Barbecue is America’s culinary national pastime. Dozens of books have been written about it, food writers criss-cross the country looking for the best places, and people wait hours to eat at the most famous spots. In his book The Cooking Gene, culinary historian Michael Twitty traces the path that barbecue traveled from West Africa to the American South — and how enslaved cooks in plantation kitchens created Southern cuisine. But the barbecue journey doesn’t stop there. During the Great Migration, Black Americans brought the foods they created in the South with them to places like Chicago. Dan visits Uncle John’s BBQ, just south of Chicago, to learn about — and eat — a type of barbecue that only exists there.
Check out Kevin Pang’s article about Chicago’s “barbecue divide” in Saveur.
This episode originally aired on December 10, 2018, and was produced by Dan Pashman, Anne Saini, and Aviva DeKornfeld. It was edited by Gianna Palmer and Kristin Torres, and mixed by Casey Holford. The Sporkful production team now includes Dan Pashman, Emma Morgenstern, Andres O’Hara, Tracey Samuelson, and Jared O’Connell.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Pong" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- "Karla's Melody" by Karla Dietmeyer and Olivia Ann Diercks
- "Incidentally" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- "Can You Dig It" by Cullen Fitzpatrick
- "Rooftop Instrumental" by Erick Anderson
- “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” by The Platters
- “Howlin’ Blues” by Howlin Wolf
Photo courtesy of Michael Twitty/Johnathan M. Lewis.
Dan Pashman: Tell me about the song you used to sing with the lemonade.
Michael Twitty: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Um, Lemonade, Lemonade, made in the shade stirred with a spade. Cools your teeth and parts your hair. Makes you feel good everywhere. And it was called, in my family, “The Slave Song.”
Dan Pashman: This is culinary historian Michael Twitty. He still remembers the day he asked his grandmother about the name of her lemonade song. He didn’t know what a slave was.
Michael Twitty: So I must have been very young. I must have been like, three or four-years-old? I had never heard anyone talk about slavery. Like a thing. Like it's something our family went through or other black families went through. And just, you know, when you get those first glimpses of glimmers of what that meant, it's like a punch to the gut. Because now you know your story and your family's story and who you came from isn't like everybody else.
Dan Pashman: Michael has spent years researching the role slavery and enslaved people played in creating the food we eat in America today. But in some ways, his work started even earlier, that day in the kitchen with his grandmother and the lemonade and the slave song. That’s when he first began wondering about the origins of his family and their food.
Michael Twitty: That's what that moment was about. It was, I'm learning that word, making the lemonade. You get the juice out of lemons, mix it with the sugar, make a syrup, throw in the lemon shells. They would cool down. And then — you know, it took like 4 hours.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Michael Twitty: You know, it wasn't quick, you know? I promise you that. But to this day, that’s how I make lemonade — with and without the song.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies it’s for eaters. I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. Quick reminder before we get started, the tickets are on sale now for our first live taping in New York in 2 1/2 years! We got great guests lined up and there will be cascatelli for sale. The show is July 20th at the Bell House in Brooklyn, get details and tickets at sporkful.com/live.
Dan Pashman: All right, let’s get into it. And this week in honor of the 4th of July, we’re gonna talk about some American food history …
Dan Pashman: Michael Twitty has asked a lot of questions about his family’s food since that day when he learned the lemonade song. And in 2018, he published an exploration of those questions and their answers in his book, The Cooking Gene. The book won the James Beard Awards for Best Writing and Book of the Year. In the food world, the Beard Award for Book of the Year is like the Oscar for Best Picture. That’s the big kahuna. Michael was the first Black American ever to win it.
Dan Pashman: In The Cooking Gene, he traces many of his family’s food traditions, and a lot of southern food, all the way back to Africa. He shows why the food in the low country of South Carolina and Georgia is strikingly similar to the food in Louisiana. He explains where southern barbecue comes from and tells the story of how enslaved cooks created southern cuisine. And there’s one throughline of the whole book.
Michael Twitty: Food is the love letter between the generations, between each other. Food is how we kept our humanity.
Dan Pashman: But Michael’s journey in the book is also personal. He uses historical documents and D.N.A. testing to search for his own roots in West Africa. That’s where his ancestors first learned to stew beans, roast meats, and simmer greens. Michael grew up with the modern Americanized versions of those dishes, in his mother’s and grandmothers’ kitchens in Washington D.C. in the '80s. But as he says in a section of the book I asked him to read, he wasn’t always so curious about his family’s food heritage.
Michael Twitty: Before I was — [LAUGHS] this is triggering. I was like, I remember I read my whole dang book. [LAUGHS] I'm not I'm going, okay, please don't do what you did before.
