Where There's Smoke

New Orleans isn't a barbecue town? Don't tell it to these pit bosses.



The front door to Ms. Hyster's Bar-B-Que swings open to admit the swooshing sound of a city bus barreling down South Claiborne Avenue, and two men, their dusty workclothes draped over lean, strong frames. Inside, proprietor Virginia Johnson half-rises to greet her customers with a bittersweet pronouncement. "No greens today. The truck should be here in about an hour. Come back tomorrow, alright," she urges in a familiar, but not local, drawl.

"Aw," one of the men teases, pushing his partner back out into the hot afternoon. "He's been crying all day for them, too."

The door closes. "They're from Mississippi," Johnson explains.

Johnson is taking a rare sitting break in the spare dining room. She nibbles on a slice of the old-fashioned pound cake she baked the night before; portraits of Rosa Parks and Frederick Douglass gaze from the wall behind her.

She has spent the past half-hour detailing her family's barbecue journey, which began in Centerville, Miss., in a smokehouse in her grandparents' backyard. Johnson's grandfather was a Baptist preacher, and there was an entire church community to feed while she was growing up in her grandparents' home. "There was not a day when we did not have company," she recalls. The usual dinner spread entailed garden greens, potato salad, okra, chicken, sweet potatoes, cornbread, pound cake, pie and jelly cake. "Oh, and pork," Johnson adds, almost as a postscript. "My grandmother always used to say, Œand a little side of fat,' because you had to have a little pork with your meal."

Johnson moved here for schooling, attending Booker T. Washington in New Orleans and Southern University in Baton Rouge, before receiving a master's degree in political science from Atlanta University. She moved back to New Orleans for good in 1974; when hankerings for the fresh mustard greens and hickory-smoked meats of her home turf became unbearable, her grandmother supplied a solution: "Let's smoke some meat there."

So in 1995, Johnson, her mother, Ester Baker, and her grandmother, Hester Tyson, opened Ms. Hyster's on a cement plot now flanked by an empty lot and a vacant building. They meant for the restaurant to be called "Ms. Hester's," after her grandmother, but the original sign was misprinted, and the women were too eager to start smoking meats and stirring greens to care. Remembering the day, Johnson throws up her arms and beams. "Oh, it was joy. We just went on," she says.

Her mother and grandmother now deceased, Johnson and her son, James, carry on the family barbecue tradition. At Ms. Hyster's, her grandmother's "little side of fat" now takes the big-flavored form of pork spareribs, the tender meat rosy all the way through and sweetly smoked with Mississippi hickory. With generous sides of cheesy macaroni, vinegar- and black pepper-pummeled green beans, naturally peppery mustard greens and sweet cornbread for sopping up the potlikker, these little sides of fat become the centerpiece for economical dinners that taste more than a little bit country. "I'm from the country," Johnson repeats again and again.

So is most of Ms. Hyster's clientele. Johnson estimates that 75 percent of the restaurant's regular customers are transplants from other parts of the rural South -- primarily Mississippi, Tennessee and Alabama. The Mississippi customers, she says, exchange reports about who is doing what with whom back home.

Support for the 75 percent theory walks through the door about every half-hour. Shortly after the disappointed greens seekers leave, two more Mississippi men enter. After admonishing one for bringing his tall boy inside, Johnson looks to the other and cries, "Now he's from home. Tell where you're from!" "Woodville," the man answers, naming a town in southwestern Mississippi.

"That's right," Johnson answers, "and when are you going home again?"

FOR AN INFORMAL STUDY PUBLISHED IN THE SPRING/SUMMER EDITION of South at the Center, a newsletter produced by Tulane University's Deep South Regional Humanities Center, associate director Shana Walton used the Yellow Pages and population figures from the 2000 census to rank 26 Southern cities based upon their concentration of barbecue. With one barbecue restaurant per every 60,584 people, New Orleans came in dead last. It trailed two other Louisiana cities: Monroe placed first and Shreveport came in eighth.

Despite New Orleans' smattering of superlative barbecue pitstops like Ms. Hyster's, the findings confirmed suspicions for Walton, who had previously lived in various places throughout the South. "Moving to New Orleans was sort of a revelation -- realizing there were places in the South where barbecue wasn't important."

Barbecue also was the theme of an October 2002, three-day symposium sponsored by the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA), an affiliate of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. New Orleans falls under SFA's geographical scope, and New Orleans' most prominent barbecue expert, Times-Picayune columnist and Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country author Lolis Eric Elie, was the first speaker to hold court at the swine-centric event. Still, the topic of barbecue in New Orleans only ever came up during the symposium as evidence that at least one pocket of the South remains indifferent to smoke and sauce.

