The Barbecue Pit and Black history

A new book, “Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue,”…

The Barbecue Pit and Black history
The Barbecue Pit and Black history 1

As the saying goes, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. And when that smoke and fire produce classic, old-school barbecue, you can be sure that passion is fanning those flames.

Just ask Grand Rapids residents Tarra and Cory Davis. Their passion for true slow-smoked barbecue led them to open Daddy Pete’s BBQ — a food truck/takeout/catering operation. Earlier this year, that passion earned them a Kingsford-sponsored Preserve the Pit (PTP) fellowship that’s  designed to help preserve the culture and history of Black barbecue in America. It provides grant money, immersive training and mentorship from food industry leaders. Chosen from a pool of 1,000 applicants — only three of whom were restaurateurs — Cory and Tarra were among the 13 PTP recipients.

“Most of what we know is based on verbal history passed down from generation to generation, not from books, but elbow-to-elbow, side-by-side,” Tarra says. “Being connected to a mentor already in the barbecue business who looks like us, knows the challenges of the business and who can help us overcome the challenges they’ve overcome will help us carry barbecue traditions forward for future generations.”

Chef, Detroit restaurateur, philanthropist and cookbook author Maxcel Hardy is all about protecting previous generations’ blueprints and building on them.

“Restoring our Black culinary history is imperative because American cuisine is deeply rooted in African American cooking,” says Hardy, a 2021 contestant on Food Network’s “BBQ Brawl.”

Denver-based James Beard Award-winning cookbook author and culinary historian Adrian Miller has a lot to say about that in his new book, “Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue.”

“In most barbecue storytelling today, African Americans are left out,” he says.

Miller maintains that Blacks didn’t invent American barbecue. Native Americans roasted and basted whole animals over wood burning fires in shallow pits and shared their knowledge. Traditions for salting, smoking and pit-cooking arrived in the South via enslaved people from Africa and the Caribbean. Barbecuing was labor-intensive at every stage: digging pits, chopping wood and building fires, plus killing, butchering the animals, then roasting and serving the food. The labor and cooking skills attained, handed down and provided by Blacks made possible the large-scale barbecues at Southern celebrations and political rallies. Post-emancipation, skilled pitmasters were in high demand, with many traveling from town to town to ply their trade.

So in demand were they that newspaper articles from the 1800s advised readers that, if they wanted to have a proper Southern barbecue, they would have to have a Black man cook it.

“Blackness and barbecue were so wedded,” Miller says, “Black people essentially became part of the recipe.”

As barbecue’s popularity continued to grow throughout the 20th century, it became multicultural.

“Barbecue had been redefined from the way African Americans prepared it,” Miller says. The once inextricable link was broken.

In the 1990s, foodies sought authentic culinary experiences and hungered to learn about barbecue. Food television stepped up to the plate with celebrity chefs who taught grateful grillers about tips, tools and techniques. But barbecue’s origin story? Not so much.

“They weren’t looking for diversity,” Miller says. “Just ratings.”

Going forward, contemporary barbecue operators who are doing exciting things can enhance the experience they provide by serving a side of history with their ‘cue.

The bottom line?

“We need to protect, honor and continue working to show the world that we have a significant part in culinary history,” Hardy says.

Local barbecue history in action

“When you go to an authentic barbecue place, you’re investing in someone who brought together some time, skill and expertise to produce a depth of flavor like no other,” Miller says.


These decades-old Detroit-based Black-owned barbecue joints represent.

Parks Old-Style Bar-B-Q (est. 1964) Pit-barbecued and smoked over wood and hardwood charcoal produced in a pit built with the building and served by multiple generations of the Parker family.

Vicki’s Bar-B-Q (est. 1964) Founded by Fairfield and Vicki Butler, its charcoal-pit-smoked tradition and original recipes are being carried on by longtime Detroit caterer/restaurateur Barry Winfree.

Nunn’s Bar-B-Que II (est. 1984, rebuilt in 2006 after a 2004 fire) Al Wiley carries on his late father’s tradition with authentic Southern-style smoked barbecue.

       Big Moe’s BBQ Chicken

Makes 8 servings

For brining:

²/₃ cup  brown sugar

½ cup kosher salt

2 quarts  water

8  bone-in chicken thighs

For cooking:

¼ cup  canola oil

¼ to ½ cup  BBQ Chicken Rub

1 cup   BBQ Sauce

In a large pot, combine the brown sugar, salt and water. Heat until the sugar and salt are totally dissolved. Remove from the heat, cool to room temperature, then refrigerate until chilled. Add the chicken, cover, and brine for 2 to 3 hours.

For the BBQ Chicken Rub

1 cup  sugar

½ cup  paprika

¼ cup  pink sea salt

¼ cup  celery salt

3 tablespoons  granulated onion

3 tablespoons chili powder

2 tablespoons dry mustard powder

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Place all the ingredients in a bowl and whisk to combine. Store in a covered container until ready to use.