Dan Pashman: What did you do before?
Michael Twitty: I read the entire book for my audiobook.
Dan Pashman: And I wasn't sure you were saying it was triggering the memories from your childhood or triggering the experience of reading your audiobook.
Michael Twitty: No! Reading the audiobook and making mistakes like every 5 seconds. Okay? All right. Here we go. Before I tell you all about my glorious and proud culinary heritage, I have to confess two things about me as a little kid. I hated soul food and I didn't really like being Black. Although my first non-milk food was the venerable collard — see? Shit, I knew I was gonna do that. Ahhh!
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Michael Twitty: All right. Although my first non-milk food was the venerable cornbread mashed in potlikker, the juice from cooking Southern style greens, my palate and those were soon tainted by fast food. And I had no need for most of the African American heritage cooking that surrounded me. I didn't like eating watermelon, and to this day, I confess, I will not eat it in front of white people. And then came chitlins. I did anything and everything to avoid the smell and savor of "slave food", and I didn't really understand why people ate that shit. Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Do you remember the first time that that started to change? That you started to feel differently?
Michael Twitty: Maybe not the first time, but I know there was a trend. And the trend was being in the kitchen with my mother and grandmother and having — well, not mostly having, but being given little chores and cooking, which is, you know, basically like a play date for me back then. And once I kind of owned the process and owned the dish, it was a little bit different for me.
Dan Pashman: Michael says he liked to put his own spin on the dishes he was learning from his mother and grandmother. And the more he learned, the more he wanted to know. Not just about the food, but about the history and the people behind it. So he dragged his dad to Colonial Williamsburg after seeing a commercial for it on T.V. If you’re not familiar, Colonial Williamsburg is a tourist site made to look like a colonial-era village, to show you what life was like back then. They have reenactors who stage battles and demonstrate day to day living.
Dan Pashman: Experiences like this made Michael even more curious about the past. In his 20s he started doing living history demonstrations himself at places like Colonial Williamsburg. He’d put on the clothes of an enslaved person — wool stockings, shirt and vest, kerchief around the neck. And he’d show people what it was like to cook in plantation kitchens.
Michael Twitty: It's cutting the wood. It's getting things harvested from a garden. It's, you know, getting the meat ready, washing it, seasoning it. It’s getting the pots cleaned out. It's all the process that you would have had to have gone through to make a meal. I am educating people about what it means to be an enslaved cook. I am not, myself, becoming in that moment an enslaved cook. I do not reenact slavery. I do not call white people master. That's not who I am. That's not what I'm about. But somebody has to do this work.
Dan Pashman: Why?
Michael Twitty: Because we're going to forget it. You know, people think that books and movies and social media and art will be enough. They're not. It never worked that way. So for me, this is about forestalling the inevitable amnesia.
Dan Pashman: What did you personally learn from doing that work?
Michael Twitty: How glad I am to be born in the 20th century. How glad I had to be living in the 21st century. How glad I am to not live 5 seconds in their life.
Dan Pashman: So Michael didn’t want to be his ancestors, but that work did inspire him to keep learning more about them and to honor them.
Michael Twitty: I want to bring life to those Black women and men cooks, who owned the show from the colonial period to the dawn of the 20th century, who owned those kitchens.
Dan Pashman: In 2011, Michael set out to write his book, The Cooking Gene, because, as he says in the introduction, “Slavery began with food.” On plantations, enslaved people did the cooking. And the foods they were brought there to grow, were big business. In 1776, 10 of the 12 richest men in America were South Carolina rice planters.
Dan Pashman: One of the things that I learned from the book that I didn't really — I don't think I had a full understanding for just how calculating the system of slavery was.
Michael Twitty: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: You know, I think that we grow up with the idea that like these slave traders showed up in West Africa, they rounded up whatever the closest Black folks they could find were ...
Michael Twitty: [LAUGHS] Right.
Dan Pashman: Threw them in a bottom of a boat and they dropped them off on a dock in the south. There was a very well-organized system and they were picking Black folks from specific areas of Africa with specific skills and bringing them to specific places to do specific work. And rice is a perfect example of that example.
Michael Twitty: Perfect example. Like people people aren't just saying maybe. They say, no, bring us Africans who know how to grow rice. You can't just throw rice in the ground. You have to have — there's a system of sluices and dams and freshwater management.
Dan Pashman: It requires expertise.
Michael Twitty: Yes.
Dan Pashman: That the people in the U.S. didn't have.
Michael Twitty: Right. The people in Europe, especially, didn't have.
Dan Pashman: Was there rice in the Americas before any of this?
Michael Twitty: Nu-uh.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Michael Twitty: No.
