Fox News stirred up a hornet’s nest recently when it published its list of “America’s most influential BBQ pitmasters and personalities.” Barbecue fans immediately took to Twitter and Facebook to decry the selection’s over-emphasis on Texas joints and barbecue competitions and—most glaringly—that the faces were all white. The controversy has even made it overseas, prompting a full-length feature in the BBC News Magazine.
Those responses have done a good job of recommending a more diverse slate of 21st century influencers who should be recognized. (First We Feast, for example, compiled the suggestions from several respected barbecue writers.) There’s also been some good discussion of the long and essential role that African-Americans have played in the history of barbecue. So why don’t we blend those two threads and catalog some of the key individuals who helped shape and advance the tradition since the 19th century?
Here, arranged chronologically, is my list of the 15 most influential figures in American barbecue history. By “influential”, I don’t mean the best cooks or the most successful restaurateurs, necessarily. We’re talking about impact and legacy: the people who helped shape the South’s rich barbecue tradition and create and promote the diverse regional styles we enjoy today. It’s a list that cuts across lines of race and class.
1. The Unknown Barbecue Cooks
Unfortunately, the names of many barbecue pioneers have been lost to history. By the time of the Civil War, Southerners had been cooking barbecue for more than two centuries, and a great many of these cooks were African-American slaves, who tended the pits at barbecues organized for the white community as well as at events for their own families and friends. After the Civil War, thousands of talented cooks in rural areas and small towns brought delight to generations of hungry Southerners, but their names didn’t make it into newspapers and other historical records. We may not know who they were, but we know they were there.
2. John W. Callaway
Barbecue cooks started getting attention from the press in the late 19th century, and foremost among the famous “barbecue men” of the South was Sheriff John W. Callaway of Wilkes County, Georgia. A tall, rotund, 300-pound man, Callaway presided over the pits at hundreds of large outdoor community celebrations and special events during the 1880s and 1890s. His star turn came at the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, where he sold barbecued pork and lamb along with pickles, bread, and hash, earning himself a profile in magazines like Harper’s Weekly. Callaway was less a cook than a manager—the men actually working his pits were unnamed African-Americans—but his style and personality got him noted by the northeastern press and helped build a national reputation for Georgia-style barbecue.
3. Gus Jaubert
If John W. Callaway was the barbecue king of Georgia, Gus Jaubert played the same role for Kentucky. At the age of 14, he was hired to help turn the spits at a political rally in Hopkinsville and was hooked. After learning the art from the local experts, he emerged after the Civil War as Kentucky’s top barbecue cook. In 1866, he first served barbecue and burgoo (Kentucky’s now-famous slow-simmered stew) together at the same event, and he helped make burgoo a staple part of the state’s political rallies. In 1895 he presided over the pits at the National Encampment for the Grand Army of the Republic, which was attended by over 150,000 veterans and may well have been the largest barbecue in history.
4. Henry Perry
No one played a more instrumental role in shaping a city’s distinctive barbecue style than Henry Perry, the grandfather of commercial barbecue in Kansas City. Born in Tennessee, Perry arrived in Kansas City in 1907 and started selling ribs at a barbecue stand in a downtown alley. As his business grew, he moved several times into larger buildings, and his skills soon earned him the title of Kansas City’s “Barbecue King.” Perry trained an entire generation of the city’s barbecue cooks, including Charlie and Arthur Bryant and Arthur Pinkard, who went on to help George and Arzelia Gates establish the first of the now-famous Gates Bar-B-Q chain of restaurants. He also had perhaps the best motto in all of barbecue history, printed on a sign that hung on the wall of his restaurant: “My business is to serve you, not to entertain you.”
5. Adam Scott
Just after World War I, Adam Scott started selling barbecue as a side business in Goldsboro, North Carolina, cooking slow-roasted pork in his backyard every weekend. In 1933 he enclosed the back porch of his house as a dining room, creating one of the first sit-down barbecue restaurants in eastern North Carolina. Most influential, though, was Scott’s sauce recipe, which his son, Martel, used to build a flourishing bottled condiment business, putting traditional pepper-laced Eastern North Carolina-style vinegar sauce on grocery store shelves across the Carolinas.
6. Matt Garner
Matt Garner was Houston’s great barbecue mentor. In the 1920s, he moved from Beaumont in east Texas to Houston’s 4th Ward, where he opened Matt Garner’s Barbecue Stand. Garner taught Joe Burney, who went on to open Burney’s Barbecue and Avalon Barbecue, and Burney in turn taught Houston barbecue legend Harry Green. Garner is also credited with introducing the city to the beef sausage known as “juicy links.”
