The fate of Black BBQ in the midst of Covid-19 | Southern Perspective: Culture + Food + Tradition series

In the midst of what may be the equivalent to the worst economic fallout since the Great Depression, will the Covid-19 crisis, aka CoronaVirus, decimate the legacy of 100 percent, black-owned barbecue joints?

The instability caused by the Covid-19 crisis threatens an era of black barbecue joints that were around before the emergence of major digital platforms.  While I am hoping for the best of these barbecue joints, I feel it is very important to introduce you to some that you may or may not know.    

In my quest to understand barbecue history and culture in the American south, between 2016 and 2019, I traveled from the Carolinas to Arkansas. In this journey, I ate and had conversations with giants of the culture, whether we know them or not.  These black owned barbecue joints are cultural institutions with linkages to our past. Similarly, to the juke joints of the south, the barbecue joints are critical cultural and historical sites. But the few real ones, often located in rural areas, are vanishing quickly. 

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In New Orleans where I live, I see restaurants closing or hanging on for dear life.  My heart goes out to them as I try to support restaurants, caterers, and staff how I can.  What I realized, it is not enough for just the people to bail this industry out. Congress should be bailing out small independent operators. 

Corporate entities don’t need a bailout now when they just received one of the biggest tax cuts, in a growing economy.  At-large, these stimulus “gifts” were something the economically wealthy benefited from; however, independent restaurant operators and small businesses who are the backbone of the country and particularly a community were left out.

Me and the legendary Mrs. Leah Chase of Dookey Chase Restaurant in New Orleans before she passed in 2019.

My thoughts on this matter go to the subgroup within restaurant operators and small businesses: African Americans.   From 1929 to 1939, the Great Depression was one of the worst economic downturns in the industrialized world.  While all groups of people suffered, few suffered as much as African Americans.

For decades, African Americans were said to be “last hired, first fired.”  If one translates this today during the Coronavirus economic down; and if history is the predictor of current trends, we know the African American community has the potential to be impacted.  

Some of the highest COVID numbers in the country outside of New York are in New Orleans and Detroit, and is impacting Black people disproportionately.   Since the Great Depression, we have made progress, but the wealth gap between the Black and white community has widened. Unfortunately, it will widen further if our businesses can’t survive. 

As I look at eight pitmasters who were born after the Great Depression and still operate today, I too am worried of the fate of these businesses that are in jeopardy with Coronavirus.  I hope they show the resilience that our people have exhibited in this country for over 400 years, but I know some are elders and if they decide to give it up, we can’t be mad.

Despite this, I will share with you a list of black pitmasters who should be recognized, celebrated, and lauded for the preservation of a culture. In particular, the ones I focus on come from a generation of barbecue cooks that cooked in a similar manner as their and my enslaved ancestors in the American South by using direct heat pits.   

In this piece, I am going to cluster my choice of restaurants based upon ones that I think you can do on a weekend trip. If you are an enthusiast, you can visit these barbecue joints in three trips across the south once COVID-19 ends.  But let me forewarn, you should be willing to drive a distance once you land at an airport.  To get to these barbecue spots, you have to be ready for an excursion post-COVID-19.  Finally, I want to mention that I purposely left out famed pitmasters, Rodney Scott and Bryan Furman because I focus on barbecue restaurants that don’t get the level of press as the ones I am going to uplift. 

Trip #1: Memphis area 

My first trip is to see the only woman pitmaster on my list, the legendary Mrs. Helen Turner in Brownsville, Tennessee.  Mrs. Turner of Helen’s Bar B Q, and her direct-heat, cooked pork sandwich and bologna, ranks as one of my favorite barbecue sandwiches in the country.   Mrs. Turner’s sandwich can stand up to any of her male counterparts and I suspect she could cook a mean whole hog, if she could have turned them easily. 

From talking with her, she cooks shoulders because she can handle it. Plus, in seeing her pit room, there is not much space for an array of whole hogs. Nonetheless, her pit room is a thing to see but the gem is the pit inside the restaurant, as she operates an open kitchen well before the concept became trendy.  Her pit room is pretty simple; a pit made out of stacked cinder blocks and a place fashioned to burn out coals with stacked cinder blocks. 

Helen Turner of Helen’s Bar B Q in her pit room. Photo courtesy of City of Brownsville Facebook

Mrs. Turner is a one-woman, wrecking machine when it comes to barbecue.  In a male-dominated industry, she can shovel coals in a smoke-filled pit room that can bring any man to tears.  Also, she runs this business singlehandedly as the cook, server, and cashier. For this reason, it is highly unlikely you will see her at a food festival or any type event as such because her restaurant will have to close for her to participate.