Dan Pashman: So the West Africans, who knew how to grow rice, were brought to the areas where their expertise was most needed — in the low country of South Carolina and Coastal Georgia and Louisiana. And these enslaved people didn’t just grow rice, they cooked it. They adjusted familiar African recipes to create new versions with American ingredients.
Michael Twitty: Jollof rice becomes red rice.
Dan Pashman: And for folks who don't know jollof rice —
Michael Twitty: Right.
Dan Pashman: I'll let you ...
Michael Twitty: Jollof rice is the transnational dish of West Africa. It is rice cooked with tomato, onion, and pepper. Sometimes hot pepper, sometimes a bell pepper, sometimes chicken, sometimes seafood, sometimes none of the above. And then we have red rice in the south, which is — called — it was also called tomato perlu, or some people call the pilau. And in Mexico, so called, arroz Mexicana, is really the same dish because it was innovated in a space from which people from Senegal came.
Dan Pashman: And this is the early beginnings of jambalaya, gumbo ...
Michael Twitty: Oh, all of it. Jambalaya, gumbo, étouffée, all of this stuff basically comes with the idea you have to have like this rice pilaf.
Dan Pashman: And that’s why we see a classic dish like Charleston or Savannah red rice in South Carolina and Georgia. And we see Jambalaya and gumbo in New Orleans. Those may be two different places in the U.S., but those foods have their roots in the same place: West Africa.
Dan Pashman: Which is also where Michael knew he’d find his roots. After six years of research and writing, he finished The Cooking Gene. But it wasn’t until the book was done and about to come out that he was able to get the money together to make the trip to Africa.
Dan Pashman: He had traced as much of his family tree as possible, but he couldn’t follow it all the way back across the Atlantic. Slaveholders made a concerted effort to erase any remnants of African identity among the enslaved. For most African Americans today, finding records that go back that far is almost impossible.
Dan Pashman: But through D.N.A. testing and historical documents, Michael was able to identify the tribes that his ancestors were a part of, and he found links to a city in Senegal called Chess. So that’s where he went.
Dan Pashman: Tell me about your first trip to Africa.
Michael Twitty: Hmm. It was just surreal. [LAUGHS] It's alienating. It's strange. It's cumbersome. People look at you weird because they don't know what tribe you come from.They don't know who your people are. But it's still better than the alternative. It's still better than being the consummate minority. You may be different, but you’re with your people. And when it comes to food, it's just like, oh, my God. It was like, you know, when I used to go down south as a child, I would see my father would make a big deal out of pointing out to me how people — you know, my grandfather would live and raise the animals and have the garden and everything. All that stuff, you can see that in Senegal and Ghana and Nigeria.
Dan Pashman: And I mean, at the time that you made that trip, you had been working on this book for years.
Michael Twitty: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: And so much of — I mean, the book is you tracing your roots back to Africa.
Michael Twitty: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: And now you actually are setting foot there for the first time.
Michael Twitty: Yeah, and scary. I really felt as if in my brain, in my spirit, something in me was my ancestors using me as a vehicle going, oh, we finally made it back. We finally did it. You definitely have that feeling. You walk into some spaces and you get these gusts of emotion. I don't even have to describe it. Other places, nothing happens to you. Some places you go in and you just can't stop sobbing. And you don't know why. It's not like — it's just like, I don't know. The first time we went to one of the villages, each family has its own compound. Husband has a dwelling. Wives, plural, have a dwelling. There are numbers — there's like spaces where the animals are tied up in the night. There are barns. There’s storage, great granaries. And then I walked into one of the compound kitchens. And next thing I know, it's just like — there it is. I mean, the mortar and pestle, the cooking fire, the cast iron pots, the women like humming and singing songs while they work, the children running around playing — and my throat like started to close up. And all I could, like, squeak out was, “I was here.” It freaked me out. I was here. Not just any place. They took me from here. I — [SIGHS] I don't know. I get chills right now. I don't know how to describe that to somebody.
Dan Pashman: While he was in Africa, Michael really wanted to learn more about the roots of Southern barbecue. His great grandfather, Joseph, was an early pitmaster, born during the Civil War at the tail end of slavery. In The Cooking Gene, Michael goes into barbecue’s history in detail, beginning with the word itself, which he says has multiple origins.
Michael Twitty: The one that's the most popular and probably the the most sound is from barbacoa, which is a Spanish corruption of a term from the Carib people, who gave their name to the Caribbean for …
Dan Pashman: These were indigenous people.
Michael Twitty: Indigenous people, yes. The Spanish saw this kind of like wooden framework over which they would smoke or cook certain meats or fish. The problem with that one origin thesis is this: There were no quadrupeds in their food system. In other words, there were no bovines, there were no sheep, there were no pigs, there were no — none. They didn't have any big animals except for manatees. When was the last time you saw a manatee on a grill made out of wood sticks?