In a symposium speech titled "Barbecue Sociology: The Meat of the Matter," North Carolina-based sociology professor and Southern cultures scholar John Shelton Reed said, "I don't think you can really understand the South if you don't understand barbecue -- as food, process and event." A few minutes later, he dismissed south Louisiana from this discussion of "barbeculture" altogether -- as if to say that, at least in the context of barbecue, south Louisiana isn't part of the South.

Or is it? Certainly New Orleanians eat barbecue -- the historical evidence includes Louis Armstrong's 1927 song "Struttin' With Some Barbecue." Anybody who has attended a Sunday second line, or strolled down St. Charles Avenue on Mardi Gras, or passed through the intersection of St. Claude and Franklin avenues near Adams Barbecue Plus +, can attest to periodic high levels of barbecue's unmistakable, tummy-tugging fumes. An affection for the word "barbecue," if not for the proper smoking technique, gave birth to New Orleans-style "barbecue shrimp"; the idea of barbecue suffuses the parboiled, oven-roasted and sweet-sauced barbecue plates served at least once a week in every soul food restaurant, though the smoke doesn't.

Even if we allow the South -- south Louisiana excepted -- to lay the strongest claim to American barbecue traditions, we must also acknowledge that barbecue -- as a food, a cooking process and an event -- is in profound evidence across the country. St. Louis, Chicago and Kansas City form a watertight Midwestern barbecue alliance. For the past two years at Blue Smoke, Danny Meyer has been busy proving that top-notch barbecue can be produced in New York City. The year that John Shelton Reed judged ribs at Memphis in May, the annual, high-profile barbecue competition, a team from Illinois won.

Elie opened SFA's barbecue symposium with a mixture of well-researched opinion and characteristic diplomacy, ultimately concluding that, "Barbecue country is, in essence, where we are. Your personal map may be more inclusive than you expected."

It may, for example, even include New Orleans.

IN ORDER TO UNDERSTAND JUST WHAT NEW ORLEANS' BARBECUE culture is, it helps to rule out what it isn't. Unlike in other regions of the South, it is not rooted in numerous ancient hidey-holes containing long-smoldering pits and smoke-tanned, whiskey-throated pitmasters. Only three existing businesses indicate that a retail barbecue culture existed at all just one generation ago. The city's oldest joint, Podner's Barbecue Inc., opened in 1956, putting it around middle-age by old-line Creole restaurant standards.

Raymond Hoffman took over Podner's management in 1996 from his ailing brother-in-law, Leonard Rizzuto, now deceased. Hoffman remembers the Central City walk-up's early days, when his in-laws, both of Italian descent, ran the show. He doesn't, however, remember any competition. "It (barbecue) was probably done more at home back then," he guesses.

Harold Veasey opened the second oldest, Harold's Texas Bar-B-Q, in the Ninth Ward in 1962. A New Orleans native, Veasey gained an appreciation for Texas barbecue while stationed there in the military. When Veasey moved to the suburbs in 1974, he brought Metairie a popular barbecue haunt that preceded by decades such well-traveled chains as Corky's Ribs & BBQ and Luther's Bar-B-Q. His son, Nick Veasey, purchased his father's business in the 1980s, re-naming it Texas Bar-B-Q Company.

Another early entry, H&P Barbecue Masters, now on Elysian Fields Avenue, began serving charcoal-smoked meats Uptown in 1972. Almost every other privately owned barbecue outlet in New Orleans has opened within the past decade.

A proliferation of backyard pits and charcoal grills may well contribute to the city's relatively sleepy retail barbecue market. Especially during the summer months, home-smoking is a hot call-in topic on Tom Fitzmorris' three-hour Food Show that airs weekdays on AM 1350/WSMB. A local restaurant critic and all-around food wise guy, Fitzmorris owns a backyard smoker that he recently described in his New Orleans Menu Daily e-newsletter as "my ten-year-old rusting hulk of a pit, aluminum foil in the holes in its side."

Anna Papp, owner of the Outdoor Living Center store in Covington -- where the hardwood charcoal-burning Big Green Egg smokers fly out the door this time of year -- confirms that the Northshore is smoking up a storm. "The true barbecuers really prefer the charcoal over gas because you get a lot of the smoke flavor," she says.

