HED:Pick Noble Jr.
By M. Scott Morris
Barbecue is a lifestyle for Pick Noble Jr., owner of Custom Cooking in Tupelo.
He comes to work at 10 a.m. Monday and doesn’t leave until around 11 p.m. Saturday.
“I just stay down here and sleep on an army cot,” he said. “I’ve got a shower in back.”
Such dedication is required to properly cook pork, Noble said. He slow cooks the meat over a hickory flame for 18 to 24 hours.
Noble has been serving barbecue at the restaurant for nearly 10 years, so he must be doing something right.
“The key is keeping a constant temperature in the cooker,” he said. “If the fire gets too high, the meat gets burned. If it’s not hot enough, the meat spoils.”
He keeps the cooker in a screened-in building, which he calls “Pick’s Place.” It’s a fitting name, since that’s where Noble spends a good chunk of his time. He has become a student of barbecue.
“You learn there are hot spots and cool spots on the grill,” he said. “You learn where to put the meat. The bigger the meat, the more heat it’s going to take.”
It’s a smoky existence, but he doesn’t spend all his time over the fire. Noble can often be found at the counter taking orders.
Evelyn Long, manager at Custom Cooking, also deals with customers and prepares side items, such as beans, slaw and potato salad.
“I work inside. I can’t take the heat out there,” Long said. “I like to breathe fresh air.”
Petunia Ramsey is the newest member of the crew. Though she just joined Noble and Long in February, Ramsey is part of what makes the barbecue so unique.
“(Noble) cooks it, and I hand pull it,” she said.
Long added, “She removes all the fat so it tastes good.”
Noble said he tries to make the job easy on Ramsey by cooking the meat for just the right amount of time.
“If I cook the meat too much and it gets dried out, it’s much harder to pull,” he explained.
Noble estimated that 60 to 70 percent of his business is comprised of carryout orders. Those who eat in the restaurant can study Noble’s wall of fame that features football players from Tupelo’s past.
Photographs on the wall feature Tupelo gridiron stars who went on to play at Itawamba Junior College (now Itawamba Community College), Mississippi State, the University of Mississippi, Jackson State University, Delta State University, the University of Southern Mississippi and even Middle Tennessee State University.
Observant diners will also notice a display dedicated to Noble’s father, Pick Noble Sr., who coached Tupelo High School to a Big 8 football title in 1945.
“That was a big accomplishment,” Noble said. “It hasn’t been matched.”
Noble said he made a conscious decision not to rely on his family name when he opened the restaurant. That’s why he called it Custom Cooking.
“I wanted people coming here for the food, not because they knew me,” he said.
Like most people raised in the South, Noble grew up eating barbecued pork chops and ribs. When he reached adulthood, cooking over an open flame became a regular hobby.
“Before I opened this place, I spent eight or nine years with the Tupelo Hog Roasters,” Noble said.
He started catering at the request of a friend who wanted to throw a party for his employees. The friend came back for more not long after that first taste. Other customers followed.
“They weren’t buying it because they were my friends. They bought it because they liked it,” Noble said. “I realized I had a marketable product.”
On July 2, 1988, Noble opened Custom Cooking and enjoyed immediate success at least, until the July 4 rush ended. Things slowed considerably after the holiday.
“I thought, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’” he said.
Noble hasn’t asked that question in a long time because he’s found his calling.
“I enjoy what I do and what I get out of it,” he said.
Custom Cooking’s mainstay is barbecue, but side dishes are important additions to any meal. The following recipe was designed with volume in mind. It makes 28 quarts.
50 pounds red potatoes (peeled)
1 1/2 gallons mayonnaise
1/4 cup mustard
1/2 gallon pickle relish
salt to taste
Boil potatoes and drain water. Remove approximately three-quarters of the potatoes. Add portions of mayonnaise, mustard, relish and salt to potatoes and mash. Repeat process with remaining ingredients until fully mixed. Keep chilled.