we did alright,” said James.
All of a sudden, what had been a hobby translated into a business inside a tiny block building behind the courthouse in downtown Mayfield.
Eventually the two partners moved away and James, 53, was left on his own to grow his catering and restaurant business.
The name for the contest team was transferred to the restaurant, which has no room for inside dining.
Customers pull up on a regular basis to a small drive-in window.
James can usually be found out back, his friendly smile shining through a haze of white smoke from one or more grills.
He credits the success of his business to cooking “old school.”
“Unlike a lot of barbecue places, we don’t use gas. We consistently use hickory wood, sometimes with a little pecan mixed in,” he says.
While cooking with hickory gives his meat a special savory flavor, it’s the attention to detail that may separate his food from the crowd.
"This is a really challenging business,” he maintains.
“You do a lot of the same things, but the meat cooks different each time you cook. You have to constantly be paying attention to all the processes involved. Too much wood and you’ll almost always get a bite to the taste.”
He says cooking at one hour per pound at a temperature of 200-225 degrees is also essential to producing juicy and flavorful servings.
Business is always brisk at the drive-up window, and catering keeps James and his usual staff of two to three employees hopping.
Preparing food for groups of 500 or more people is not uncommon.
“We have served as many as 1,200 people at a picnic the hospital put on,” he says.
Offerings include everything from a bologna sandwich for $2.50 to a whole slab of ribs for $16.00.
When not serving up food, James enjoys helping out with charity work at the First Assembly of God in Mayfield and conducting auctions to aid the local animal shelter, among other community service work.
But his main focus is on using what he calls his “God-given cooking ability” and love of people to witness to those in need of personal guidance.
“That’s the biggest kick I get out of this business,” he says.
“There was a troubled young boy who was hanging around my booth in Paducah, down on the world and in need of a kind word. I gave him something to eat and let him know he didn’t have control of his life, but God did. We talked for maybe 20-30 minutes. He came back that night and accepted Christ.”
James cited numerous other incidents where he and people needing counseling had come together at just the right time for him to help make a difference in their lives.
Just like the preparing of good barbecue, helping people is all about good timing and paying attention to detail.
Something James Stovall knows all about.
Columnist Don White’s Ken & Tucky features are published throughout the state. Contact him at: