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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Memories of Edith's Bar-B-Q in Chicago, with a nod to Billy Goat's

Editor’s note: This column is dedicated to writer, actor and comedian Harold Ramis, who few people know left a promising newspaper career in Chicago to make me laugh. He also was close friends with people who introduced this budding journalist to the place where I met Mike Royko.
Eighty years ago, Greek immigrant William Sianis bought a downtown Chicago tavern for little more than $200, with a check that bounced but was repaid with proceeds from the first weekend. Better known as The Billy Goat, the bar became nationally famous through a classic 1978 “Saturday Night Live” sketch featuring John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray.

Many years later, I was in Chicago on business with a colleague who trusted the tourism literature more than the restaurant knowledge I’d gleaned from going into the city regularly with my parents while growing up in Northwest Indiana.

I convinced him that we had to go The Billy Goat.

For many years, it was a frequent end of the night stop for reporters and editors at the nearby Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, which certainly made it a draw for a couple of ex-reporters.  When I was a journalism student, I met the typically gruff columnist and Chicago institution Mike Royko there.

I had been arguing with my colleague, Richard, against going to popular hangouts such as Ed Debevic’s when, as good fortune would have it, the restaurant critic from the Sun-Times happened to sit next to us at the bar.

After exchanging opening pleasantries, he asked where we were planning to eat that night. We told him that we were looking for good barbecue.

He proceeded to tell us about the kind of place that doesn’t exist anymore. Old age and the wrecking ball have done away with the place where we ate that night, a simple but classy barbecue restaurant along the Clyborne corridor, west of Halstead Street on the near North Side.

Memories remain fresh of my 1993 visit to Edith’s Bar-B-Q, then located at 1863 N. Clybourn Ave. For more than a quarter century, the diminutive Edith Colston made barbecue ribs using recipes she brought with her from Alabama. 

The bright light coming through the windows of Edith’s provide great contrast to an otherwise then a dark and bleak street. Alone in the restaurant, she unlocked the door to let us in. Green and orange were the primary colors. We sat at the counter and she poured us water into old fashioned Dixie cups goblets.

By then, Edith was about 60 years old. She told us about growing up in the South and how as a young African American woman she moved to Chicago. But she turned quiet with a smile as she watched us sink into her tender, hickory-smoked barbecue ribs. She possessed great dignity and obvious satisfaction from bringing others such great pleasure.

"This is a good business if you are willing to work and watch the business," she told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1994. "And you've got to like people. Last night I closed the doors at 8:45, but there were customers in here until 11 just talking and having a good time. I could have shooed them out and gone to bed, but that's the business."

Chicago is the kind of city where a restaurant won’t survive unless it is good. Some of Edith’s contemporaries, such as Carson’s and Lem’s, may be better known, but Chicago Magazine said her sauce was the best. Others said it was heavenly.

It’s likely she took her sauce recipe with her to the grave. In a 1991 Business Week article also about Charlie Vergos of Memphis’ The Rendezvous, she told the writer, “Nobody gets that … That’s mine till I finally go.”

Unfortunately, the next time I tried to visit Edith’s, with my wife, it had closed. My research indicates that she died in 1994.

But by then the neighborhood had changed as well. Many of the storefronts were filling up with fancy burger joints delis, sports bars and other places gentrified by well-heeled entrepreneurs. Until last year, the Goose Island Brew Pub was just up the street.

“I first came to this neighborhood because it was quiet, no bars, not a lot of activity,” Colston told the Chicago Tribune in 1987. “You see, my clientele is citywide and they always came to me.”

Today, it seems strange to think that Billy Goat’s has nine locations in the Chicago area. The original location I’ve always visited, at 430 N. Michigan Ave., has temporarily been displaced due to redevelopment. City officials promise that it will return.

It better return, because I need to find someone to tell me where to go for good barbecue in Chicago, now that Edith’s is gone.

Location we visited:
Edith's Bar-B-Q
1863 N. Clybourn Ave
Chicago, Ill.

Monday, February 24, 2014

At Big Bubba Buck's with Mario Batali and Anthony Bourdain

Gloria Ragland and Robert "Big Bubba Buck" Chapman
The last place I ever expected to see celebrity television chef Mario Batali was at Big Bubba Buck's Belly Bustin' BBQ Bliss in Munfordsville, Ky.

Admittedly, Batali really wasn't at this simple place just off exit 65 on Interstate 65.

His talk-food program "The Chew" was on the big screen surrounded by the largest collection of ceramic pigs I've ever. Gideon Bibles were on the table next to the napkins and the salt and pepper. The Ten Commandments are on the wall next to a copy of the Bill of Rights.

"Our BBQ restaurant is CHRISTIAN owned and operated. Ask Bubba about JESUS," suggests the menu, along with details about the ribs, the barbecue burger, catfish, fried green tomatoes, fried dill pickles and the house specialty -- "nanner pudding.'"

The admonition seems a little inconsistent given that they also say the "barbecue is so good, it'll make you slap your Mama!"

Since our visit, a fire destroyed Big Bubba's in early July. But they are working to reopen down the road at exit 58 at Horse Cave, Ky.

We're hoping that the new location will be just as much a slice of south central Kentucky.

One of Bubba Buck's pig smokers
Owner Robert Chapman -- a.k.a. "Big Bubba" -- is a god-fearing man. He told me his story, about how the restaurant was God's plan for him, going back to 2001, when he paid $200 for a tent from which he sold barbecue.

He then bought a boat trailer and rigged a grill on it -- "looked like something out of Fred Flintstone" -- and sold barbecue at festivals and catered events. After a couple more years, he reached a turning point and decided it was fateful that he open Big Bubba's.

"After the third year, we was struggling quite a bit, trying to make ends meet with five kids," Chapman told me late last year. "We sold our home that we lived in, we lived in a trailer, sold it and then moved in with my parents."

One day he sat down to reflect on where his life should go next. He said he was making only $6,000 a year doing construction and other $3,000 making barbecue.

"I went in and sat down and started praying to the Lord and asked him which way I should turn, what I should do," Chapman recalled. "I stood up and started back out the door and before I got out the door this man knocks on the door and asked me if I'm still catering barbecue. I took it that the Lord right there wanted me to do the barbecue.

"We've kept the Lord in it the whole time. We've not gotten rich … we've gotten what he wants us to have."

After the recent fire, it doesn't sound like Big Bubba has gotten bitter, as indicated on his Facebook page: "We appreciate and love each and every one of our supporters and customers and the prayers that you have given us. Please continue to pray that God will show Big Bubba and his family what His plan is next for them. Thank you again so much."

A few weeks before our visit, the television show "Barbecue Pitmasters" filmed at Big Bubba's in conjunction with Munfordsville's annual Big Buffalo Crossing Barbecue Cook-Off.

He didn't meet Myron Mixon or Aaron Franklin and didn't end up cooking on the show because they were looking for someone who prepares mutton -- a specialty in western Kentucky.

When she isn't waiting tables, Gloria Ragland is on the CB.
Many customers at Big Bubba's have been truck drivers, who manager Gloria Ragland chats with on a CB radio in the kitchen. In between waiting on customers like us, she sweet-talked drivers about their food and the ample parking for big rigs and took their orders.

I had a nice conversation with Gloria and with "Mrs. Big Bubba," April, but my recorder failed to capture it.

We learned about Big Bubba's when we stopped at a rest area about 50 miles north on the interstate.

We enjoyed our food, although my mother is safe (I didn't "slap my mama"). We went for the pork sampler, which consists of a half pound of baby back ribs, sliced shoulder steak and shredded pork, and the tilapia encrusted with barbecue potato chips.

As we ate, the television at Big Bubba's kept us company -- who can carry on a conversation while you're eating barbecue? After "The Chew," it was time for soap operas. However, after a couple minutes another customer asked for the remote and changed the channel to "Sports Center."

But only after a couple of minutes, it was time for Anthony Bourdain's program "No Reservations." It only seemed appropriate.

New location:
Big Bubba Buck's Belly Bustin' BBQ Bliss
Horse Cave, Ky.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Abe's Bar-B-Q -- at the Crossroads in Clarksdale, Miss.

Many believe Clarksdale, Miss., is the birthplace of the blues. It was the first stop on the "chitlin' circuit," a route through the Delta traveled by many bluesmen performing in juke joints starting in the 1920s. 

This town of 17,600 also was home to W.C. Handy, Son House, Charlie Patton, John Lee Hooker and many others.

Muddy Waters labored at the nearby Stovall Plantation before being discovered in 1941 by Alan Lomax, and then travelled to Chicago like so many other blues greats. Bessie Smith, the "Empress of the Blues," died in 1937 at Clarksville's black hospital -- today the Riverside Hotel -- after an auto accident on Highway 61.

Part of this history is Abe's Bar-B-Q, located near the legendary crossroads for Robert Johnson, at old U.S. 61 and U.S. 49. Since 1924, locals and blues pilgrims have stopped in for Abe's basic menu of pork and beef barbecue, hamburgers and southern-style tamales.

Lebanese immigrant Abraham Davis founded Abe's. His father, who allegedly had a vision that he would be struck and killed by a large block of iron if he came to this country, sent him to America at the age of 13.

Not fond of the family business selling clothes, Abe went to work for a Greek restaurateur before opening his own place, The Bungalow Inn. In 1937, the business was moved to its present location and was renamed by his sons Pat and Abe Jr. for their father in 1959.

Abe's pigs wear a bowtie
In a nod to their Mediterranean heritage, they sell stuffed grape leaves by the tray.

But most people come for the barbecue, which is prepared differently than other places across the Delta. At Abe's, they slow cook Boston butt roasts over hickory and pecan wood and then refrigerate them overnight, slice the meat cold and then warm it on a grill after the order is received. The meat is not pulled.

Abe's also serves pork tamales, which have become as much a part of the Delta as cotton and the blues, as attested by the lyrics of Johnson's song, They’re Red Hot." The recipe was developed with help from Mexican migrants who traveled to Clarksville to join sharecroppers in the fields.

