After almost 40 years selling barbecue at the corner of Sixth Street and Florida Avenue NW, Horace Wynn is trying to get out of the business, hoping to turn his establishment over to someone young enough to outlive the two trends that have hurt him the most: urban crime and the politics of pork.
Having sold more than a herd in ribs and pork sandwiches, the 58-year-old Wynn still considers himself the city's premier barbecue chef. But lately, long-time patrons of the Pig 'N Pit come in just to chat and settle for a bowl of collard greens.
The conversations start off with the usual howdy-do's, but when the customers say they just came from the doctor's office, Wynn knows what's coming next.
" 'Doctor says stay off the pork. It causes high blood pressure,' " Wynn recalls. "They just can't eat no more."
These days, the Pig 'N Pit looks like it's closed, and it often is. Never one to hurry, Wynn takes as much time opening up as he takes cooking his barbecue, which is prepared with his grandmother's recipe.
"It's heir property. Over 100 years old," he says with a proud smile.
Actually what he's talking about is not the ribs, which are cooked like any other rib in his hometown, Dudley, N.C. It's the stuff in that recycled catsup bottle, with the hand-pressed holes in the cap. It's secret sauce, and it's good.
It had to be good to keep customers coming this long--and coming under some trying circumstances: There are two bullet holes in the roof of the Pig 'N Pit and some more around the cash register.
Wynn was robbed three times during August and September last year. From his window he can see what he believes to be the cause of the crime: drugs, mostly PCP, being hawked from the curbside mostly by teen-age boys.
That situation is changing since police mounted a major crackdown, but Wynn has been around and he knows how the system works.
"I've seen 'em catch that same boy l0 times this year," Wynn said recently as he watched undercover officers jump from a car and nab a suspect. "The police catch 'em, the judges let 'em go."
For once, he loses his smile. Doing business at Sixth and Florida used to be real good, he remembered. There is a picture of him in a 1948 edition of a local newspaper, an advertisement for the Pig 'N Pit, inviting those attending that year's Capital Classic to stop by after the dance.
The Capital Classic was a weekend of activities including dances, parades and a football game between the two top-ranked black colleges. Griffith stadium was open then, and it seemed everybody had to stop by the Pit either before or after the game.
The Howard Theater was located just around the corner, and with a smile, Wynn recalled how Count Basie and other stars of the era sent limousines around to pick up an order of ribs between shows.
It sounded odd when he said, "It was real good then. No integration."
But it was understandable: "Everybody had to come here," he said.
Wynn came to Washington from North Carolina in 1939, did a stint with the Army and went to work for the State Department. He had graduated from Howard University, took a master's in biology and enrolled in the School of Pharmacy. He decided to become a barbecue man rather than a pharmacist when his brother put the Pit up for sale--at a discount price for family members.
It was a good time for a long time, but then the riots came and everything around him burned. The Pit stands today much as it did in 1947. If Wynn had his way, he would just close up shop and keep the memories, but every time he thinks about that, some customer wanders in wanting some more.
So now he's trying to sell it, just to keep the establishment alive--and, of course, to make a few more bucks.
Even though a lot of customers have stopped eating pork, Wynn figures that the taste buds will perk up again and there will be a crave wave for his tasty meals.
"Basically, I don't believe what they say about pork because if it were true, two thirds of North Carolina would be dead," Wynn reasons. "Take my mother. Now she was a recipient of a whole lot of pork, and she lived to be 96."