Everywhere you look, it’s barbecue.
Interest began skyrocketing more than a decade ago: a boom in new restaurants, new TV shows, new cookbooks, attention in food magazines. Barbecue has become a national obsession that stretches far beyond the South, the region it’s most associated with.
But something hasn’t been seen everywhere: The faces of Black barbecuers. Odd, since they’re key in the development of American barbecue.
Adrian Miller, the author of the new “Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue,” took note. He was astonished, while watching a Paula Deen special on barbecue, that not one of the people interviewed on the show was Black, even though he could see Black pitmasters working in the background.
“It showed me that amid all this barbecue abundance, something was missing. What was missing was public acknowledgment of, and appreciation for, African American barbecuers and what they’ve contributed to this hallowed culinary tradition,” he says in the book’s introduction.
Another thing alarmed him: The dwindling of old-school barbecue restaurants, closing because owners retired with no family willing to take over, or because they were priced out of gentrifying neighborhoods.
Miller — a certified barbecue judge, scholar and “recovering attorney” who worked in the Clinton administration — will speak in Milwaukee on Sept. 9 about his deeply researched book. The event will serve two styles of barbecue.
“Black Smoke” goes to the roots of American barbecue (Miller found early writings describing Native Americans’ slow smoking of meats, for preservation more than celebration) and traces barbecue’s innovations and entrepreneurship in Black culture.
Besides scouring historical sources and interviewing pitmasters and others, Miller crisscrossed the country to sample barbecue, including stops in Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha in December 2019.
He lists Ashley’s Bar-B-Q at 1501 E. Center St. in “Black Smoke” as a favorite of his, one of 20 in the country to get a shout-out and only four in the Midwest.
“Their barbecue most reminded me of that I’ve had at countless Black churches, family reunions and cookouts in the park,” he told the Journal Sentinel. “The barbecue had a decent amount of smoke, some charcoal flavor, a little char and a flavorful sauce.”
Darnell Ashley owns and operates the barbecue restaurant founded by his father, Thomas Ashley Jr. But it wasn’t a straight line from helping out as a kid to taking over the business 21 years ago.
“I couldn’t stand doing it,” Darnell Ashley said of barbecuing when he was a youngster (and smelling like smoke afterward). “My dad had me doing it ever since I was little.”
He dreamed instead of playing football; as an adult, Ashley worked for Harley-Davidson and others.
“He would tell me, ‘You’ve got a million dollar business, but you’re working for other people,’ ” Ashley said of his father, a native of McComb, Mississippi, who eventually sold the business to someone outside the family.
While Ashley was working for the City of Milwaukee, a cousin asked him to help start a restaurant that could be franchised. “I got the fever back because I was at his place, showing him” how to barbecue, Ashley said.
When the Center Street restaurant came back on the market, he bought it.
“I’m back doing what I’ve always loved doing, cooking,” he said.
The restaurant still has the pit his father welded, Ashley said. Thomas Ashley had worked for A.O. Smith before opening the restaurant, welding pits in his spare time and barbecuing for friends at home. Eventually, he took his barbecue to work as word of it spread.
Five friends pooled their money, Darnell Ashley said, to get his father’s restaurant started in the 1950s in Milwaukee’s Haymarket neighborhood, the area around North Fifth Street and West Juneau Avenue.
It’s the same area where Speed Queen Bar-B-Q got its start in the 1950s, another black-owned Milwaukee barbecue restaurant that endures today.
Both Ashley’s and Speed Queen moved in the 1960s, with Ashley’s settling on Center Street and Speed Queen on West Walnut Street.
In the years since he’s taken over Ashley’s, Darnell Ashley has expanded the menu. He’s added fried fish and chicken, beef ribs, burgers and hot dogs. Turkey tips, too, because “so many people don’t want to eat pork,” Ashley said.
Ice cream, of all things, became one of the restaurant’s big sellers. Diners kept asking for soul food, so he added a soul-food buffet on Sundays with rotating specials; the restaurant began selling soul food sides like macaroni and cheese during the week.
The Ashley’s menu still has pig snouts (pronounced snoots), but Darnell Ashley took goat off the menu after his source for it died — the original Bill the Butcher on the north side, who was a friend of his father’s. Miller notes in “Black Smoke” that goat is rarely found on barbecue menus, and when it is, it’s mainly in Texas and in Mississippi, where Thomas Ashley grew up.
Darnell Ashley also tweaked his father’s simple seasonings. “I changed the seasoning early in the game. If I did it now, I’d get a whupping,” Ashley said. “To mess with that now would be blasphemy.”
The meat is seasoned with a dry rub and then a wet rub, marinating for at least 12 hours before it’s barbecued “with charcoal and wood and time,” Ashley said.
