Tired No More
By Ed Reynolds
The mystery of Ira “Tex” Ellison’s disappearance months ago was resolved recently when his green 1985 Fleetwood Cadillac was discovered at the bottom of the Coosa River near Pell City. Relatives speculated that the 72-year-old Ellison, a diabetic, became disoriented and accidently drove into the river. Birmingham barbecue aficionados knew Ellison as the Tired Texan, the late-night barbecue king who maintained unorthodox hours, his barbecue stand sometimes open only three days a week, from noon to the wee hours of the morning. His first location, a tiny concrete structure at 8th Avenue North and 15th Street, was a smokey pit of intoxicating aromas and a late-night oasis for the uninhibited. Leaning into a small window illuminated by a single bulb, a diverse clientele of doctors, lawyers, bartenders, prostitutes, and drunks congregated to order barbecue. Picnic tables across the grassy parking lot were the only seats available. There patrons gnawed on ribs until sunrise. Slices of white bread often functioned as napkins, when not used as edible sponges for sopping up barbecue sauce.
Ellison began selling barbecue with his wife Madeline in the late 1950s as a Marine stationed in Beaufort, South Carolina. The couple opened the Tired Texan Country Club at the military base, building the structure with the help of Marine privates under Tex’s command. Heavyweight champion Joe Frazier and jazz legend Lionel Hampton were pals who sometime stopped in for a drink. Ellison had joined the Navy at age 16 in 1945, but switched branches three years later when the Marines offered to send him to electronics school. By 1956, Tex had been assigned to El Toro, California, where he was the Marine Corps’ first black air traffic radar technician. Ellison also maintained a profitable television repair business. “I always had other things going on the side,” laughed Tex during a recent interview. “I had a TV repair service and barbecue place while I was in the Marines.”
|Ira “Tex” Ellison, 1928-2001|
Ellison left the military in 1967, eventually moving to Birmingham to start the Tired Texan and T&T Records, where he and his wife recorded Church of God in Christ services to sell as 8-track tapes. Although he relocated his restaurant between Legion Field and BirminghamSouthern College in the 1990s, the menu remained the same: sliced pork, hot franks, pig ears, ribs, sweet potato pie, pineapple-banana cake, and the legendary Dammit to Hell Sandwich. The Dammit to Hell was a red hot, sloppy Joe-style creation made from sliced pork scraps, bits of hot franks, and chicken necks, hearts, livers, and gizzards that Tex bragged would “dissolve in your mouth.” Oddly, the sandwich didn’t start selling until Tex raised the price. “They think you’re using scraps, and that’s what you’re using. That’s what you have to be able to do, be able to deviate. If they won’t buy it under one name, dammit, give it another name and raise the price. Make ‘em want it.” The secret to the Dammit to Hell’s fire came from the original Mancha’s Mexican restaurant on Birmingham’s Southside. Owner Carl Mancha traded his atomic Agent Orange sauce for Ellison’s pig ear delicacies. Tex poured Agent Orange into his own sauce without restraint, adding ground cayenne peppers (including the seeds!), which were grown in his backyard. Tears flowed as customers drained endless styrofoam cups of sweet iced tea (blended with coffee) to extinguish the inferno. Tex finally had to give up tasting the blistering sauce at age 60 due to stomach problems. “The sauce started biting back,” he laughed as he demonstrated his mastery of sniffing to determine the correct amount of pepper spice to add. Dining on ribs and sweet potato pie one evening at his west Birmingham home, Ellison explained the appeal of his barbecued pig ears. “I had a special pig ear, what you call a sandwich ear — a little ol’ pig about seven months old with no hair. You cut the fat off and cook that sucker till he falls apart on you.”
Tex finally closed the Legion Field Tired Texan in 1996, just after the Mexican Olympic soccer team lost. “As long as Mexico won, we stayed open, ’cause the Mexicans were the only ones spending money,” the shrewd restaurateur laughed. Once Mexico lost, he shut the doors for good, citing “too many headaches” and the beauty shop next door. “Some of those ladies needed to spend 50 bucks to get that ugliness out!” Tex howled as he recalled his constant battle with the shop over parking space. The VFW Post 668 lodge was the final stop on Ellison’s 30-year odyssey of barbecue joints, an appropriate final bow for an ex-Marine who introduced Alabama to sweet barbecue sauce [his grandfather's 1899 recipe] and the incendiary trademark Sandwich.
Ira Ellison was a paradox. Tex might begin a sentence with a string of obscenities and end it quoting scripture. He often bagged his sandwiches in Krystal Hamburger sacks, and he carried a gun. “I’ve always got my .38 with me. Even in church. And everyone knows I’m kinda crazy from my Marine days — crazy enough to use it.” His wife Madeline says that in the past year he had talked of having a mobile barbecue stand near the recently opened Honda plant in Lincoln. Above all, his work ethic was relentless, and a grill was his constant companion. “I barbecued everywhere I damn went,” Tex claimed. “Even now, if it’s 3:00 in the morning and I can’t sleep, I’ll go out in the backyard and fire the grill up. Cook some hot dogs or something. Relaxes me.” &