Alright now! Won’t you listen? /When I first met you, didn’t realize/ I can’t forget you or your surprise/You introduced me to my mind/ And left me wanting you and your kind...
There’s a Black Sabbath poster behind the entrance door. The lyrics above are to their song “Sweet Leaf” from the album Master of Reality, the song from which the restaurant gets its name.
As I approach along Abercorn Street it’s a tantalizingly sweet smell of a different kind that hits me. The speed of light is 186,282 miles per second. The speed of sound in air has many variables but is approximately 1128 feet per second. Normal eyesight is the ability to see clearly at 20 feet what a “normal” person can see at 20 feet.
Is there such a thing as a normal sense of smell? The ability to smell BBQ at the distance at which a “normal” person can smell BBQ? I’m 140 meters away when it first hits. Wow, it smells good.
Since I know the 100 meter mark, I got Caleigh to time me as I sprinted down the middle of Abercorn. My time: 14.98 seconds. Tyson Gay’s winning time at the recent world championships in Osaka: 9.85 seconds. Maybe if I had starting blocks and spikes...
There’s a sign on the wall behind the register that says, “A day without swine is like a day without sunshine.” so for lunch I have the Sweat Leaf Deluxe, a pulled pork sandwich topped with granny smith, coleslaw, red onions and tomato. It’s piled so high that I ask Mandy my waitress whether people normally ate it as a sandwich or with knife and fork.
She says they eat it as a sandwich, but I don’t know how. I’ve got a big mouth but there was no way I could get my jaws to open that wide. I had to cut it down to size first.
For my side item I have corn pudding. I’ve made two good choices.
Out back on the deck area, Sweet Leaf’s smoker is constantly in use. Bill Arthur, owner of Sweet Leaf Smokery and Eatery, even has red, green and yellow peppers smoking for a salad dressing.
Pecan is his wood of choice. Bill explains to me that barbecuing is not cooking with BBQ sauce. It’s a cooking process where food is smoked with indirect heat. Bill does not even sauce his meat as he cooks it; instead he uses his unique dry rub seasoning mix.
I ask Bill why he chose to open a restaurant and he says, “It’s all I’ve ever done.” Maybe so, but instead of settling for being an employee Bill took what he knew, augmented it with lots of reading and a Johnson and Wales culinary education in Charleston, and opened his own business. Then he brought along his friends. And not just as employees.
Even the restaurant’s frequently changing art is from friends such as Laura Dinello, whose daughter Caleigh, also an artist, works at the restaurant, and the artists at Anonymous Tattoo, the same artists who’ve done some of his body art.
Sweet Leaf is a terrific example of a guy having fun and working both hard and smart. But there is also American reality.
We chanced on the topic of crime, wondering about the nature of Savannah criminals. As a former chef my perspective comes from years of interviewing many, many felons for kitchen jobs both here and in our nation’s capitol.
In D.C. it seemed like criminal life was a choice people made. Here, to me, it seems like being a criminal simply is what Savannah’s criminals are.
Bill mentions that while he has seen far worse, Savannah is “crazy as hell for being a small town.” When working late at night, Bill, — a right to bear arms advocate — makes sure he is protected. In D.C. it is illegal for private citizens to own handguns.
On Oct. 21 at 10 p.m. at Sweet Leaf, Bill, who says he’s always wanted to be a rock star, is bringing live music to Sunday nights in Savannah. The initial show will be an acoustic performance featuring Whisky Dick and Bottles and Cans. The plan is to put on live shows every other week.
As I end our interview I ask him what he is most excited about for the restaurant. And he says it was the live music. But Bill had been excited about everything about his restaurant: working with friends, the art, the food, maybe even a BBQ competition in the future.
As I exit I noticed a large American flag on the kitchen wall. After spending the afternoon with Bill and his staff, I was excited to see that flag and to remember what it symbolizes: Freedom. And I’m glad to have met Bill, a man fully enjoying that freedom as he lives the American dream of owning his own business.