In my opinion, she has one of the best pork shoulder barbecue sandwiches in the country.  Mrs. Turner’s barbecue sandwich is succulent, tender, and moist.  I don’t know who is following in her footsteps, but it is an excursion that is worth it if you are in the Memphis area.

Barbecue legacy

While in the Memphis area, you should drive the opposite direction of Mrs. Turner’s barbecue kitchen to Jones Bar-B-Diner.  Located in the Arkansas Delta, it is perhaps the oldest barbecue spot in the country. Owned and operated by fourth-generation pitmaster James Jones, this is the only barbecue spot in the country that can directly trace their lineage to cooking barbecue into slavery.   From conversations with Mr. Jones, and deductive reasoning based on his age, including factoring in the generations of pitmasters operating this institution, my hypothesis is that the diner has continuously cooked since emancipation. 

This gem started with a hole in the ground before Jones’ grandfather built the cinder blocks pit still in-use today.  At the time of my visit, Mr. Jones did not mention whether his son would continue the family’s legacy, but what he told me, “Black folks been doing this barbecue thing just like your family taught you a long time [ago], it is no different in our processes.” 

It is important to note that a “hole in the ground” is not a Hawaiian Luau, style of cooking. It is the manner that enslaved Africans cooked barbecue on plantations. In this process, they dug a shallow pit then laid an outstretched animal carcass over tree limbs that crossed over a shallow exposed trench. Butterflied is the term to describe how the animal is positioned.

Here I am preparing a whole hog to grill that has been butterflied.

Next, the cooking pits are directly fired with oak and hickory embers underneath for a slow laborious cook.  This style of cooking creates a flavor profile that is not overpowering when it comes to smoke. At Jones Bar-B-Diner, you can get the pulled pork sandwich served with or without coleslaw, and a vinegar pepper-based barbecue sauce on fresh white bread. 

When you drive up to this place, you will swear that you are in the Carolinas just because of how the air smells surrounding a place that practices the pit cooking style of barbecue. Once you see the vinegar pepper-based barbecue sauce, you may ask if your mind is playing tricks on you as vinegar pepper base barbecue is more readily found in the Carolinas, not Arkansas.  This diner is a no-frills place, but an experience when you make the drive from Memphis.   

Trip #2: Eastern Region North Carolina BBQ

Upon receiving news that Jack Cobb and Son was closing in August 2018, I booked a flight to Raleigh. Flying into Raleigh was the easiest and most cost-effective way for me to dine in Farmville, about a one hour drive away.  Jack Cobb and Son was the oldest black-owned spot that still did pit-cooking in North Carolina. The barbecuing technique remained because it was started by Rudy’s father Jack at a time when barbecue was segregated.

While in Raleigh, I also was fortunate enough to converse with fellow North Carolina A&T State University alum, Marcus Bass who joined me on this excursion. Early on a Saturday morning, we first visited Grady’s, which is within a one-hour drive of the state’s capital. While there, I had a conversation with Stephen and Gerri Grady, the owners and pitmasters.  How the Grady’s got started in barbecue, was because Mr. Grady’s brother pulled out of the partnership when he discovered that cooking barbecue was harder work than he envisioned.

During the talk, I took out pictures of my cooking experience so Mr. Grady would know my pedigree. In one comment of many, he told me specifically about one particular picture in which I cooked a hog in the ground. He said exactly what my father said, “you fired it in this spot too much and you should have backed off of it.”    

Me prepping a hog

In this conversation, he confirmed that masters of a craft are the best teachers. As well, they have a great deal of experience to see a problem immediately.  I knew my issue, but it was my first hog cooking experience in the ground without being guided by father in person. However, Mr. Grady was able to explain where I went wrong without explanation.   

The food that Bass and I got from Grady’s helps you remember what barbecue should be and from the community.  If you miss Grady’s, you can’t be mad at him, because he is in his 80s and he has run those pits better than many people who are decades younger than him.  We left Grady’s and headed toward Jack Cobb and Son in Farmville, NC. 

A soliloquy to my time visiting now closed Jack Cobb & Son

Arriving in Farmville, I saw the nostalgia of the farm town and possibly why Jack Cobb & Son was closing.  Like so many small towns in the rural south, the population is waning and most of the patrons are aging gracefully just like Rudy Cobb. On this day in August 2018, you could tell Mr. Cobb was tired. Farmville was an agrarian based town that is many years after its heyday. A place where manpower was replaced by technology. As a result, Mr. Cobb’s loyal customer base had decreased. 

During the visit, we found out that he was a North Carolina A&T alum and a military veteran who had bigger dreams, but came back to help his father.  While there, he said he thought of opening a barbecue restaurant in Greensboro, the city where he went to college. If he did so, his barbecue restaurant would have been bigger because of the population alone, which made perfect sense.

