When Larry Bethune, 64, looks out at the neighborhood from Brenda’s Bar-B-Que Pit in Montgomery, Ala., he sees what isn’t there. “Used to be a gas station over there,” he says, pointing to a weedy lot. “Another gas station, there. There, a grocery store. Another grocery store, there. A candy store.” He pauses. “Used to be a little town around here.”
That was back when Bethune was growing up. His parents, Larry James and Jereline Bethune, opened Brenda’s in 1942. Jereline, who ran Brenda’s for decades after her husband died in 1956, named it after her second daughter.
A lot has happened since then: World War II, with its segregated army. Jim Crow, a system that enforced racial separation and all but kept blacks from voting. Here in Montgomery, there was the famous bus boycott, begun 60 years ago last December when Rosa Parks was arrested and fined for not surrendering her seat to a white person on a Montgomery bus. Helping to organize the boycott that ensued — culminating in the Supreme Court’s decision ordering Montgomery to integrate its bus system — was a young preacher named Martin Luther King Jr.
Brenda’s, which started out as a nightclub that sold food, became a focal point for civil rights movement activity. “My mother and my sister and my auntie would help the NAACP,” Bethune recalls, standing on a patch of concrete in front of the tiny take-out joint. “We had a printing machine, and we could put out fliers about when different meetings were going to be. At the time, there was a fence back there, so you couldn’t see in the back.”
There could be trouble if their activities, though perfectly legal, were discovered. “Ku Klux Klan was still around in those days,” Bethune says.
Brenda’s, with smoke from its all-wood indoor pit wafting skyward, has survived all of that: the active suppression of voting rights, the open hostility by some whites, the neighborhood disintegration. These many years later, the resilience of Brenda’s, which employs Jereline’s grandchildren, exemplifies the depth of tradition that barbecue represents. It carries on a culinary heritage that goes back centuries and helps define the indelible contribution to American cuisine made by African Americans.
“Rebellion food” is what Michael Twitty calls barbecue. Twitty’s first book, “The Cooking Gene,” based on his project to discover his own roots and the roots of African American cooking, will be published this year. And barbecue has been the subject of a sizeable piece of his research. “The golden age of the plantation culture coincided with the Enlightenment, the birth of the industrial revolution and scientific racism,” he says. “Every way of doing this — digging a hole, putting sticks over it, putting an animal over it, butchering a cow or a pig — every way of doing this ran contrary to this beautiful, organized, almost mathematical type of culture.”
At the recommendation of locals, I visited Brenda’s, where I ate a spectacular pulled pork sandwich on the hood of my car, while traveling through the South last year to check out the state of black-owned barbecue restaurants. Why take such a trip? First, to assess the claim bandied about in barbecue circles that such joints are dying. Second, because 50 years after such landmark civil rights events as the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, barbecue offers a lens onto race.
To be sure, others besides blacks have played a significant role in the development of what we have come to see as a peculiarly American version of smoked meat: low-and-slow cooking of animal parts, such as pork shoulder and beef brisket. Many credit American Indians with establishing the template for what would be known as American barbecue. A Spanish explorer in the early 1500s named Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés described the Indians of Hispaniola (today, Haiti and Dominican Republic) cooking food above a slow, smoky fire on a platform of green sticks. He called the device “barbacoa,” an approximation of the pronunciation of the indigenous Taino people, and the word was later anglicized. Germans helped define barbecue in Texas and South Carolina. Mexicans in South Texas contributed barbacoa, a linguistic reverberation of the earliest days, which now refers to a cow’s head wrapped in magay leaves and buried in the ground to cook along with fire embers for hours and hours (although these days, Mexican barbacoa typically is steamed).
“Barbecue is a quintessential American cuisine,” says Lolis Eric Elie, author of “Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country.” “When we talk about a melting pot, barbecue embraces traditions many other cuisines don’t. African ingredients. Caribbean ingredients. It has a democratic impulse, because it is informal, and often we eat it with our hands, and it cuts across class lines.”
But from the early days of the country, blacks have been associated with barbecue more than any other group. Arriving as slaves, they brought their knowledge of smoking meats from West Africa and mated it with the methods and foods of the New World. In the 1700s, blacks dug the trenches, prepared the meat and tended the fires of barbecues for political and social events. In the 1800s, politicians threw large barbecues to court votes. Again, slaves cooked the barbecue. Later, in the early 1900s, barbecue provided blacks a vehicle to gain a commercial foothold. In Kansas City, Mo., an African American man, Henry Perry, became the “father of Kansas City barbecue” when he began selling smoked beef and wild game in a peppery sauce. Two landmark places with ties to Perry were both founded by African Americans: The famed Arthur Bryant’s started in the 1920s, and the local six-outlet chain Gates and Sons Bar-B-Q was established in 1946.
More common, though, are white-owned barbecue restaurants with blacks doing the cooking — and rarely getting the credit. A few black pitmasters have achieved acclaim, including, most notably, Rodney Scott of Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Hemingway, S.C., and Ed Mitchell, formerly of the Pit in Raleigh. Largely, though, they are invisible. The same can be said of black-owned barbecue restaurants, which the media often overlook in the current barbecue boom, spotlighting instead what food writer and barbecue expert Robb Walsh called “white hipster males” in a First We Feast article last year.