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Michael Twitty: It doesn't happen that way. Now, in West Africa, among the Hausa, you have babbake, which is one of many words to build, to toast, to grill, to build an extravagant fire. Well, why was it extravagant? Because you're eating meat, something people don't do all the time. So you have to go to an analogy to get the best barbecue. They call them analogies from Al-Hajj, the the pilgrimage. Right? To make the suya. You know, suya? They call it suya in West Africa. So you know ...
Dan Pashman: That's sort of the closest thing close to Paris.
Michael Twitty: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: And suya in West Africa to barbecue in south.
Michael Twitty: Yes. Suya and dibi and puri puri. Basically, they're all different little parts of what we might consider the jerk tradition in Jamaica and the barbecuing system in the South.
Dan Pashman: And so the way you lay it out, Southern barbecue is kind of a fusion food between African influences and Caribbean and but also using animals that came from Europe. Is that right?
Michael Twitty: Right. European animals, native and African cooking methods, African spicing traditions.
Dan Pashman: And made especially in the early generations overwhelmingly by enslaved …
Michael Twitty: And folks of African descent. Yes. Black men.
Dan Pashman: And as I said, one of those Black men was Michael’s great-grandfather, Joseph. Joseph was famous for his Alabama-style barbecue spareribs, which were marinated in a top-secret sauce. It’s a recipe that was passed down to Michael’s grandmother, and now, to Michael.
Michael Twitty: Our meat was marinated for 18 hours. That was some serious stuff. When I was over there in southern Suyan, there'd be other things. And to see this dude hack up like the goat and sheep to roast it with the spices on it, to do the whole rub thing. You want to faint. Because it's that ... it's that familiar and beautiful and like, great. And it's like, okay, wow. It's never ending — the never ending story of the consistency, despite all of the suppression. The whole traditions just keep going.
Dan Pashman: Since Michael’s trip to Senegal in 2017, he’s also traveled to Nigeria, Cameroon, and Ghana, where he had an Igbo naming ceremony. Then he led a trip to Benin and Togo, for African American chefs who’d never been to Africa.
Dan Pashman: Michael has come a long way from that kid who didn’t like soul food and didn’t really like being Black. He remembers thinking back then that it was gross the way his grandmother used cornbread to sop up buttermilk. But now …
Michael Twitty: I still don't really eat it that way ...
Michael Twitty: But I do know ...
Dan Pashman: But you understand.
Michael Twitty: I understand. But I don't even understand this, like in West Africa, like the act of eating fufu with your right hand or rice. And now, I swear to God, before now, more than any other time, if you give me some sorghum molasses or some syrup and you give me a biscuit, a bit of butter — I sop like nobody's business, man. I ain’t never seen nobody in England sop, or France, or Ireland, but in Nigeria and Ghana and Senegal I've seen some sopping. And that's that.
Dan Pashman: How did the process of researching and writing this book change the way you think about yourself?
Michael Twitty: Everything. First of all, I want to say this. It made me extremely proud to both be African and African-American. I'm so proud of us. I'm so proud of us. And at the same time, you know, I will never allow myself to be challenged ever again on my African identity. Because I know where we came from. I know our names. I know our countries. I know our ethnic groups. I know individual people who can tell me parts of the story that were lost to us over here. I will never look at that map of Africa ever again without being able to point to and saying, “That's my home.”
Dan Pashman: That’s Michael Twitty, his book is The Cooking Gene. Michael also has a new book coming out this summer, called Koshersoul: The Faith and Food Journey of an African American Jew. It’ll be out August 9, but it’s available for pre-order now, so just go ahead, get it now while you're thinking about it.
Dan Pashman: Michael has done extraordinary work tracing the path food traveled from Africa to the American south. But the journey doesn’t stop there. In the 1920s, Black Americans began leaving the Jim Crow south and moving north in huge numbers, looking for better jobs, better lives. This period became known as the Great Migration. Michael’s family was a part of it, as were so many others.
Dan Pashman: As Black Americans moved north, they brought their foods with them. And they continued to adapt those foods to local tastes, and climates. And that’s how we ended up with a very specific type of barbecue that only exists on the south side of Chicago.
Garry Kennebrew: Chicago is one of the few places that I’m aware of that actually sells rib tips.
Kevin Pang: The fact that so few of my friends who live on the north side actually know about it, I think to me was a real shocker.
Dan Pashman: But while this food is unique to Chicago, the guy who’s the best at making it was born in Alabama. Coming up, we follow the Great Migration north when I travel to Chicago to meet him and to eat. Stick around.