Today, an outside company makes Abe's tamales, using the family recipe.

Michael and Jane Stern included Abe's in their paean to American cuisine, "Road Food." Greg Johnson and Vince Staten, in their book, "Real Barbecue," rated it "real good." The Travel Channel included Abe's in its list of "America's 101 Tastiest Places to Chow Down." David Gelin included Abe's in his guide, "BBQ Joints: Stories and Secret Recipes from the Barbeque Belt."

Rock legends have followed bluesmen to Abe's, including Paul Simon and ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, who asked Davis for an autograph. There's a photo in the dining room of Elvis Presley hanging out with one of the Davis boys. Country legends Conway Twitty and Charlie Pride came here too.

A "Tamaco" and "Big Abe"
Like so many others, the folks at Abe's have embraced the legend of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil.

"It's very possible that Robert Johnson, while sitting on a Coca-Cola case under one of the sycamore trees that was prominent at that corner back then, eating an Abe's Bar-B-Q made that legendary deal," they speculate on their menu. "It is a fact that Abraham Davis surrendered his soul to God and his family business still prospers even today."

During our visit to Abe's in late November, we tried the "Big Abe" -- a double decker sandwich consisting of sliced pork dressed with a basic vinegar-based sauce and cole slaw -- and a "Tamaco" -- tamales dressed with lettuce, tomatoes and chili and cheese. Their "The Come Back Sauce" is served at the table.

We found our food to be good, but not legendary. But we also came later in the day. Judging from the crowd we observed at Abe's closer to lunchtime, we figure another visit may be in order.

Location we visited:
Abe's Bar-B-Q

616 State St.

Clarksdale, Miss.


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Opening a bottle full of memories from Indianapolis' Pa & Ma's

The sauce waits for the coals
Over two summers in the early 1980s, a man known to many in the Indiana Statehouse as “The Pope” frequently took a college intern to a small building in the near northside of Indianapolis to further my education.

The lessons I learned from the always interesting Bill Pope did not count toward my degree from Indiana University, but they definitely were lifelong learning.

Today, Pa & Ma’s, located at 974 W. 27th St., continues to serve delicious pork barbecue and its sauce is available for purchase in grocery stores throughout central Indiana.

Opening up a bottle while making some grilled pork chops in backyard awakens memories from 1982, when I first had the rib tips, smothered in Pa & Ma's spicy sauce.

After my freshman year, my father’s connections landed me a summer job in the office of the Indiana Secretary of State. Deep within the bowels of the Statehouse was a dusty, muggy place called the packet room, where records about thousands of corporations in the Hoosier state were kept.

Whenever one someone wanted a copy of a company’s incorporation papers, I was sent to retrieve them. Before long, I found myself working there all day, at what became one of the most sought-after assignments, following orders from "The Pope."

One of the few remaining Democrats left working for a Republican administration, "The Pope" always had good music on the radio, led fascinating discussions on the issues of the day and took me to Pa & Ma’s. He was a massive man – both in physical size and intellectual capacity.

The finished results
Usually, we’d go there to pick up rib tips for whoever wanted them back at the Corporations Division.

Pa & Ma’s is the oldest continuously black-owned restaurant in the city. Open since 1940, I had the privilege of going there when it was still run by its original owners, Anna and Rodney Wilson (Today it is owned by Monica and George Nelson).

The first thing I remembered upon was walking into the small building was the sight of ribs cooking over charcoal in an open brick rib pit. Coming up to a simple counter, we were asked, “Would you like it mild or hot.” Depending on your response, they would put a little or a lot of sauce over your meat.

In other words, they only had one sauce and it was hot.

Eating our rib tips back at the Statehouse always required a lot of napkins. I wouldn’t be surprised if we left our mark on a few documents. 

Computers and the Internet may have replaced the need for a packet room, but thankfully Pa & Ma’s is still with us.

Today, I understand that they also serve good Soul Food staples such as macaroni and cheese, baked beans, greens, sweet potato pie and cobbler. I don’t remember there being a dining room then, but there is one now. You can even select sauces to apply to your food at your table.

As I pour a bottle of Pa & Ma’s sauce over whatever I’m grilling, I’ll think about you Bill Pope, wherever you are.

Here is my wife's recipe for her Smashed Sweet Potatoes:

Sweet Potatoes with Cranberries and Pecans
Complimenting the pork chops was my wife’s Smashed Sweet Potatoes with Cranberries and Pecans. Here is her recipe, which also can be used as a filling for Sweet Potato Pie:

-- Take four or five sweet potatoes and steam them on the stove top until tender.
-- Remove the skins from the potatoes and place them in a casserole dish and crush them until they are all softened.
-- In a separate fry pan, melt a half stick of butter and add a quarter cup of pure maple syrup and a third of a cup of dried cranberries and a third of a cup of chopped pecans.
-- Saute until the mixture comes to a quick boil. Pour the mixture over the sweet potatoes.
-- Gently stir into the potatoes a couple of times and the place into an oven at 375 degrees for 10-15 minutes. Serve directly from the oven.

Pa & Ma's Barbecue on Urbanspoon