To put this into perspective, in 2018, Greensboro had a population of 294,722, whereas Farmville had 4,677 people, respectively.  If Jack Cobb & Son needed 10 percent of the population just to buy food on the days he is open, then that alone presents an uphill battle. Yet, Mr. Cobb decided to continue the family visit in his hometown.

While there, Mr. Cobb showed us his pit house. As we looked at it, I thought I saw the transition from an in-the-ground barbecue pit to cinder blocks.  On the cinder block walls, you could see metal pipes resting on top of the set up used when this location was built by his father, which was the second location.  Seeing the pipes is a cultural artifact. Instead of tree limbs you may see in archival pictures in the ground, the cinder blocks and metal pipes indicate that America is progressing and so are the materials to construct barbecue pits.     

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Another noteworthy story Mr. Cobb shared was how at first, he used to deliver his barbecue to white patrons. Later on, he told them that “my people will not bother you if you are coming for the barbecue.” So white patrons began going to the Black side of town.   

This is one of many stories showing how white patrons would cross racial lines for good barbecue.  Understanding historical accounts of barbecue in newspapers, that is where you find the most celebrated barbecue’s cooks at the beginning of the twentieth century.   Although Mr. Cobb closed up his shop in 2018, he should not be forgotten and his pits should be relocated to a museum.

Laying out the groundwork for Black pitmasters

Ryan and his father, Ed Mitchell.

When I did my trip in 2018 to eat barbecue in Eastern North Carolina, Mr. Ed Mitchell was the one pitmaster in the region, whom I wished I could have rounded out my barbecue journey.  At the time, he did not have a restaurant, but in 2020, he will be opening one in Raleigh with his son Ryan, assuming all goes well with Covid-19.  In full disclosure, Mr. Mitchell’s barbecue is the only other person’s barbecue I want to eat in the country.  

I wanted to eat Mr. Mitchell’s barbecue because I knew before Rodney Scott was touted in southern barbecue circles, Mr. Mitchell was the one black person to be recognized in the mainstream culinary industry by the Southern Foodways Alliance. During his career, he helped start the Big Apple barbecue in New York, featured in Netflix docuseries Cooked

Mr. Mitchell was born in Wilson, North Carolina. He learned how to cook barbecue from grandfather on the tobacco farm his family has been raised for generations. In listening to a recent Southern Foodways podcast, you hear the injustices experienced by Mr. Mitchell. This is one of the reasons I wanted to meet Mr. Mitchel on his land, and with an elder whose work laid the groundwork for me to talk about Blacks in barbecue.

In closing out my second trip, having the opportunity to eat with Grady’s and Ed Mitchell’s new barbecue restaurant, will give you the opportunity to eat barbecue cooked by a Black person under Black ownership.  The ownership piece is key; especially, when you hear the things Mr. Mitchell went through as well as Mr. Grady did during their openings.

Trip 3: Pee Dee Region of South Carolina BBQ

Pee Dee barbecuing style

For the final trip, one restaurant is located in the county in South Carolina where I grew up and the rest are in the neighboring counties of Sumter and Williamsburg.  Growing up in South Carolina, I never ate at any of these restaurants. Mainly, this was due to many people in my community who cooked barbecue down on their farms.  In that, the only one in which I was familiar was Sugar Hill BBQ and its legacy was built upon a county legend.

When you go, plan to arrive on Thursday morning, so you can pick up a car and drive to Williamsburg County. 

Since I did not say it earlier, most old school barbecue joints are only open from Thursday to Saturday. 

The first stop you should make due to time is Scott’s BBQ in Hemingway. Operated by Rodney Scott’s parents, they are the people who taught the famed pitmaster the craft.  While there, you should ask to see the barbecue pits and the large burn barrel if they allow you to enter. Of course, the change will be due to COVID-19.  

The burn barrel is an old fuel tank, about 400 gallons, with car axles used as racks to hold the wood up so the embers can fall through.  For the Pee Dee BBQ experience, get the pulled pork, ask for skins, and a piece of jelly cake if on the bar.  Now, don’t get overly full so you can drive just up the road to Kingstree in Williamsburg.

For the best barbecue I have had in South Carolina, outside of my own family and my immediate neighboring farming families, is pitmaster Ricky Scott at Hell’s Half Acre in Williamsburg. You are probably saying Hell’s Half Acre is a unique name. It is truly special, even though I don’t know the meaning.  Note, Mr. Ricky Scott is not related to Rodney Scott, but he can cook some great whole barbecue. 

Hell’s Half Acre is a gem on a tobacco farm and this is really what barbecue is meant to be.  All you can get is barbecue, skins, white bread, and vinegar-pepper based barbecue sauce that is not too spicy, cool enough for a kid to eat.  He only cooks on a Thursday and he only cooks a hog or two.  Truthfully, his barbecue spot reminds me of cooking barbecue at the Shed.