Kermit Ruffins, the sweet-humored jazz musician and bandleader to The Barbecue Swingers, is New Orleans' most visible ambassador of backyard barbecuing -- or, in this case, sidewalk barbecuing. He totes his substantial barbecue rig all over town in the bed of his white pick-up truck and says he likes to fire it up "when the spirit moves me," such as between sets on Thursday nights at Vaughn's. A resident of, and often spokesman for, the Treme neighborhood, Ruffins can usually be found in flipping range of a grill on warm afternoons. One Monday he paused while shooting hoops down the block from Joe's Cozy Corner to comment, "This is my one day off, and that's what it's all about -- barbecuing and relaxing."

While the city's backyard barbecue culture may indeed be stronger than its retail barbecue culture, The Picayune's Creole Cook Book, a definitive work first published in 1901, had nothing to do with it. The chapters on meat preparation contain just one recipe for cooking over charcoal: Mutton Chops Brewers' Style.

Over a plate of succulent, but not smoked, ribs at the Treme's new neighborhood restaurant, Big Shirley's, Lolis Eric Elie takes a stab at explaining New Orleans' barbecue history: "New Orleans' food has always been a mix of Southern and Creole, and in this case Creole won out."

FOR THE PURPOSES OF THIS DISCUSSION, barbecue is any meat that has been cooked over hardwood or charcoal with more smoke than fire. While every New Orleanian pitmaster or pitmistress uses a favorite wood or charcoal, no one expressed disdain for others' choices when interviewed for this story. There are no tales of barbecue-induced family feuds, vegetarian protests or health code violations. Neither did the most typical barbecue controversies -- sliced or chopped, pork or beef, dry-rubbed or naked, whole-hog or shoulder, sauce or no sauce, vinegar or tomato, cole slaw or potato salad, white beans or pinto, paper towels or Handi Wipes -- flare up. In part because of immigrants like Virginia Johnson, who import their family barbecue traditions from all points of the South and beyond, New Orleanians have access to all of the above. Because locals have no historical gold standard for barbecue, they enjoy them all, too.

Not even politics or race -- two of the most divisive topics in Southern barbecue culture -- create controversy here. Jim Auchmutey of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote a rip-roaring speech titled "Political Pork" that will appear this fall in the anthology Cornbread Nation 2: The United States of Barbecue, compiled in association with the SFA. In it, Auchmutey draws six-and-a-half pages of parallels between barbecue and politics, from the Newt Gingrich photo gallery in Atlanta's Williamson Bros. restaurant, to the 1986 "truth in barbecue" law passed by concerned South Carolina legislators requiring restaurants to disclose whether they cook their meats with hardwood or try to get by on gas.

On the contrary, this reporter's questions regarding possible parallels between New Orleanian politicians and barbecue didn't make it past Mayor Ray Nagin's receptionist. "We really couldn't think of anything," she said. Councilman Eddie Sapir's chief of staff, Mary Stafford, was a sport and returned the call for him. "Well that's an interesting concept," she said, and then cited crawfish and Lucky Dogs as New Orleans' most popular bipartisan foods.

"I don't get involved in the stuff," said Podner's Raymond Hoffman regarding politics. "No," concurred Virginia Johnson. "We like what we do, and we would like to be here for another 10 years." Only Adam Shelmire, who runs Adams Barbecue Plus + with his parents, vaguely recalled once catering an event for Democratic State Rep. Austin J. Badon Jr. It clearly wasn't a defining gig.

Shelmire also weighed in lightly on barbecue and race relations: "It's definitely a universal food -- this stuff is for everybody." He added matter-of-factly, "I've gotten a lot of white people who ask for cole slaw," which is not something his black Louisiana family associates with barbecue.

Barbecue is dominated by white men in some areas of the country and by black men in others; in many regions, the relationship between barbecue and race is one of overwhelming complexity. German and Czech immigrants have long received the credit for quintessential Texas barbecue traditions. In taking this theory to task, Robb Walsh, a Houston writer who authored Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook, dug up narratives of former slaves talking about cooking barbecue on Texas cotton plantations before the Civil War -- half a century before the white sausage-makers arrived. "Blacks were an inconvenient reminder of cotton and slavery and poverty. So their contributions were expropriated and they were left out of the story," Walsh writes in an essay that will also appear in the upcoming Cornbread Nation 2.

Lolis Elie's poetic Smokestack Lightning -- from which New Orleans is absent -- eventually spawned a companion DVD, Smokestack Lightning: A Day in the Life of Barbecue, in which the white owner of Memphis' Charles Vergo's Rendezvous takes a stance similar to Walsh's. "Brother, to be honest with you, it don't belong to the white folks, it belongs to the black folks," he says. "It's their way of life, it was their way of cooking. They created it. They put it together. They made it. And we took it and we made more money out of it than they did. I hate to say it, but that's a true story."

