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The late Mr. P was a bridge between barbecue’s past and its future

Updated Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015, 6:30 p.m.

The wife and children of Fate Pittman Jr., the local barbecue legend who went by the handle Mr. P, gathered at Providence Hospital on Monday when the family patriarch died after suffering a pair of heart attacks earlier this month, his son Melvin Pittman said. The 79-year-old pitmaster died around 10:30 p.m. after the family decided to take him off life support.

Pittman, 56, said his father went into the hospital about a month ago for high blood sugar. Doctors had apparently stabilized Mr. P before he went into cardiac arrest last week; he was brain-dead following the seizures and had been on life support for days, Pittman said.

The barbecue man's passing could mark the end of his four-wheeled operation, Mr. P's Ribs and Fish, which started in Chillum before Prince George's County started cracking down on street vending. Mr. P and his converted school bus/smokehouse caravan then relocated to the vast concrete expanse in front of Safeway on Rhode Island Avenue NE, before moving to other spots along the same street in later years. Mr. P got into the street food game after many years running bricks-and-mortar joints, mostly the take-out kind.

Jim Shahin introduced me to Mr. P's Ribs and Fish in 2009, before he started writing the Smoke Signals column. Shahin had made two previous visits when he called me from the Safeway parking lot. The scene, he recalled, was unlike any he had witnessed in the District. Old-timers, people who had followed Mr. P since his Prince George's days, made the trek from the county just to order a combo plate of smoked meats.

"He created a sort of community around himself that was so casual," Shahin said. "He was a bridge between a rural barbecue past and what was to come. He was mobile, but not in a trendy truck sort of way."

A native of Enfield, N.C., Pittman had an employee who went by the nickname, Preacher Man. There was nothing cool or ironic about Mr. P and Preacher Man's monikers. Just as there was nothing cool or ironic about the converted school bus as rolling smokehouse or Mr. P's parking lot location. It was just a business, plain and simple. Mr. P's became cool only when outsiders deemed it so.

"He was better than good enough, by far, to attain the kind of mystique that he had," Shahin said. "He was such a warm and friendly guy."

All told, Fate Pittman had smoked ribs, chicken and beef for nearly 40 years, long before barbecue fanatics turned the cuisine into an annual week-long celebration.

"We've always capped off Meat Week with lunch at Mr. P's," said Mike Bober, founder of Meat Week DC. "He's a throwback to an era before food trucks and celebrity chefs, and everything about his barbecue reflects that. We've always felt it was important to represent that classic, authentic approach as part of Washington's barbecue scene."

Mr. P's business has been shut down for days now, and Melvin Pittman, who had been working with his father, said the family is not sure yet if the business will continue. "I don't know what his wife wants," he said. Mamie Pittman apparently has the last word on the future of her husband's smoked-meats operation.

There will be a candlelight vigil for Fate "Mr. P" Pittman Jr. at 7 p.m. Friday at 1708 6th St. NW, where the late pitmaster's vehicles remain parked. People are asked to bring a candle and any remembrances they have of Mr. P. "If you got something to say, you're welcome to speak," said Melvin Pittman.

The funeral will be held at noon on Feb. 21 at H.D. Pope Funeral Home in Rocky Mount, N.C. It is open to the public.