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. Last week on the show, I talk with my friend Carlos Frías, food editor at the Miami Herald, who shares the story of his father. Fernando Frias was born in Cuba and ended up in one of Fidel Castro’s labor camps, where he got a job as a cook. As Carlos tells it, his dad was an innovator in that prison kitchen …
CLIP (CARLOS FRÍAS): They had a little chalkboard.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): Like the menu of the day.
CLIP (CARLOS FRÍAS): In the menu of the day, he writes down on the chalkboard: chicharon rice, split pea and rice, and Dulce De Palma Frías. Frías Palm desert.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): Frías being his last — your last name.
CLIP (CARLOS FRÍAS): His last name.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): So he named the dish after himself
CLIP (CARLOS FRÍAS): After himself! Right? It's like such a cheffy thing to do, right?
CLIP (CARLOS FRÍAS): And from the story he tells, you know, they had one bite and people just lined up for it. It was little moments like that that allowed him to escape to a place mentally to kind of survive that.
Dan Pashman: Eventually, Fernando left Cuba and lived most of his life in south Florida. When he died tragically in 2020, Carlos wrote about Cuban coffee culture as a way to grieve. That episode is up now, don’t miss it. Thanks.
Dan Pashman: Now, back to American barbecue. As we learned from Michael Twitty, enslaved cooks created southern barbecue by combining African spicing traditions, European meats, and Native and African cooking methods. As slavery pushed west, regional barbecue variations were born: Tennessee, Alabama, Texas.
Dan Pashman: In the 1920s, the Great Migration began. A million African Americans moved north, and new barbecue traditions began in Kansas City and St. Louis. Now, as we all know, barbecue is like America’s culinary national pastime. Whole books have been written about it, food writers criss-cross the country looking for the best places, and people wait hours to eat at the most famous spots.
Dan Pashman: But while most of us know about pulled pork in North Carolina, brisket in Texas, and ribs in St. Louis, the Great Migration also created a barbecue tradition in Chicago that gets much less attention:
Kevin Pang: This is a dish that I would say that half the city actually knows about. And I would say that's majority people who live on the south side. It's majority African Americans who grew up on this. And if you are on the north side of town, just because rib tips don't even exist on the north side of Chicago, you don't even know what it is.
Dan Pashman: This is Chicago-based food writer Kevin Pang. Kevin is the editorial director for digital at America’s Test Kitchen. A few years back, he wrote about south side Chicago barbecue for Saveur Magazine. Now, Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in America. Depending on which stats you use, it might be the most segregated. And in Kevin’s piece, he explores not just the history of this food, but also why it doesn’t get more attention.
Kevin Pang: There's a lot of reasons. It's just it's on the south side of Chicago. The fact that it's really been stigmatized these last few years as a place that tourists aren't really going to go, the fact that it's really hard to get to, the fact that there's no sit-down places — most of these places are just takeout places only. It would be very hard to motivate someone to drive 45 minutes to a place that has a bulletproof carousel window that's takeout only. That's really not a really good sell if you really want to experience south side barbecue. I think that's part of the reason why you don't see a lot of north siders making the trek all the way down to the south side just to try this very singular style of barbecue.
Dan Pashman: There are a few things that make Chicago barbecue distinct. First, it’s pretty much only on the south side of Chicago, which is the mostly Black side. The pitmasters are almost all Black men. Most of them moved to Chicago from the south at the tail end of the Great Migration in the '60s and '70s. And they all use a very specific cut of meat — pork rib tips. That’s the knobby end of the St. Louis spare rib that’s sometimes thrown away. On its own, it just looks like a very short rib, but instead of a bone in the middle there are chewy crunchy bits of cartilage.
Dan Pashman: But the most distinct part of Chicago barbecue is the pit itself. You know, in the south the meat is usually smoked out back. But in Chicago, where real estate’s expensive and winters are cold, that’s not an option. So they use something called an aquarium smoker. Picture like a carnival popcorn machine, but bigger. It’s got those four walls made of plexiglass so you can see through — hence aquarium. That’s where the meat sits. The wood goes in the metal compartment underneath and there’s a chimney on top. It’s basically a box. There are no dials, no thermometers. If the fire’s too hot, you spray water on it. If it’s too cool, you let in more air.
Dan Pashman: All of that creates a lot of smoke, as I found out when I visited Garry Kennebrew at Uncle John's BBQ in Homewood, about 45 minutes south of Chicago. I could see the smoke billowing out of the chimney from a block away. When I stepped into the restaurant, Gary was tending the smoker, and there was this haze in the whole place. It kinda made it feel like I was in a dream …
Dan Pashman: Like when you go home, do you like — do things look really crystal clear to you because you don't, you're not — I would think you must be so used to living with that haze.