It can be challenging for people to open a restaurant these days, he said, from licensing (“That in itself is exhausting”) to finding employees and securing a loan. “Times are different. If you’re not willing to put your house up … if you’re lucky enough to have a house where you can get the money,” Ashley said.
A teenage daughter and son help Ashley around the business. “I want them to know the value of money and work,” as his dad did with him. “They talk like they do want to carry on,” he said.
“I hope it carries on,” Ashley said. With a barbecue restaurant, “You’re making people happy.”
Ashley this year opened a second restaurant, Q, at 2730 N. King Drive, that has table service and drinks. Besides Ashley’s barbecue, it serves soul food and pasta.
Progress for Black pitmasters
Despite his concerns about the state of Black barbecue, Miller found reason to be hopeful by the book’s end. There’s been progress.
Black pitmaster Rodney Scott of Charleston, South Carolina, who won a James Beard Award in 2018, has a new cookbook out; barbecue halls of fame are becoming more inclusive; Black barbecuers are appearing more frequently on TV and are getting national press, Miller said.
And, although some Black barbecue restaurants across the country have closed and acquiring capital can remain challenging for new businesses, entrepreneurs are turning to pop-ups, food trucks, roadside stands and other means of getting their barbecue to the people.
Those alternatives to traditional restaurants in effect made the new guard of Black barbecue businesses pandemic-ready, Miller noted.
A convection smoker and Texas style
In Milwaukee, Jason Alston is one of the city’s newer generation of Black barbecuers.
He opened his Heaven’s Table BBQ in late 2018 at one of the vendor stalls at the east side’s Crossroads Collective food hall, 2238 N. Farwell Ave. Now, he’s preparing to open a second location in late September, at 5507 W. North Ave. in Washington Heights.
While it might look like virtually overnight success, Alston said, “It took me eight to nine years to get to this point.”
He went to school for classical training as a chef, working in a variety of restaurants until he had the chance to open his own.
At one point early in his career, he could have worked outside his field for $14 an hour or for $8.50 cooking at a restaurant. “I took the hit,” he said. At that restaurant, his boss taught him what he needed to know, he said. “Sometimes it’s not about the money; it’s about being around someone for a certain amount of time to learn what you need to to move on.”
Getting a foot in the door can be hard for Black entrepreneurs, Alston said. “There’s a lot of talented people here who are afraid to ask for help,” he said.
“It’s hard for most Black people who have the talent to find the financial resources” to open a business, he continued. It’s not as common to have the sort of generational wealth that allows a relative to invest a spare $20,000, he noted. What Milwaukee needs, he said, is to help young Black entrepreneurs — if not financially, then with advice to succeed in business.
At his east side restaurant, Alston, like other Black pitmasters, takes inspiration from family and his upbringing for his dishes. “You always embrace it and you elevate it to the next level,” he said. (Alston recently changed the sausage he serves from a European style typical in Milwaukee to a spicier Creole one, a nod to his father’s side of the family; it happened after “Black Smoke” observed that the mild original was unlike Southern barbecue’s typical hot links.)
But the menu and how he cooks the meats take a new view.
Instead of a pit or traditional smoker, he uses a convection smoker, Ole Hickory Pits brand. It uses logs like a regular smoker, but the operator sets it and “you pretty much forget it,” Alston said, unlike the constant tending a conventional smoker or pit requires.
It was the best smoker for his needs, said Alston, who also saw it as less dangerous to the health of him and his employees.
Heaven’s Tables serves thicker slices of beef brisket; it and the other meats on the menu aren’t sauced because Alston doesn’t particularly care for sauce. That drew the attention of Miller, who noted that Alston’s barbecue evokes central Texas style, the style that has taken over as the dominant one in the U.S. in recent years.
“The center of the barbecue universe has moved away from Kansas City and Memphis,” Miller said.
The tradition at Black barbecue restaurants, when beef is served at all, is to chop it or slice it thin, Miller said. But serving barbecue central Texas style was a business decision for Alston. As Miller noted in “Black Smoke,” customers looking for Texas-style brisket are likely to leave if a restaurant doesn’t serve it.
Alston observed that the recent Netflix series “High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America” (which featured Miller in some episodes) followed the cuisine’s development from traditional to modern.
“You can lose people if you don’t adapt,” Alston said.
Contact dining critic Carol Deptolla at [email protected] or (414) 224-2841, or through the Journal Sentinel Food & Home page on Facebook. Follow her on Twitter at @mkediner or Instagram at @mke_diner.
If you go
What: “Culture Clash: Fusing Culinary Traditions That Bring Us Together,” a discussion of barbecue with dinner. it’s part of Milwaukee Film’s Cultures and Communities, a film, health and lifestyle festival.
