Like many of his fellow Texas pitmasters, Greg Gatlin has been struggling to keep his business afloat during the coronavirus pandemic. His ten-year-old Houston establishment, Gatlin’s BBQ, has had to trim its staff by two thirds. Good days for the restaurant seem to come in clusters, he says, as do the bad ones.
Adding to the stress, Gatlin has also been closely following the protests in response to the death of George Floyd on May 25 at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. Last week, he shared his own call to action on Facebook. He wrote:
“I’m over showing my emotion of anger, I will show you through my actions how great we can be!! I will NOT have another knee in my back both literally and figuratively. If you are along with me on this journey let’s get in contact to put together a plan so we will not fail.”
I reached out to get the rest of Gatlin’s message, and to have a candid conversation about what it means to him to be a black pitmaster in Texas and a black man in America.
Texas Monthly: Why did you decide to speak out this week?
Greg Gatlin: If people aren’t gonna take your concerns seriously, there are some necessary actions that we’re gonna have to take, “we” being the black community. We’re gonna have to take this into our own hands as far as our future is concerned, because it doesn’t really seem like some of the people that are politically in charge really care what our concerns are, what our needs are. A lot of change starts with community-based actions. So we’re talking with some folks to get people to realize what the situation is.
TM: In your own words, what is the “situation” that some white people don’t understand?
GG: I don’t want to say that they don’t understand. I think they understand clearly. They just don’t care. I heard on the radio the other day—a caller called in and said, “Shouldn’t [enslaved Africans] have been grateful that somebody took them in and fed them, and clothed them, and gave them work?” It’s like, they were slaves. How do you have that train of thought? That’s why we have to have this conversation, because there are still people that still think that way.
TM: I hear you, and I must confess that I too often ask for your perspective as a black pitmaster rather than simply as a pitmaster.
GG: That’s okay. Because sometimes it needs to be that perspective. I think that what has happened in the past couple of weeks is that [white people] have been hearing it, but they hadn’t been paying attention. They were ignoring what the depth of this really is. Just because the civil rights movement happened … doesn’t mean that there’s a mutual respect for what black folks have endured in this country.
TM: You’re now coaching your son’s football team. Is that part of the community involvement you were referring to?
GG: The young kids are the ones we really have to influence, and really have to say, “That’s your brother, no matter what.” Whether they’re playing football or coming over to the house to hang out with you, it doesn’t matter.
TM: Have you had incidents with police?
GG: Physically, I’ve never had law enforcement take a stance against me personally. Of course I’ve been profiled. I went to a predominantly white private high school. You had a couple issues where some guys were a little overzealous about what they were talking about, and you kinda set that record straight. A lot of those kids, they may have only been exposed to maybe one or two black kids in their life that were close to them. They might not have known any better.
TM: As a black pitmaster you’re sometimes asked to be the voice for black pitmasters across the state. Does that bug you, or is it a position you’re comfortable with?
GG: It doesn’t bother me at all. Hopefully it’s bringing a perspective that people don’t necessarily see. Personally, I don’t deal with it as much in my face as some other folks do. I’m probably a lot more comfortable for white America. I don’t necessarily deal with that much, but I’ve had guests send me letters and have had guests tell me in person that “you n-words don’t know what you’re doing.” That’s the deep-rooted part that people have to dig out, and really dig down in themselves and ask the question, Why? Why do black people get profiled? Why is there an assumption that the service at that particular restaurant is going to be subpar because it’s a black-owned restaurant? Why don’t black people purchase from their own restaurants and places as much as they should? There’s a lot of questions out there that we really have to dig deep and find the answers to. Until we do that, nothing is going to be any different.
TM: So white America is more comfortable with you because you have the “right” haircut, the “right” clothes, and the “right” look for a black man. My friend and neighbor Brian Williams, who’s a trauma surgeon, wrote the other day that he won’t take a walk in our neighborhood without bringing his dog. It makes him looks less threatening. Do you ever feel that way?
