Ed Grisamore

Gris: Pigs in space revisited

Although the first pig in space was launched many moons ago, the memory lingers like the savory smell of pulled pork at Fincher’s Bar-B-Q.

On the night of Nov. 22, 1989 -- 25 years ago Saturday -- astronaut Sonny Carter climbed aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery, taking with him freeze-dried containers of barbecue from his hometown of Macon.

Yes, this week marks the silver anniversary of some delicious local lore.

A choice hog was selected from a farm in Georgia, smoked in the pit at Fincher’s and shipped to NASA headquarters -- from Houston Avenue to Houston, Texas.

Soon, the barbecue was orbiting the Earth and being drawn through a straw by Carter and other crew members. The shuttle mission blasted off on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, and circled the earth 79 times before returning to Edwards Air Force Base in California on Nov. 27.

Carter later told the Finchers the freeze-dried barbecue was much tastier than the freeze-dried turkey and dressing the astronauts had for Thanksgiving.

The mission may have been classified, but the menu was historic. It was billed as the first barbecue in space.

Discovery traveled some 1.8 million nautical miles on its five-day trip. How’s that for a take-out order?

The Finchers got their own mileage out of the fame. The city’s oldest barbecue restaurant still promotes its barbecue as “out of this world” and have sold colorful T-shirts that read: “First in Space, Best in Taste.”

“Every day, somebody will come in and mention it, so there is still a buzz,” said Jake Fincher. “Some bring their kids and tell them about it being the first barbecue in space.”

Fincher’s has been featured in several publications with stories about its claim to fame. In 2004, the restaurant was featured on “Blue Ribbon,” a show on the former Turner South cable network. The program showed footage of Carter eating the barbecue on the shuttle.

It also was mentioned in “The Astronaut’s Cookbook: Tales, Recipes and More” by authors Charles Bourland and Gregory Vogt. (Bourland was NASA’s “director of space foods,” and Vogt is a former astronaut trainer.)

Jake’s father, Doug Fincher Jr., died in May 2013. Jake’s grandparents -- the late Doug “Dude” Fincher Sr., who opened the restaurant in 1935, and Laurie Tucker Fincher -- were slower to grasp the stunt’s potential for stardom in the barbecue universe.

“At the time, I don’t think they understood the gravity of it,” he said, no pun intended.

“But once they realized what was going on, they were very proud,” said Jake’s mother, Alice Fincher.

Jake was 15 years old at the time. When the in-flight meal made the news, his popularity among his classmates at First Presbyterian Day School took off like a rocket.

“I became the coolest kid at FPD,” he remembered, laughing.

Alice married Doug in 1970, five years after he graduated from Lanier High School. Doug was classmates with Sonny Carter and was a member of Carter’s ROTC unit.

It was at their 20th class reunion in 1985 when the subject first came up about the barbecue, which was being served at the event.

That same summer, Carter became an astronaut. He graduated from medical school at Emory and had been a flight surgeon in the Navy. He qualified as a mission specialist on NASA’s shuttle flights.

“He had family in Warner Robins, so he was there a lot for training,” Alice said. “He would come by when he was in town. Or we would get word that he had been at our restaurant (on North Davis Drive). He would always take a ham and some sauce back with him to Texas.”

When Carter warmed to the idea of packing some for a picnic in space, Alice thought he might be joking. In February 1989, she was in the small office at Fincher’s on Houston Avenue when the phone rang.

She couldn’t believe her ears. An official with NASA asked her to send a sample of the barbecue to headquarters in Texas.

The first barbecue was sent with the meat and sauce mixed. Five months later, NASA was back with a request to send the pork and sauce separately.

This time, the Finchers shipped a 12-pound shoulder on dry ice. They also included an invoice for $3.75 per pound for the pork and $4.80 for two quarts of sauce, plus shipping costs.

Alice remembers thinking their barbecue would be immortalized, like Tang, the powdered orange drink mix that reached new heights in popularity when astronaut John Glenn carried it on a Gemini space flight.

The Finchers were not able to attend the space launch because it was on Thanksgiving eve, usually a busy time for the restaurant.

Carter died in April 1991. He was a passenger on the Atlantic Southeast Airlines Flight 2311 from Atlanta that crashed near Brunswick. All 23 people on the plane died, including former U.S. Sen. John Tower, of Texas.

The Finchers later got a visit from Frederick Gregory, a former astronaut and deputy administrator with NASA.

He presented them with some of the leftover freeze-dried barbecue, which has a long shelf life, and a letter of authenticity.

A two-year-old batch of the barbecue was placed on board Space Shuttle Atlantis on Nov. 24, 1991, in memory of Carter, along with a soccer ball. (Carter was a former professional soccer player.)

So Fincher’s barbecue was launched into space twice.

That’s one small bite for man, one giant leap for the Pig Special.

“If marketing had been what it is now, we would probably have been on Leno,” Jake said. “The older I get, the more I realize how amazing it was.”

Contact Ed Grisamore at 744-4275 or egrisamore@macon.com.