Who: Author Adrian Miller, in conversation with Radio Milwaukee DJ Tarik Moody. Cooking the dinner will be Jason Alston of Heaven’s Table BBQ in Milwaukee and Alex Hanesakda of the Lao restaurant SapSap in Mount Pleasant.
When: 6 p.m. Sept. 9
Where: At the Washington Heights event venue and vintage shop Dandy, 5020 W. Vliet St.
Tickets: At mkefilm.org/cultureclash. They’re $100 for the general public; VIP tickets, which include a signed copy of Miller’s book, are $125.
Adrian Miller includes 22 recipes in “Black Smoke,” from brisket to dessert. Mashed potato salad is said to be common in east Texas; this one first was published in Robb Walsh’s “Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook” and credited to cooks at New Zion Missionary Baptist Church. Miller’s adaptation adds mustard for tang.
Mashed Potato Salad
Makes 4 servings
Recipe tested by Carol Deptolla
- 1½ pounds russet potatoes (about 4 medium)
- ½ cup mayonnaise
- 1 tablespoon prepared yellow mustard (optional)
- 2 green onions, sliced
- 1 tablespoon pickle relish
- 4 teaspoons pickle brine
- 4 teaspoons hot pepper sauce
- Salt to taste
Peel potatoes and cut into 1-inch chunks. Place them in a 4-quart saucepan with enough water to cover.
Bring water to a boil over high heat. Cover and simmer 15 minutes or until potatoes are tender. Drain.
Combine all other ingredients in a large bowl. Coarsely mash potatoes in the pot and then stir them into the other ingredients. Let potato salad cool to room temperature before serving.
Note: Reserve a tablespoon of the sliced green onions to garnish the top of the salad, if you wish.
This recipe was Adrian Miller’s mother’s. If making this more than a few hours in advance, assemble the banana pudding but leave off the meringue; cover and refrigerate up to one day. Let it come to a cool room temperature as the oven preheats and the meringue is made.
Johnetta Miller’s Banana Pudding
Makes 12 servings
Recipe tested by Carol Deptolla
- ¾ to 1 cup sugar
- ½ cup flour
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 4 cups whole milk
- 4 large egg yolks
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 (11-ounce) box vanilla wafers
- 8 fairly firm bananas, peeled and cut crosswise into slices, as thick as you prefer
- 4 large egg whites
- ½ teaspoon cream of tartar
- ½ cup sugar
Make pudding: Heat a couple of inches of water in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat.
Fill a heatproof bowl with the sugar (to taste), flour and salt, then place it on the saucepan so it fits snugly. Reduce heat to medium and pour in milk, whisking mixture until smooth. Cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until mixture thickens slightly. (It is thick enough when a line drawn through the back of the coated spoon with a finger holds its shape.)
Lightly beat egg yolks in a liquid measuring cup. Whisk in a few tablespoons of hot milk mixture to temper them, then whisk that egg mixture into heated bowl. Cook for a few minutes, whisking, until slightly thicker, then remove bowl from heat. Stir in vanilla extract. The custard will thicken further as it cools yet will still be pourable.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Have at hand a 9-by-13-inch baking dish that’s at least 2 inches deep.
Make topping: Combine egg whites and cream of tartar in bowl of stand mixer or use a bowl and handheld mixer; beat on low, then medium-high speed, until frothy.
Gradually add sugar while continuing to beat at medium-high speed, until meringue holds stiff peaks.
Assemble banana pudding: Place a single layer of vanilla wafers in bottom of baking dish. Use half of sliced bananas to layer over the wafers. Spread half of custard over bananas. Repeat those three layers, ending with custard.
Spread meringue so that it covers custard entirely; swirl it decoratively. Bake on a rack in center of oven for 15 minutes or until meringue is lightly browned in spots.
Let cool completely (this can take a couple of hours). Refrigerate with a tent of foil over the top that does not touch meringue for at least 2 hours or until well chilled before serving.
In Denver, “Daddy” Bruce Randolph Sr. was legendary for his barbecue. His story is told in “Black Smoke,” one of a number of profiles of significant figures in barbecue’s past and present. Adrian Miller adapted his sauce from the 1980 “Colorado’s Gourmet Gold: Cookbook of Recipes From Popular Colorado Restaurants.” He describes it as a hybrid of eastern North Carolina and Deep South sauces.
‘Daddy’ Bruce’s Barbecue Sauce
Makes 5 cups
Recipe tested by Carol Deptolla
- 1 cup ketchup
- ½ cup Louisiana-style hot sauce
- ¾ cup Worcestershire sauce
- 2 cups vinegar (apple cider or white)
- 4 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon salt
- ½ tablespoon black pepper
- ½ cup lemon juice, squeezed fresh
Heat ingredients in a medium saucepan until the sugar is dissolved. Allow to cool and store in a large bottle or jar in the refrigerator. The sauce improves with time and shaking.