7. Joe Bessinger
Other families, like the Dukes and the Hites, contributed to the distinctive Midlands South Carolina barbecue style, but none were more prolific than the Bessingers. A farmer and logger by profession, Joe Bessinger enjoyed only modest success as a restaurateur, operating a cafe in Holly Hill for a couple of short stretches. But seven of his ten children ended up in the barbecue business, taking his Orangeburg-style yellow mustard sauce down to Charleston and up to Columbia.
8. Warner Stamey
Perhaps the most prolific of the South’s many barbecue mentors, Warner Stamey did not single-handedly create the Piedmont North Carolina barbecue style, but he was instrumental in spreading it throughout the region. A serial restaurateur, Stamey learned the craft from Jess Swicegood, one of the first two commercial barbecue vendors in the now-legendary barbecue town of Lexington, North Carolina. Stamey took that style first down to Shelby, then back to Lexington, and finally up to Greensboro, opening multiple restaurants along the way. Cooks who got their start working in Stamey’s restaurants went on to found dozens of classic Piedmont North Carolina joints, including Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge, Lexington Barbecue, and Bar-B-Q Center, and his grandson Chip keeps the family tradition alive today at two Stamey’s locations in Greensboro.
9. Walter Jetton
A larger than life caterer and showman, Walter Jetton came to symbolize the Texas style of open pit barbecue in the mid-20th century. By the early 1950s he had established himself as Fort Worth’s barbecue king, building a massive catering operation with a fleet of 18 trucks that served over 1.5 million dinners a year. His greatest fame, though, came from his role as the head cook for the highly publicized cowboy-style barbecues at President Lyndon B. Johnson’s LBJ Ranch, where he introduced heads of state and dignitaries from around the globe to Texas-style beef barbecue.
10. Charlie Vergos
When Charlie Vergos opened a small beer and sandwich parlor in a basement space in downtown Memphis, he wasn’t planning on going into the barbecue business. But the building had an old coal chute that he decided to convert into a smoker, and in the late 1950s his meat supplier suggested he try cooking pork ribs on it. So Vergos did, rubbing them with a blend of seasonings his father had used to make Greek chili. The result: Memphis-style dry rub ribs, which made Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous famous and have now spread across the country.
11. Lyttle Bridges
Many of the South’s classic barbecue joints started out as husband-and-wife operations, but it was the husbands, who usually were the ones overseeing the pits, who have generally gotten all of the attention. That wasn’t the case at Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge in Shelby, North Carolina. Red and Lyttle Bridges founded the place together in 1946, and after her husband passed away in 1966, Lyttle (known by all as “Mama B”) carried on for three more decades as the driving force behind the operation, working twelve hours a day until she was well into her 80s. “Mama B” ran a tight ship, a tough but fair boss insistent on consistency and quality. She kept a few tight-lipped secrets, (“People who don’t have a very good sauce don’t mind giving it out,” she told the Associated Press in 1982) but she taught the business to her daughter Debbie Bridges Webb and granddaughter Natalie Ramsey, who carry on the family tradition today.
12. Ollie Gates
Ollie Gates of Gates Bar-B-Q took over the restaurant that his parents, George and Arzelia, founded in the 1940s and expanded it to six locations in and around Kansas City, Missouri. Over the years he’s provided jobs for some 1,500 people and helped codify the unique Kansas City style of barbecue. Gates hasn’t rested on his laurels, though. Building on his success as a restaurateur, he’s raised funds for a range of civic causes and launched real estate development projects to bring new commercial buildings to once-blighted neighborhoods.
13. Calvin Trillin
At a time when Americans were turning their back on their local barbecue traditions, Calvin Trillin became a passionate voice for celebrating them. He championed the country’s great regional styles, with particular praise reserved for his hometown of Kansas City and, especially, Arthur Bryant’s, which he firmly declared to be “the single best restaurant in the the world.” More than anything Trillin has consistently reminded us that there is great value in our local food traditions, and especially in barbecue.
14. Carolyn Wells
In 1985, when barbecue competitions were rare and novel things, Carolyn Wells and two dozen other competition cooks staged a “spring training” cook-off to prepare their chops for the upcoming season. Before they knew it, event organizers were asking if they could use the group’s rules, and the Kansas City Barbeque Society was born. 30 years later, the organization sanctions 450 events and has more than 19,000 members worldwide. As executive director, Wells did as much as anyone to establish and promote what has become one of the most potent influences on barbecue today: the competition circuit.
15. Lolis Eric Elie
Elie pioneered the sub-genre of what might be termed “barbecue journey” books, and his Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country (1996) remains one of the best of the form. Chronicling his and photographer Frank Stewart’s journeys through the South in search of “this art, so vital to our national identity”, it is both a historical snapshot of an era and a lyrical meditation on the meaning of barbecue. It was published at a time when Americans were just starting to rediscover their barbecue traditions, and it inspired many more writers and barbecue explorers who followed in his footsteps.