  BBQ Sauce

12 ounces   ketchup

¾ cup  white vinegar

½ cup  sugar

1 tablespoon  Worcestershire sauce

1 tablespoon  coarsely ground black pepper

1 ½ teaspoons  dried mustard

1 teaspoon liquid hickory smoke

1 teaspoon chili powder

1 teaspoon  ground white pepper

½ teaspoon   ground coriander

½ teaspoon  cayenne pepper

½ cup   water

¼ cup cognac

For the  sauce: Mix together the ketchup, vinegar, sugar, Worcestershire sauce, black pepper, mustard, liquid smoke, chili powder, white pepper, coriander, cayenne and water in a saucepot. Bring to a simmer and cook for 15 to 20 minutes or to desired thickness, stirring continuously. Turn off the heat, add the cognac and stir to combine. Set aside until ready to use.

To cook the chicken: Set up a smoker or a gas grill on indirect heat at a pit temperature of 300 degrees. Use hickory chips or chunks for the smoker. If using a gas grill, put the chips in a smoke box or foil pan under the grates on the burners.

Remove the chicken from the brine, pat dry and coat with the canola oil. Sprinkle ¼ to ½ cup of the BBQ Chicken Rub over both sides of the chicken. Place the chicken in a mesh grill basket or on a wire rack and cook until it reaches 185 degrees. Time for this could vary considerably depending on the equipment you use (e.g., cooking time was 2 hours using an electric smoker). Technically, the chicken is done when it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees but taking it to a higher internal temperature improves mouthfeel.

Remove the chicken, coat with 1 cup of the BBQ Sauce and finish on a gas or charcoal grill for a few minutes to set the sauce. Serve with extra sauce on the side.

Recipe adapted from Des Moines, Iowa-based pitmaster and barbecue-competition judge Moe Cason (who has taught BBQ classes all over the world) and provided courtesy of Adrian Miller from “Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue.”

CB Stubbs Bar-B-Q Brisket

Yield: 16 servings

Legendary barbecuer C.B. “Stubb” Stubblefield first gained notoriety with a restaurant he ran in Lubbock, Texas, in the late 1960s before opening another in Austin. Stubb died in 1996, but his legacy lives on through a posthumously published cookbook and his line of barbecue sauces and spices.

6 pounds beef brisket, untrimmed

½ cup   Stubb’s BBQ Rub*

Soaked wood chips (for smoke flavor, if using charcoal)

1 bottle  Stubb’s Original BBQ Sauce*

*Or your favorite rub and sauce. Just use the brisket cooking techniques as a guideline.

Rub the entire brisket with Stubb’s BBQ Rub*. Let rest for a minimum of 30 minutes to allow the rub to penetrate the meat.

While the brisket is resting, prepare your smoker for indirect low heat cooking (225 degrees to 250 degrees). If using charcoal, layer the soaked wood chips with the charcoal. Place a foil pan under the grates of the grill or smoker to catch the drippings.

Cook the brisket, fat side up, over indirect heat until the internal temperature of the thickest part of the brisket reaches 180 degrees to –185 degrees. This usually takes 8 to 10 hours depending on your pit. To maintain low heat, check every hour to adjust vents and add more charcoal and soaked wood chips as needed.

Remove the brisket and let it rest at least 15 minutes or up to 45 minutes. Slice the brisket against the grain and slather with Stubb’s BBQ sauce* to serve.

Tip: For extra-juicy, tender meat, baste the brisket with Stubb’s Moppin’ Sauce every 30 minutes during cooking.

Recipe, courtesy of Adrian Miller from “Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue.”

Butter Sauce

“Barbecue sauce is pit master’s calling card,” Miller says. “Butter-based barbecue sauces are fairly common in old-school Georgia barbecue circles.”

It works well with a variety of barbecued and smoked meats.

2½ pounds  butter

2 quarts  apple cider vinegar

1 pint   water

1 tablespoon  dry mustard

½ cup  minced onion

1 bottle  Worcestershire sauce

1 pint  tomato ketchup

1 pint  chili sauce

2   lemons, juiced

½   lemon, seeds removed

3   cloves garlic chopped fine and tied up in a cheesecloth bag

2 teaspoons  sugar

To taste  salt

To taste  ground black pepper

Combine all ingredients except the salt and pepper together in a large saucepan and stir. Cook until heated and well blended. Add salt and pepper.

Emulsify using an immersion blender to keep it from breaking. The sauce is designed to be thin, but can be reduced to desired consistency.

Baste the meat when it’s about three-fourths done. Keep the sauce warm during the basting process. Serve warmed sauce on the side.

Refrigerate or freeze any unused portions.

Adapted from “Southern Cooking” by Henrietta Dull, and first published in 1928. Reprinted courtesy of Adrian Miller from “Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue.”

Freddie Wheeler’s Hot-Honey Barbecue Sauce

Yield: 7 cups

The recipe’s not of Native American origin, but it was passed down to Freddie Wheeler, the late founder of Freddie’s Southern Style Rib House in Cleveland, Ohio, from his grandmother, who belonged to the Blackfoot Nation and lived to be 107.

29 ounces   tomato sauce

¼ cup   yellow mustard

2 cups    water

1 cup   cider vinegar

1 cup  honey

⅓ cup  light-brown sugar, packed

1   large onion, minced

1 lemon  juiced

1 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper

1 tablespoon   chili powder

2 to 3 teaspoons  red-pepper flakes

In a large saucepan, whisk together the tomato sauce and mustard. Stir in the remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary. Serve warm. Cover and refrigerate or freeze any unused portions.

Recipe courtesy of Adrian Miller, from “Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue.”

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