Lost in the sauce

During the final stops on my barbecue journey, I was very fortunate to take my parents to the last barbecue spots. Like me, they had never been to any of the places, but are quite familiar with Pee Dee BBQ.

The South Carolina style of barbecue, called Pee Dee BBQ, can have many nuances. One of which is barbecue sauces. Even when you are in the same county, particularly at my home in Clarendon County.  My family barbecue sauce has vinegar, tomato, and mustard. But when you go to Sugar Hill BBQ in Manning, it has a vinegar pepper base.  

This restaurant is built off the legacy of Mr. James Conyers (no relation to me and is now deceased). Sugar Hill BBQ is in the Sugar Hill Community, which is about 15 minutes from where I grew up in Paxville.  Though I only ate there once, what I remembered most beyond the pulled pork barbecue on white bread were the homemade candied yams.

The next place to visit is Francis Campbell’s Quick Stop Bar-B-Q in Rembert. There you will find the same classic food offerings.  On this menu, there is barbecue hash and the barbecue sauce, it is not a straight vinegar pepper. The sauce has something to make it a little thicker.   The sauce sort of tastes like a sweet and sour sauce from the Asian culture, and has the same brown color. 

Campbell’s Quick Stop Bar-B_Q was shared to me by pitmaster Bryan Furman, who was raised in nearby Cassett.  In talking with the owner, Mr. Francis Campbell, he shared experiences of cooking in the ground. He described how they repurposed old tines from hay rakes. These tines were an improvement from using tree limbs to handle the hog during cooking.  The tines, or teeth of rakes, are used as the rods that pierce the hog for cooking and flipping the hog when barbecuing in the ground.

For his method, Mr. Campbell cooked with all wood and served the Pee Dee Classics barbecue with hash and rice, skin, and chicken.  One day, I hope that I can get back to one of these days, not too far down the road. 

Close connections

Mabel’s is located in Sumter, which is the next county over from my home.  It is an old barbecue joint that is also tied into the agricultural history of the area. 

My parents were familiar with them from co-workers.  However, in Mabel’s it got a bit more personal and reaffirmed the legacy of agriculture and barbecue. Mabel’s brother’s owner repaired my father’s tractor many years prior.  It also shows the closeness and tight connections of the agricultural community here. 

When I was inside of Mabel’s, I almost missed out on my visit. By now, I was stuffed because on this one day, I ate barbecue at the three establishments. All I was able to get was a barbecue sandwich on white bread, probably honestly because my father made a connection to the owner.  

What will the barbecue joints be in a Post-Covid 19 US?

Before this piece, you may not have heard much about the majority of the restaurants on this list.  However, the community supported and sustained these locations for years.   While they are part of a community, they will be here for as long as the owner-operator decides to keep the business going. 

For me, these barbecue joints represent a cross section of the remaining old, southern barbecue culture of America. Particularly, a culture and food industry under Black ownership that fed a community.  It is my hope that all of these places are around for generations to come because the pitmasters who cook using the tradition of direct heat, like these, are the last of a dying breed. In my opinion, they are more than barbecue joints, they are cultural institutions that anchor communities. 

Like most restaurants, the barbecue spots I explored have several challenges to overcome in this time to survive through COVID-19. For one, they have to have an uninterrupted supply of whole hogs to cook. Another thing is how to interact with the public safely because the owners are age 60 and over.  In addition, as people are unemployed, they will not be eating takeout as frequently, so business will wane. 

The plus that most of these barbecue joints have over larger restaurants: the owner very likely owns the business and its associated real estate.  If these businesses had to close temporarily, once they sold out of product, that is all they lost beside the income.  When COVID-19 runs its course and travel is reinstated, call these institutions and make a trip. 

Trip 1: Memphis, TN Area

Helen’s Bar B Q – Brownsville, TN

Jones BBQ Diner – Marianna, AK

Trip 2: Raleigh, NC

Grady’s BBQ – Dudley, NC

Jack Cobb & Son – Farmville, SC

Ed Mitchell – Coming to Raleigh, NC

Trip 3: Clarendon, Sumter and Williamsburg County South Carolina

Francis Campbell’s Quick Stop Bar-B-Q – Rembert, SC

Maples Barbecue – Sumter, SC

Sugar Hill BBQ – Manning, SC

Scott’s Bar-B-Que – Hemingway, SC

Hell’s Half Acre – Kingstree, SC

Howard Conyers grew up learning the art of a Southern barbecue pit master before becoming a rocket scientist for NASA. He returned back to his roots of Southern culture and foodways and dedicates time traveling throughout the south learning and advocating for cultural institutions in daily Southern life.

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