Garry Kennebrew: Right. And when I get to my front door of my house, my wife makes me take my clothes off because otherwise it's going to permeate the entire house.
Dan Pashman: Right. Right.
Garry Kennebrew: So I have a basket at the front door. So when I get home, I change out of my clothes, go take a shower, and then I'm welcome home.
Garry Kennebrew: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Now, as I understand it, one of the real challenges of cooking with an aquarium smoker, I mean, there's no temperature gauge on that thing.
Garry Kennebrew: None. None.
Dan Pashman: It's — you're cooking by feel.
Garry Kennebrew: Exactly. Exactly.
Dan Pashman: How do you learn something like that?
Garry Kennebrew: Trial and error. You learn by doing. It took me probably about five years before I really reached the point of consistency, if you will. And there are still times where you learn new little things that make life easier for you.
Dan Pashman: Like what? What's something specific you learned recently?
Garry Kennebrew: The timeliness of spraying. Because people will look at it and say, oh, they spray in the water to cool off the fire. And that's not necessarily the only reason for spraying the water. You’re also releasing oxygen molecules that's going to help tenderize the meat as well. It’s creating steam underneath there. Now, steam is actually being absorbed into the meat and that's part of that tenderizing process.
Dan Pashman: Oh, wait. Gary’s spraying water. Look out.
[GARRY KENNEBREW SPRAYING WATER TO BBQ]
Dan Pashman: The flames were getting hot there. You didn't even — you were mid-sentence. That's what — you didn't even ...
Gary Kennebrew: [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: You're just chatting and it's like a reflex.
Gary Kennebrew: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: The flames get high and all of a sudden ...
Garry Kennebrew: It's automatic.You know. I — before I do anything else, talk to you, I got to get this meat right.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Garry Kennebrew: And so ...
Dan Pashman: I respect that Garry. Priorities. Priorities.
Garry Kennebrew: Right. Right.
Dan Pashman: Garry’s family moved to Chicago in 1968, when he was 9, so he was part of the tail end of the Great Migration. His dad started working in a steel mill, and he grew up living the middle class dream on the south side of Chicago. Back home in Alabama, his family was still making barbecue over an open pit, outside on their farm. But here in Chicago, where scraps from meatpacking plants were cheap and easy to get, rib tips cooked in aquarium smokers became a staple in the community.
Garry Kennebrew: You had primarily the rib tips that were kind of being discarded because everybody wanted St. Louis rib. So you cut the tip off and you kind of sell that is just a remnant. And the old timers were savvy enough to take that, that other folks looked at as scrap, and turn that into a primary source of revenue.
Dan Pashman: And I feel like I feel like there's a powerful history there of taking a food that someone else says is not good enough and turning it into something delicious.
Garry Kennebrew: Oh, well, that's the history, part of the history of being Black. And back in my grandparents’ and my parents’ generation, everything from chitlins to hog maws to ham hocks, they were just scraps that were being thrown out. And my ancestors took those and made meals out of them.
Dan Pashman: I know you were born in Alabama.
Garry Kennebrew: Yes.
Dan Pashman: What are some of your memories, some of your food memories from your early years in Alabama?
Garry Kennebrew: Ooh. The 4th of July. The 4th of July was a big time in our life because that's when everybody came home from the north. And we all gathered at my grandparents’ farm and people were sleeping on pallets on the floor and cars in the driveway and, you know, having a big barbecue and baseball game and, you know, there was so much food that you couldn't see it all. Everything from cakes and pies to barbecue to fried fish and chicken and — you name it — greens and beans and potato salad. It was a feast. And that's probably one of the fondest memories I have.
Dan Pashman: And that was after you had moved up here, when you were still living down there. Is other family member staying back?
Garry Kennebrew: It’s continued. It continued once we moved to Chicago, we would go back.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Garry Kennebrew: So we ...
Dan Pashman: You spent summers down there?
Garry Kennebrew: Yes.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Garry Kennebrew: We still maintain roots. I still have property in Alabama. So, yes, that'll always be my home. I have grown to like Chicago. My wife was born here in Chicago. We have roots here in Chicago.
Dan Pashman: You did just say “roots.”
Garry Kennebrew: Yes.
Dan Pashman: For the record. That's a Chicago pronunciation, Gary. You said “roots,” not “roots.”
Garry Kennebrew: Yes. [LAUGHS] Yeah. Oh, about ... oh, about 40 years, you kind of — you have a little change.
Dan Pashman: So, you just literally demonstrate that you do have roots here in Chicago.