The relative youth of New Orleans' barbecue culture probably contributes to the community's calmer take. Of the two oldest barbecue hubs in Orleans Parish, Podner's is white-owned and H&P is black-owned. A discussion of race seems both poignant and moot at the former, where Raymond Hoffman's clientele and staff are almost exclusively black. Dressed in a blue-and-white checkered button-down shirt, a soft moustache partly obscuring his upper lip, Hoffman is so soft-spoken that his uncomplicated response to the race question gets mired in the noises of Podner's slamming screen door, lumbering fan and television. "We've been here 48 years," he answers quietly. "And everybody who comes in here comes back."

BUT NEW ORLEANIANS' OVERALL complacency regarding local barbecue options doesn't necessarily indicate apathy. There's reason to believe that some aren't getting wrapped up in silly barbecue controversies because they've been struck dumb by the handful of places offering fantastic smoked meats -- the smooth smoked chicken salad at Hillbilly Bar-B-Que, the candy-coated rib tips at Donna's Bar & Grill, and the chopped beef brisket, glossy with fat, at a very new joint called The Joint, a brightly painted Bywater outpost. As at Ms. Hyster's, settlers oversee the barbecue at all three of these destinations: Larry Wyatt of Hillbilly hails from Kentucky, Charlie Sims of Donna's is a Chicagoan, and Pete Breen and Jenny Tice of The Joint come from Maryland and Florida, respectively.

For her Mississippi-style greens, Virginia Johnson receives a weekly truckload of mustards from the country, namely Lutcher. "We had a shortage of greens one day, and somebody told me to go up the River Road, and so I did. Country people direct you, and I'm from the country, and I kept stopping to ask people if they knew anyone who grew greens," she remembers. Eventually Johnson happened upon Ronald Scott's mother; he delivers her greens every Monday, still warm from the sun and wind-blown from the ride.

Larry Wyatt is equally earnest about his pecan ("the Cadillac of woods"), making periodic trips to Kentucky to collect the logs his buddies haul from the forest. One night around closing time, as the tall, always-grinning pitmaster loads pork butts into a rotisserie smoker in a back shed, he tells about the time that his country kin met him at the edge of the Kentucky forest with a chainsaw instead of a log pile. They informed Wyatt that it was high time he learned how much effort it took to harvest the fuel for his New Orleans barbecue pit. That weekend, he did the splitting.

Only a fraction of the city's smoked meats are 100 percent native from concept to finished product, including those at Podner's, H&P and Adams. Barbecue cross-fertilization is a concern for traditionalists who believe that the transfer of one region's barbecue to another region confuses -- and even destroys -- a sense of place. Having scant barbecue tradition of its own, New Orleans stands only to win. However strictly Johnson emulates her Mississippi heritage at Ms. Hyster's, however concentrated Wyatt's Kentucky pecan smoke, it's New Orleanians who benefit from their barbecue efforts. In fact, their efforts arguably produce New Orleans barbecue.

THERE IS CURRENTLY A GREAT DEAL of movement in New Orleans' smoke-and-sauce circles, suggesting that the strides in immigrant barbecue are beginning to generate more local interest. Some of this movement began too recently to have factored into the Deep South Regional Humanities Center's per capita barbecue rankings, and much of it doesn't turn up in the Yellow Pages. More than 10 new barbecue bars, restaurants and walk-up windows have opened in the New Orleans area over the past five years, many with the goal of raising the region's barbecue standards, and a few with an eye on creating a new brand of distinctly Louisiana barbecue.

The city's apparent smoked-meat slump "was a contributing factor that made us think we could pull this off," says Pete Breen of The Joint.

Tenney Flynn, chef and co-proprietor with Gary Wollerman at GW Fins and Zydeque, a full-service Bourbon Street restaurant that opened early this year, had the same thought. "I have much more compassion for mediocre barbecue than I did six months ago," Flynn now says. "Just because something is simple doesn't mean it's easy."

Flynn and Wollerman bill Zydeque as a Louisiana barbecue restaurant, a concept that at first sounds as gimmicky as its name but then slowly begins to make sense. "Zydeque's Louisiana thing is not that much of a stretch from the boucherie tradition," says Flynn referring to the rural Louisiana ritual in which a community comes together to butcher a pig and prepare and preserve its parts. Zydeque's cooking incorporates andouille, boudin and pork shoulder. The latter is called "cochon de lait" on the menu, quotation marks included, and Flynn admits to exercising poetic license: True cochon de lait involves a whole, pit-roasted suckling pig.