Few, for example, have heard of Lannie’s Bar-B-Q Spot in Selma. As the day turned to night, I sat with Deborah Hatcher, 61, in a booth at the black-owned restaurant. Lannie’s is a meticulously maintained, high-ceilinged, white-walled neighborhood restaurant around 75 years old. No one knows the age for sure. Hatcher is the granddaughter of founder Lannie Travis and the daughter of current owner Lula Hatcher.
Lannie’s is as much community center as barbecue joint. Locals constantly stream in and out. Deborah, who worked there before she needed surgery on both her knees, functions as a kind of den mother now. As she scolds this one and kisses that one, she remembers being a young girl when marchers gathered throughout the neighborhood.
“The woman that Oprah played in ‘Selma,’ she lived with us,” Deborah says, referring to Annie Lee Cooper, the civil rights activist known for punching Selma Sheriff Jim Clark. ”She was the oldest member of our church, an independent old lady, and my brother would take breakfast to her every morning. One day, he found her on the floor. After she got out of the hospital, she moved in with us. Stayed with us about four years. She died six or seven years ago.”
Lannie’s draws a mixed clientele. “Always had white people come here,” she says, “But we couldn’t go to a white place. I can remember we had a doctor, and we had to go in the back door. I never did forget that.”
She recalls the Ku Klux Klan riding through their neighborhood when she was a little girl. “Lights flashing. Horns blasting,” she says. “We would go in the house and turn the lights out. This was a mean, cruel place back in those days.”
At the time of the Selma march, Lannie’s was a tiny place with dirt floors. Freedom Riders stayed around the corner in what was known as the Freedom House. “My grandmother would fix sandwiches and take them to them,” Deborah says.
Barbecue has long functioned as a vehicle for black entrepreneurism. In Mobile, Ala., I visited a tiny little black-owned place called McMillan Bar-B-Que that was established after Hurricane Frederick destroyed the gas lines to their service station in 1979. Now it is run by a second generation. Co-owners Carolyn Jackson, 63, the late founder’s daughter, and her husband Angelo Jackson, 75, cook toothsome pork ribs over oak wood in a brick-and-plaster pit that the family built themselves.
Small, black-owned, family-run barbecue restaurants have a tough time lasting beyond two generations. Children seek a less demanding career. The economics of ever-increasing wood and meat costs in a fiercely competitive business environment create challenges for getting loans to make necessary upgrades. But one of the Jacksons’ two sons and a granddaughter work at McMillan, providing Carolyn a sense of security. “Will there be a third generation?” she says, repeating my question. “Yes. Definitely.”
In northern Alabama in a town called Florence, I pulled into the the teeny Bunyan’s Bar-B-Q, known for its sensational mustard-based hot slaw. While marveling at its flavor, I chewed on the improvisational nature of barbecue. Indeed, Twitty calls barbecue “edible jazz.”
Nowhere is improvisation more on display than in Memphis. Barbecue spaghetti, one of the city’s signature dishes, got its start at the black-owned Bar-B-Q Shop. Black pitmaster Desiree Robinson at the humble Cozy Corner is famous for her barbecue bologna and Cornish hen. Meanwhile, the funky third-generation black-owned Payne’s Bar-B-Q’s take on the pork sandwich — gigantic, lightly sauced, crunch-happy and crowned with a landslide of mustard-based coleslaw — sets the standard.
I started my trip in Atlanta, King’s birthplace. King discussed strategy with his lieutenants over ribs at the hole-in-the-wall Aleck’s Barbecue Heaven. Aleck’s had a few seats at the counter and three, maybe four, booths. One of them had a huge wreath resting on it, memorializing King.
Aleck’s closed years ago. So have many other neighborhood black-owned barbecue joints in Atlanta, including Wyolene’s and the venerable Auburn Rib Shack. But you can still get pulled pork smoked in an all-wood-fueled pit at Hodge’s, where King also is said to have eaten. And you can still enjoy one heck of a slab of ribs and rib tips at JJ’s Rib Shack, where the delicious meat is cooked over charcoal and wood in a long, homemade metal pit.
At Tony Morrow’s Real Pit BBQ, tradition and modernity blend. Booths are sheathed in horsehide, and the sound system plays old R&B. Morrow pays homage to his late grandfather, an Alabama pitmaster. To the traditional offerings, Morrow adds delicious lemon-pepper ribs and moist red velvet cupcakes.
Morrow’s old-and-new approach hints at the future as it embraces the past. The route to that future winds backward through time, from even before the earliest days of slavery through the civil rights movement to the modern day.
My journey took me to scores of places, including several white-owned ones: Hancock’s in Selma, which fed blacks and whites alike during the Montgomery march. The now-closed Ollie’s in Birmingham, which inadvertently upheld the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when the Supreme Court found against its anti-integration argument. The Rendezvous, a place that stayed in downtown Memphis when other businesses fled to the suburbs after the riots that wrenched the city after King’s death.
Everywhere I went, the sweet, rich smell in my car wafting up from clamshells of half-finished ribs, pork sandwiches, collards and banana pudding was redolent of heritage.
Are black-owned barbecue restaurants going extinct? It’s hard to say. Numbers for them don’t exist and never did. But my travels have persuaded me that there are more second- and third-generation black-owned barbecue restaurants than the world probably realizes. Just as the world doesn’t fully realize the breadth of a largely invisible legacy.
Shahin is an associate professor of journalism at Syracuse University. He will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jimshahin.