Hickory-smoked barbecue wafts from Miss Myra’s Pit Bar-B-Q at all hours of the day. The restaurant, located off Cahaba Heights Road, specializes in pork, pulled chicken, sausage and all the classic Southern sides. Myra Grissom Harper, a.k.a. “Miss Myra,” pioneered the place back in the mid-1980s when she and her husband Clark decided to try out the restaurant business. What the couple soon learned was that Myra had a knack for navigating the kitchen. Decades later, Miss Myra is still cooking up some of the best barbecue in Birmingham, garnering praise from Food Network’s Andrew Zimmern. Known for her tasty sides and, of course, her barbecue, Miss Myra’s hasn’t changed much since the first plate of ‘cue was served up. Today, the restaurant attracts a steady stream of locals who each greet Miss Myra when walking through the doors. After being in Cahaba Heights for so many years, she’s garnered a loyal following that swears by her barbecue. We sat down with Myra to learn how she built her business and why her barbecue is some of the best in the Magic City. Meet our newest FACE of Birmingham!
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a rural community right outside Tupelo, MS, called Mantachie.
How did you end up in Birmingham?
I married a man from Birmingham.
What was it like when you moved here in 1973?
Beautiful. Downtown was so fun. Every club had a band. Every time you went out, you heard live music. And everyone would meet under the clock at Loveman’s. That was the place to be. We lived on Highland Drive, which is just an old street above Highland Avenue, in one of those big old houses that overlooked the golf course. It was just a fluke that we got it, really. God has led me everywhere all my life.
How did you learn how to cook?
I’m the youngest of 10 children. So all of us had to cook.
What was that like growing up with so many siblings?
It was neat, especially being the youngest one. They all watched over me and took care of me. We grew up on a farm, so we cooked a lot of things from there. We had a lot of hogs. We cooked chicken every Sunday, fresh from the yard. We had vegetables, breads, cobblers — just stuff that farm people eat. It was wonderful. I still love it.
When did Miss Myra’s open?
1985. My husband was in the convenience store business, and this [Miss Myra’s] was a convenience store. It had a meat case and three booths in the back and a little stove — very small. Anyway, we had just moved back here after living in Thibodaux, LA. I had been a men’s hair stylist for 20 years. So we moved back here and, of course, in the barber business, you have to build your business all over again. People aren’t going to flock to you just because you opened the door. So we bought this store, and instead of going back into the barber business, I decided I would play around in the kitchen.
When we got our menus made up, I left one morning and went down the street to distribute them and when I got back, there was a line out the door. We didn’t even know how to wrap a sandwich!
What were some of the lessons you learned during those first few years after opening the restaurant?
I learned that it’s the hardest work I’ve ever done. I learned that it’s wonderful when people enjoy your cooking. We ate a lot of barbecue, too! We cooked it all here. My husband, Clark, was cooking the Boston butts, and he would have to stay up all night because the grease would drip down on the fire and flame up. He had to stay up all night and watch it. Of course when we first opened, we just had to cook them once a week and put them in the refrigerator. Now, we cook them all day every day and sometimes all night during the holidays.
What makes your barbecue different from others in Birmingham?
The recipe is the same as it was 33 years ago. With the meat, it’s just slow-cooked and we use hickory wood, so that makes a difference. Of course, I don’t eat much barbecue from other places — so it’s hard to compare!
How would you describe your menu?
Simple. We have five meats and five side orders, and that’s all we’ve ever had. We’ve tried other things over the years, but finally we just decided to stick with what we do well and leave it alone.
What kind of sauce do you use on your barbecue?
We have a white sauce, and we also have a red sauce. My husband was from Decatur and of course everyone in Decatur makes white sauce, and I’ve always liked it. We had a few people who didn’t like it when we first opened. One lady came in and she said, “One of my friends told me you had this wonderful sauce for your chicken,” and I said, “The white sauce?” And she said, “Yes.” So I fixed her a plate and took it out, and when I got a minute I said, “Well, how did you like the white sauce?” And she said, “It tastes like medicine!”
If you don’t like the vinegar taste, you won’t like the white sauce. But we sell it by the gallon now. So I guess people like it!
What else goes into the white sauce besides vinegar?
Mayonnaise and salt and pepper. It’s mostly a North Alabama thing.
Do you have a favorite item on the menu?
The chocolate chess pie. I just love chocolate. We also sell a ton of the pudding — everyone loves the pudding. But of course the pork is the biggest seller followed real close by the chicken. But we also sell a lot of the sausage and beef and ribs. It’s all good!
What do you think makes barbecue such a soulful food?
I think it’s just been around for so long. People have always barbecued. Soul food is classified as turnip greens and peas and beans and that sort of stuff, and I think pork goes really well with all of that, so I think it all becomes soul food. There are probably more barbecue places than any other type of food in the South — followed closely by Mexican food. I love them both!
Describe your perfect weekend. Where would you go? What would you do? Who would you see?
I love music. I love dancing. I love New Orleans! I would say a good trip to New Orleans, where I would dance all evening and eat that wonderful Cajun food. I would go ballroom dancing, but really I like all kinds of dancing. I love the old classics with big bands — with some horns.
Do you have a favorite place to go out in Birmingham?
As far as I know, there are few places that have good live music in Birmingham. I’ve been to Gip’s Juke Joint — but it’s been a long time. As far as I know, there’s still the Concordia Club. Everyone needs to learn how to ballroom dance. It’s just smooth — it’s good.
What are your hobbies?
I have so many! It would take all week to tell you. I got into wood turning about four or five years ago. You just fire a piece of wood and make something out of it. I crochet, sew, just whatever. I enjoy working with my hands.
What is your best piece of advice?
Be true to yourself. Know that family, faith and friends are the most important things in the world. I have three boys and a girl. I have one sister left, and she still lives in Mantachie. I see her from time to time. She’s 96 now.
With the exception of faith, family and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
I would say shoes — pretty shoes. I like pretty clothes, too. And a good haircut.
Thank you, Miss Myra! To learn more about Miss Myra’s Pit Bar-B-Q, visit missmyras.com.
Thank you to Charity Ponter of Charity Ponter Photography for today’s soulful photography.