Garry Kennebrew: Right.
Dan Pashman: But go on. Sorry.
Garry Kennebrew: Yeah. Okay. Well, that was a Freudian slip.
Garry Kennebrew: No self-respecting southerner would say "roots".
Garry Kennebrew: But yeah. But yeah, I have brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles, aunts in Alabama on the same land that we had when I was born. So it wasn't a race from something as much as much as it was a race to something.
Dan Pashman: What do you mean? Explain that.
Garry Kennebrew: I can recall my grandparents and my great aunts and uncles, they used to always impress upon us the importance of education. Get your education. Can’t nobody take it away from you. Each generation should rise high and higher. That's kind of the philosophy that we've established for our family. I think that was part of what was driving that migration is I want to go out and make my own fortune and do the things I want to do and create my own way. And you had the opportunity to do that in the steel mills and the car factories and the foundries and the packing plants. They offered the opportunity not only for jobs, but for additional education.
Dan Pashman: Garry didn’t start out intending to be a pitmaster. He studied accounting and business in college, got married, worked in corporate America until he was in his 40s. But when his company relocated, Garry took a buyout. He decided he wanted to work for himself. He bought a car wash on the south side, right next door to a famous barbecue place called Barbara Ann’s. Garry started going there for lunch and he got to know the pitmaster, a guy named Mack Sevier.
Dan Pashman: Mack was a legend in the Chicago barbecue scene. And over the years, he took Gary under his wing and taught him how to cook with an aquarium smoker. When Mack left to open his own place, Garry took his job at Barbara Ann’s. Then, after more than a decade of training, Garry opened his own shop.
Dan Pashman: He says these days his customers are a mix. He has gotten a bit of press, so he sometimes draws adventurous eaters from the north side. But it’s mostly regulars from the neighborhood. Because, traditionally, who writes the articles that turn hole in the wall joints into foodie hot spots? White folks. And it’s not necessarily even intentional, but they tend to stay in the areas they know.
Dan Pashman: I lived in Chicago for three years on the north side. I never went to the south side. Except, as I told Garry, one time, when I fell asleep on the train.
Dan Pashman: All of a sudden, I look up and I'm the only white person on the train.
Garry Kennebrew: [LAUGHS] Culture shock.
Dan Pashman: I said, I think I missed my stop.
Garry Kennebrew: You think?
Dan Pashman: But that's how stark the line is.
Garry Kennebrew: Yes.
Dan Pashman: And it's hard for folks in other parts of the country to understand just how stark of a line it is.
Garry Kennebrew: Right.
Dan Pashman: If you cross a border and within two stops on the train, you'll be the only white person or the only Black person.
Garry Kennebrew: Uh-huh. And that street runs two ways, because as a kid growing up in Chicago, we only went to the White Sox games, when we did ..
Dan Pashman: Which is the south side.
Garry Kennebrew: Which is the south side. When we did venture up to Wrigley Field, Waveland Avenue, we often got ...
Dan Pashman: Which is the north side.
Garry Kennebrew: Which is north side. We are often got a very unwelcome resistance. You know, the police stopping us, asking what we're doing there. Like because we were Black, we didn't have a right to exist on the north side. Then as even when I grew up and went away to college and came back to Chicago, I lived in Rogers Park. I moved to Rogers Park because it was close to my job in Deerfield, which all is north.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Garry Kennebrew: And I'm driving home at night and I'm getting stopped for no reason other than driving while Black. So there is a certain racial element that exists as to today.
Dan Pashman: How often you get pulled over now that you live down south?
Garry Kennebrew: Very, very rarely. Very rarely. But I will say this. I have a 1985 Grand National, fully restored. Now, every time if I get in their car and drive their car to the city, I get stopped by the police. And then we look in the car and see, I'm an old timer. Oh, I'm okay. But imagine my son driving that car. When I speak to my other friends and associates that have opened up restaurants and businesses on north side, a lot of times their businesses are not frequented as well and they're not as successful. And one in particular said that every time he looked up, he was getting a citation because neighbors were complaining about his smoke. And he end up going back to the south side, opened up, and he just got tired of the battle.
Dan Pashman: Right. And he's — and he was doing Chicago style barbecue there.
Garry Kennebrew: Yes.
Dan Pashman: Yes. Well, see, that's so interesting, because the barbecue places that do well on the north side are mostly — well, first of all, they're mostly not Black owned. And they're — they got a lot of money behind them.
Garry Kennebrew: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: They're in very desirable neighborhoods. The decor, you can see that they have access to capital.
Garry Kennebrew: Right.
Dan Pashman: And then the food itself is very kind of like, I got to say, it's just kind of like the greatest hits of generic barbecue.
