More Cowbell

Mississippi State

My Rouses Everyday, September/October 2017

Starkville, Mississippi, offers the chance to experience two of the South’s great traditions: football and barbecue.

When I first started school at Mississippi State University in 1999, there were maybe 15,000 students. There wasn’t much of a tailgating presence on campus, other than a few parking lots for fans with large motor homes. Most weeks my friends and I just took a small grill out to the dorm parking lot and cooked burgers. The Bulldogs made it to number seven in the polls that year, but by the time I graduated in 2003 the team was in the midst of a six-year span that never saw more than three wins a season.

Fast-forward around 15 years since I graduated. Enrollment at MSU is now at 26,000. The campus has renovated buildings, new dorms, new roads and a new student union. In 2007 a confusing cluster of roads on campus known as Malfunction Junction was removed in favor of green space and sidewalks specifically designed with tailgating in mind. Quarterback guru Dan Mullen was hired as head coach in 2009, and MSU made its first appearance at number one in the polls in 2014. State fans celebrate those Bulldog victories with the distinctive sound of ringing cowbells, a tradition that dates back to the late 1930s.

Tailgating has become an all-day — sometimes two-day — affair, too. Die-hard fans start setting up maroon and white tailgating tents on Fridays before home games. Saturdays, the campus is covered in canopies as far as the eye can see. You can smell the excitement — and the barbecue. I’ve pulled a few all-nighters, but we usually don’t get to our spot until early Saturday morning. That’s when we put the meat on the smoker, enjoy the day and the food, then head into the stadium at 6pm for the game. When the game is over, we load it all back up and head home till the next tailgate.

Every time I go I discover new bars and restaurants in Starkville, but I always go back to The Little Dooey.

Owners Barry and Margaret Ann Wood opened The Dooey, as locals call it, in 1985. I can still remember my first visit as a freshman. The walls were lined with pictures of country singers, celebrities, sportscasters — all autographed with well wishes, and paper pigs that kids had colored over the years. The Little Dooey was little — just a couple of rooms of seating inside and a screened-in porch on the side of the building. But the food was good, the employees were friendly, and the camaraderie of the patrons was palpable.

For years Kirk Herbstreit listed The Little Dooey as one of the top places for barbecue in college football in his annual “Herbie Awards.” Pulled pork is a fan favorite, as are the beef brisket, fried catfish and fried green tomatoes. Sweet tea is a must.

The Little Dooey has grown right along with Starkville and MSU. There’s a lot more seating now. That screened-in porch has been enclosed, a back deck has been turned into another seating room, and you can find a line out the door every weekend. But the food and the feeling you get when you’re in there are still just as good.

Football is finally here. I’m ready for more cowbell — and barbecue!

“You wouldn’t even know the original Little Dooey was a restaurant — it looks like an old house — but that only adds to the mystique. It has fried tomatoes, fried catfish, fried everything. I always get some chicken and brisket. The texture of the meat is amazing — it’s so well cooked. And they have a homemade hot sauce, called Dooey sauce, that I love. Whenever we’re in town I stop in.”

—Kirk Herbstreit, college football analyst and cohost of ESPN College GameDay