Ollie’s was the Hill family favorite. Ollie McClung started the small place in the 1920’s on the Southside of Birmingham not far from where the Hill brothers would build their grocery warehouse. When Ansel Head’s father joined the family, it became his favorite. It was the first barbeque his son could remember eating and he still calls it his favorite.
Ollie trimmed the excess fat from pork butts, rendered it into lard for his pie crusts, and smoked the meat over charcoal and hickory logs in a brick pit decorated with a sail fish and religious placards. Six days a week, that smell permeated the neighborhood, driving people to salivate like Pavlov’s dogs . Ollie tended the meat with a pitch fork, kept the fire in check with a water hose, and sliced the barbeque with a razor sharp knife. For the finishing touch, he dabbed on his secret, vinegar based sauce with a small, stained cotton mop designed specifically for the purpose and added a freshly cut sour pickle.
When you found an open table, the waitresses would immediately appear, ask if you wanted your “usual”, and yell it to Ollie. She would bring the iced tea, return with the food, and re-fill the tea. Daily regulars, prominent citizens, and the Hills and Heads would get a nod from Ollie himself. About the time you were finishing your sandwich or plate, the waitress would return, ask what kind of pie you wanted, bring it back, and write the check. It was that fast and efficient. There was no lollygagging because people were standing all over the restaurant waiting for your table.
Ollie had opened a tiny place, then added onto it, and when the interstate came through and took part of his parking lot, relocated around the corner in a new 300 seat building with a huge brick pit decorated with the same sail fish and religious placards. The fourth generation of McClungs thought they could do better in the far out suburbs and moved Ollie’s from its then prime location next to the University of Alabama in Birmingham, the largest employer in the county. They lasted a little over a year before closing in 2001.
When in town, the then graying Head would return with his father to Ollie’s for a nostalgic lunch. The same African American waitresses, who never seemed to age, would ask if he wanted his “new usual” – a single king sized half and half sandwich and an un-sweetened tea – yell it to the cooks, and bring it back immediately. Nothing ever changed except that Head’s expanding waistline prevented him from enjoying his “old usual” of two king sized half and halfs. His compromise, though, did not include neglecting the warm cherry pie with a large scoop of vanilla ice cream.
These ladies were the heart and sole of the place despite the fact that the McClungs, exhibiting the impenetrable madness of the times, had tried desperately to block their race from eating at Ollie’s by fighting the Civil Rights Act all the way to the Supreme Court. These remarkable ladies earned their living from the restaurant, but as far as Head knew, they and their friend’s never bought anything from it, ever.
Their attitude was the same humorous and dignified outlook shown by the country woman who wanted indoor plumbing but whose husband refused to pay for it. She saved here pennies and nickels for thirty years, had the bathroom installed, then wouldn’t let him use it.