Also bolstering the Louisiana connection are Zydeque's dry-rub seasonings, which come from Paul Prudhomme's spice labs, and the rambunctious house sauce, which contains Louisiana cane vinegar, cane syrup and pepper jelly.

One of Flynn's earliest memories growing up in Georgia is of the barbecue pitmaster, "a depraved individual," at his father's restaurant. "He was an old guy who sat in the pit all night, drank whiskey and mopped the meat," Flynn recalls. Like the smoking machines at most commercial restaurants these days, Zydeque's high-tech Southern Pride rotisserie pit doesn't require such one-on-one attention. As large as a Humvee, it hardly appears to need human intervention at all (consistency does require regular observation).

"The end product isn't all that different," says Flynn of the divergent smoking methods, both in current use across the country. "People try to generate a mystique with barbecue, but there isn't one, really."

Try to convince Wanda Walker's devotees that there's no mystique to the 1,400 cabbage, mustard and horseradish-dressed cochon de lait po-boys (like at Zydeque's, they're made with pork butts and shoulders) she and her family serve up every day during Jazz Fest. Walker's dry-rubbed, hickory-smoked, pulled pig is a major player in the Louisiana festival circuit, and it will no doubt draw customers from all over the city when she opens Walker's Southern Style BBQ, a walk-up window in eastern New Orleans, later this summer.

While New Orleanians eat a wide range of barbecued meats, pig is also the favorite at Elizabeth's Restaurant, where chef-proprietor Heidi Trull smokes a whole one every week. "I get confused when people ask what kind of barbecue I do, because where I come from, pork is barbecue." Back home in South Carolina, her family used to feed the pigs honey buns for an entire week before the slaughter.

Elizabeth's is one of several non-traditional barbecue restaurants that currently excel at barbecue in the New Orleans area. Cobalt's frequent pitmaster and executive chef, Brack May, explains why a culinary school graduate like himself might get carried away with a smoker: "When you have to work six days a week, barbecuing doesn't feel so bad."

ELIZABETH'S AND COBALT AREN'T LISTED as barbecue restaurants in the Yellow Pages and thus didn't contribute to New Orleans' per capita ranking. Even so, Elizabeth's, like Ms. Hyster's, is one example of the consummate New Orleans barbecue joint: The meat is cooked by an immigrant, and it's served in a ramshackle building sweetened with country poise.

It also reveals a bright side to the notion that New Orleans is a mediocre barbecue town. Shana Walton, the woman who compiled the per capita barbecue data, points out another sunny patch: New Orleans has a comparatively low saturation of chain barbecue restaurants, the genre that pushed Monroe into first place. Instead, while the warhorses Podner's, Texas Bar-B-Q Company and H&P substantiate a barbecue history here -- albeit a feeble one -- hard-working urban pitmasters, barbecue bars, new walk-up windows and non-traditional restaurants serving destination barbecue suggest that New Orleans' barbecue culture is just beginning to ignite. If that alienates the city from the rest of the South, it wouldn't be the first time. Zydeque's Tenney Flynn isn't surprised by this sudden, apparently upward-moving state of New Orleans barbecue: "We are in the country of Louisiana," he says. "This is the weirdest place I've ever been in my life."

Among the city's newest barbecue spots is Pete Breen - and Jenny Tice's The Joint, a brightly painted Bywater - outpost. New Orleans' smoked meat slump "was a - contributing factor that made us think we could pull this - off," says Breen. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Among the city's newest barbecue spots is Pete Breen and Jenny Tice's The Joint, a brightly painted Bywater outpost. New Orleans' smoked meat slump "was a contributing factor that made us think we could pull this off," says Breen.
Hillbilly Barbecuers Larry Wyatt and fiancee Kelly Smith use pecan for smoking, which Wyatt calls "the Cadillac of woods." - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Hillbilly Barbecuers Larry Wyatt and fiancee Kelly Smith use pecan for smoking, which Wyatt calls "the Cadillac of woods."
For her Mississippi-style greens, Virginia Johnson of Ms. - Hyster's receives a weekly truckload of mustards from - Lutcher, which are delivered each Monday, still warm - from the sun and wind-blown from the ride. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • For her Mississippi-style greens, Virginia Johnson of Ms. Hyster's receives a weekly truckload of mustards from Lutcher, which are delivered each Monday, still warm from the sun and wind-blown from the ride.

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