Last week I had the honor of being included in a list amongst a group of barbecue folks who I greatly admire. The list was entitled America’s Most Influential BBQ Pitmasters and Personalities. Those listed, at least the top ten, were all very deserving of recognition. Many of them are people I count as friends, but one thing struck me the first time I glanced through the list. They are all white – all eleven. I didn’t feel right crowing about my inclusion on the list because it was incomplete.
As I wrote earlier this week, African American influence on Southern barbecue goes back to the slaves digging barbecue pits to cook whole hogs long before barbecue found its way into restaurants. Simply put, a list of important pitmasters that doesn’t include an African American is like a list of best country singers without Hank Williams or Willie Nelson.
There is one important part of this list that needs to be discussed. It lists the most influential barbecue cooks. I’m not letting the author of this list off the hook, but influence is something both earned as well as bestowed by outside forces. Imagine that I know more about barbecue than anyone else in the world (I don’t). That would make me important in barbecue, but without Texas Monthly bestowing the title of Barbecue Editor upon me, my influence would be minimal. It’s the same for many of the pitmasters on last week’s list. Some are influential because they are successful competitors on a circuit that includes very few black peers. Some are television hosts and are therefore more recognizable, and others gained well-deserved recognition after repeated praise from the food media, of which I am a part. If more African Americans were placed in similar positions of importance, then not only would they be more recognizable, but their actual influence in the food world would be elevated.
Let’s not pretend that a list of important black pitmasters on this site is going to be as widely viewed or critically considered as the (white) one from last week, but if I have at least some influence I might as well use it to help educate the next person looking to create the next list of great pitmasters. These aren;t the ten best, or the most influential names in barbecue, but they are ten that deserve some recognition for their contributions to the way we enjoy eating it.
IN THE PRESENT:
Lolis Eric Elie
Lolis can cook, but he wouldn’t call himself a pitmaster. What he did was write a groundbreaking barbecue book called Smokestack Lightning. It’s a book whose subject is a barbecue road trip before they were cool. The book was one of few discussions of barbecue styles all over the country, and no doubt had a hand in inspiring the current infatuation with traveling all over the country in search of great barbecue.
He now runs the Gates Bar-B-Que chain in Kansas City. The successful chain has six locations and regularly enters the debate in discussions about the city’s best barbecue. He carries on the legacy of his father, and the chain’s founder, George Gates. Ollie is a regular on screen when barbecue is the subject, and even helped Martha Stewart perfect her rib recipe.
It hasn’t taken long for Gatlin to make a significant mark on Houston’s barbecue culture. The fame of Gatlin’s has surpassed most every pitmaster inside the city limits. He recently opened Jackson Street BBQ with one of Houston’s most esteemed chefs, Bryan Caswell, and they supply barbecue to nearby Minute Maid Park for Astros home games. Greg will soon re-open Gatlin’s BBQ in a new location. By then he’ll probably have his own barbecue sauce on the shelves at H-E-B.
The man is North Carolina barbecue. When famed food author Michael Pollan wanted to learn barbecue for his book Cooked, he went to Mitchell. Although he didn’t attend the Big Apple BBQ Block Party this year, Ed has been sharing his barbecue with thousands, maybe millions of New Yorkers as a regular at the barbecue convocation.
Images of Rodney Scott mopping whole hogs with a red pepper/vinegar sauce grace most every nationwide list of great pitmasters. He’s taken a once unnoticed barbecue shack in a small South Carolina town and transformed it into a destination that any barbecue lover wants to check off their list. A fire that destroyed the cook house at the restaurant only seemed to boost his fame, and his “In Exile” tour showed his skills off to most of the South.
FROM THE PAST:
Houston is know for their smoked links, and it was Matt Garner who brought the recipe with him when he moved their in the 1920’s. Born in Louisiana, he made his way to Beaumont where he likely learned the recipe, then opened Matt Garner Barbecue Stand in Houston in 1929. Even after the death of he and his wife Helen, it was still good enough to make it into Texas Monthly’s first list of great Texas barbecue joints in 1973. The legacy of his spicy links still lives on in Southeast Texas.
There are four major barbecue styles in this country and Kansas City style is one of them. Henry Perry basically invented the style, then passed it on to famous names like Arthur Bryant. Perry is also the only African American in the KCBS’s BBQ Hall of Fame that now has 18 members. He’s simply one of the most important people in the history of barbecue.
C. B. Stubblefield
He was born in Navasota, and ran a barbecue joint in Lubbock, but Austin made him famous enough to cook ribs for David Letterman on air. His namesake barbecue restaurant and music venue in Austin is one of the most recognizable barbecue joints in town, but its fame doesn’t begin to compare to that of Stubb’s barbecue sauce. Go to any grocery store and find Stubb’s smiling face staring back from label after label, and that’s not just in Texas. In parts of Europe, they know two types of barbecue sauce – Kraft and Stubb’s.
He invented barbecue spaghetti, then sold the recipe along with the restaurant, to Frank and Hazel Vernon, who called their new restaurant the Bar-B-Q Shop. Vincent also taught Jim Neely of Memphis’s Interstate Bar-B-Q how to make the barbecue pasta. Both the Bar-B-Q Shop and Interstate are famous for their porky spaghetti, and Memphis barbecue is now synonymous with the peculiar side dish.
Eugene “Hot Sauce” Williams
Without any barbecue knowledge, he moved to Cleveland in the 1920’s and opened two barbecue stands. After touring New Orleans and gathering barbecue knowledge, he came back to Cleveland and developed a secret recipe dry rub for his ribs, which wasn’t exactly common at the time. According to a 1950 profile in Ebony, his restaurants were raking in $100,000 a year, and they called him the “King of the Barbecue.” Michael Symon better recognize that he won’t be the first to create Cleveland-style barbecue.