Garry Kennebrew: Right.
Dan Pashman: And when I lived on the north side, I never went to those places, not because I was some kind of barbecue genius or knew any better.
Garry Kennebrew: Uh-huh?
Dan Pashman: I had this idea that barbecue is from the south. The idea that there could be good barbecue in Chicago seemed ridiculous to me.
Garry Kennebrew: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: Because I did not — I was totally ignorant of Chicago barbecue on the south side.
Garry Kennebrew: Right.
Dan Pashman: Now I feel stupid. Like three years of wasted —
Garry Kennebrew: [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: I really should have just, like, skipped a few bratwurst come down here. But that was another bias that I had that I did not understand the connection between the south side of Chicago and the South.
Garry Kennebrew: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: The southern part of America.
Garry Kennebrew: Right. Right.
Dan Pashman: Like, I didn't understand that there was such, that those ties were so close.
Garry Kennebrew: Okay. Okay.
Dan Pashman: You know what I mean? And hearing your story and hearing you talk, it's obvious. Like you still very much think of yourself as someone from the South.
Garry Kennebrew: It's always — that'll always be home. You know, when you look at back in the late fifties, early sixties, those were my cousins. Those were my uncles and aunts that you saw being water hosed and bitten by dogs and all that other stuff. And I was about five or six-years-old at the time, and I'm sitting here observing this, and it definitely leaves a stark impression.
Dan Pashman: But Alabama still feels like home.
Garry Kennebrew: I don't know what it is, but yes, I can't get it — get away from that. And I don't know — I can't put my finger on it, but it feels comfortable. And I think if I were to be honest, if I'm really going to be honest with you, I think what it is most of all and it might sound a little bit screwed up. Growing up in Alabama, even when I went back to Alabama, there were certain signs and symbols that you knew. And I'll give you an example. If you’re driving down the road and you see a Confederate flag flying, you know that's not something where you want to stop. The same can't be said for Chicago. You drive from your neighborhood over into Bridgeport and there are no signs. There are no indications. But once you go underneath that fire dock on 35th and Shields, you in danger. When somebody in the south didn't like me or don't like me, they are man enough or wool enough to tell me you're not welcome here. In Chicago, the way you find out that you're not wanted is getting a brick in the back of the head. [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: I know that a lot of the kind of the original, the first generation of Chicago barbecue pitmasters, a lot of them have passed on.
Garry Kennebrew: Uh-huh.
Dan Pashman: And also the, you know, the Great Migration ended around 1970. 1980, Chicago's Black population peaked and it's actually gone down since 1980. What do you see as the future of Chicago barbecue?
Garry Kennebrew: I think it has a bright future, to be honest with you. Because as we get more publicity, as we get more coverage, as people become more knowledgeable of what we're offering, our popularity is expanding beyond the Black community. And population growth is an ebb and flow type of activity. Do you think for a moment that those populations are not going to be replaced, if not by Blacks, by some other population? And as long as there's a population, there will be a place for barbecue.
Dan Pashman: That’s Garry Kennebrew. His restaurant is Uncle John’s BBQ in Homewood, Illinois. Look for the smoke, you can’t miss it. And yes, I did eat. But as you longtime listeners know, I sometimes get too excited and forget to record my eating experience. You know, like when the radio pro in me and the eater in me are in conflict? the eater usually wins. So I’ll tell you this — I ordered the tip link combo, sauce on the side. That’s what Kevin Pang instructed me to get. It’s a bunch of those rib tips, and smoked hot sausage, a.k.a. links, over fries, with white bread. The sauce is kind of thick, kind of sweet, a little spicy. You get it on the side so you can regulate meat to sauce ratios, and to preserve all that texture. And oh, the texture. The crisp and crackle of the natural casing on those links? So good. And the main event, the tips? They were tender, with chewy crusty bits around the edges. Fantastic. By the time I left the smoky haze of Uncle John’s, I knew it was no dream.
Dan Pashman: Make sure you out Kevin Pang’s excellent piece in Saveur, it’s called "Chicago Is A City Divided By Barbecue". We’ll link to it at sporkful.com.
Dan Pashman: Remember to get your tickets for our New York live show. It's on July 20th at the Bell House in Brooklyn. Details and tickets at sporkful.com/live.
Dan Pashman: Next week, The Sporkful will transform into a game show! And you and I are the contestants. We're bringing back Two Chefs and a Lie, where I talk to three people and try to figure out which one of them is not a chef.
Dan Pashman: While you’re waiting for that one, listen to my conversation with Carlos Frías about his father’s journey from Cuba to south Florida. We’ll also talk about the differences between Cuban food in Miami and in Cuba. This is a great story, check it out.