GG: I live in a predominantly white neighborhood, and there are certain things that I will not wear if I go for a jog or go walking. People are trigger-happy with their guns. They see anything that’s out of the norm, they call the police. It’s hard to deal with that reality when it’s never happened to you.
TM: It’s probably harder to deal with that reality when white people don’t believe you when you tell them about it.
GG: Right. They’re like, “Nobody’s doing that.” That’s a real thing.
TM: I try to tell black barbecue stories, but you and I both know the public face of Texas barbecue now doesn’t accurately reflect the black roots of Texas barbecue. Do you think about Texas barbecue in those terms?
GG: Absolutely. I always just hope that it’s a well-rounded story that we’re telling. Barbecue in the past ten years has gotten so popular. The mainstream has gotten a hold of it so much, and some of the deep roots get lost in that. As black people we haven’t really passed that culture down. It wasn’t necessarily a business for us; it was survival.
TM: Where did you eat barbecue growing up, and how much does your barbecue today reflect that?
GG: The barbecue places we ate growing up [in Houston] were Burns [Original BBQ] and Williams. Williams doesn’t exist anymore. We ate our own barbecue too.
TM: I had a turning point at Burns. I asked them what people come to Burns for, rather than ordering my usual sliced brisket. They brought out a chopped beef sandwich, a rib sandwich, and links. It was so good.
GG: It’s funny, but because of the barbecue culture of Texas everybody’s kinda lumped into this one thing that they’re judged on. It might not be what their clientele’s palate might be looking for.
TM: We have to mention that on your menu you’ve got the most gentrified bologna sandwich I’ve ever seen.
GG: You like that? That ain’t your Oscar Mayer, man. That’s so funny because we laugh at that. One of our cousins would smoke a log of that Oscar Mayer and then we’d slice it and grill it. When Michelle [Wallace, the chef at Gatlin’s] said that she’d make a smoked bologna sandwich, I was like, let’s see what she’s talking about. It turned out great. What we’d like to try to do is expand people’s palates. I want you to have the nostalgia of a bologna sandwich, but here’s our interpretation of it.
TM: As a business owner, do you have time to think about if your barbecue is “black enough”?
GG: People say that. If they don’t feel like you don’t load that sauce on, or we don’t do a particular thing … Burns still serves their sandwiches on slices of white bread. We went to a thicker piece of Texas toast to fall in the middle of what people wanted. I think we do a great job of giving people options.
TM: This Friday is Juneteenth. Is that a holiday that your family celebrates, and is it something you’ll acknowledge at the restaurant?
GG: Culturally it’s a holiday that we recognize and celebrate. This year we’ve fielded a lot of calls for group packages because of the current social situation. It has brought a lot of awareness to that particular holiday and what that holiday menus. We’re going to be really busy on Friday and Saturday. Look for some Juneteenth specials at Gatlin’s.
TM: Did you ever think you’d live in a time where Juneteenth became fashionable in the white community and where “black lives matter” was a popular thing to say?
GG: I’ve had time to sit down and reflect on things. Now, what do I do to make sure black culture is something that’s valuable to this country? We got lost in the shuffle a lot, and that’s a shame. We’ve done a lot for this country, and it’s not appreciated.
TM: Are you afraid of Juneteenth being whitewashed?
GG: You need to get the gist of the story. Do you really understand what Juneteenth means? Do you really understand that black people were brought here as a piece of property to work, and that was it? It’s not just a sign or a T-shirt that reads “Black Lives Matter.” It’s a shame that it always gets caught up in, “You don’t appreciate what I’ve given you.” Did you really give me anything? I’ve had to work every day for what I have.
TM: What do you expect to see when Juneteenth 2021 comes around?
GG: I’ll be interested to see what that looks like. Either a lot is going to happen, or things are going to stay status quo. I appreciate the people that have stepped out with protesting and with voicing their opinions. Now it’s up to folks like myself and folks like you to carry that torch so these things don’t fall by the wayside.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.