Barbecue in Chicago and many other cities is booming. But the capital of the Midwest is no Porky Come Lately. It has a long deep history that should put it among the upper echelon of 'cue capitals. Why should anyone be surprised that a city forged from the flames of the Great Chicago Fire should be a barbecue capital?
Jim Shahin, the author of numerous barbecue articles in The Washington Post has written "Smoked meat aficionados generally acknowledge four barbecue capitals: Memphis, Kansas City, Texas, and North Carolina. Chicago is, at best, what you might call the fifth Beatle. Which is to say, a player that no one remembers." Let's correct this.
There are four distinct styles
1) Delta Barbecue. In what historians call the Second Great Migration of African Americans from 1940 through 1960, poor black farmers from the Mississippi Delta moved north to find higher paying factory jobs and brought barbecue and blues to the south side and west side of Chicago. Their method back home was the open pit which eventually, under strict fire and health regulations, moved into the unique Chicago version of the open pit, the wood burning aquarium smoker, described below. Their standard fare is rib tips, much cheaper than ribs, and sausage links, drenched in sweet tomato based sauce and spiked with tangy vinegar, are served on top of a bed of fries, and crowned with white bread. My favorite is Honey 1 BBQ.
2) Boilbecue. This is a style popularized by Eastern European immigrants who arrived in Chicago in the late 1800s to rebuild the city after the the Great Chicago Fire. Back home in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Lithuania, ribs were simmered in water with cabbage, onions, potatoes, and caraway, and served in a bowl as stew. The immigrants tasted Southern Barbecue and it's sweet sauce, loved it, so they boiled their ribs as always, and then slathered them in sauce, occasionally crisping the sauce on a grill. Soft and mushy, they were the original "fall off the bone" ribs, but boiling removed much of the meat flavor and all you can taste is candylike sauce. This style is still common all over the midwest. My favorite is the Gale Street Inn.
3) Modern Barbecue. All across the nation the barbecue craze has seen the opening of hundreds of modern barbecue joints. In Chicago they have sprung up like mushrooms after a spring rain. Juicy tender meat is slowly roasted on huge motorized ferris wheels at precisely controlled temps in gas fired ovens with precisely measured amounts of wood smoke and rubs. These Southern Pride and Ole Hickory pits, in the hands of pitmasters like Barry Sorkin of Smoque BBQ, they turn out the Platonic ideal of American barbecue.
4) Fusion Barbecue. While modern barbecue tends to stick to the classic Southern barbecue canon of ribs, pulled pork, beef brisket, burnt ends, chicken, and the classic sides, contemporary chefs, often classically trained chefs, have discovered barbecue and are taking it to exotic new places. Smoked duck confit anyone? My favorite is Lillie’s Q.
The Great Migration: The first wave
American Barbecue is a happy marriage of the smoked meat traditions brought to the new world by European explorers, along with pork and cattle, the primitive cooking techniques of the Native Americans in the New World, and the discovery of tomatoes and hot peppers in Central and South America. It evolved under the watchful eyes of African American slaves and cooks, who took tough cuts of cheap meats and found a way to coax them to yield delicacies.
Jean Baptiste Point DuSable is believed to have been the first settler of European descent when he opened a trading post on the south bank of the Chicago River near where it met Lake Michigan. He was black, probably French Canadian, and married a Potawatomi woman. Grilling, roasting, and rotisserie is an integral part of both cultures.
With the underground railroad prior to the Civil War, African Americans brought their cooking culture and settled in with the North what eventually became soul food.
After the Civil War there was a steady trickle of migration to the cities in pursuit of jobs. It culminated in a wave called The Great Migration from 1910 to 1930 as an estimated two million blacks, many farm hands, tenant farmers, and sharecroppers, moved north to find work.
Chicago's African American population grew from about 4,000 in 1870 to about 15,000 in 1890, 40,000 in 1910, and 90,000 in 1920, mostly on the city's South Side. South Side culture grew with a local black newspapers, radio, night clubs, merchants, and restaurants. Chicago Jazz flourished in the 1920s with night clubs featuring the likes of Louis Armstrong and King Oliver.
The Pullman Corporation on the Southside of Chicago became a major employer. By the mid 1920s, while train traveling was peaking, more than 20,000 African American men worked as Pullman porters and other train jobs, the largest category of labor for blacks in the US. They carried luggage, shined shoes, made beds, and made good money and tips while they saw the country. Many of their wives became domestic help. They became the first black middle class in the nation.
The Great Depression which started in 1929 killed many of their jobs, and almost half the black community was unemployed. Migration from the South slowed.
There were not many barbecue restaurants in Chicago until after WWII.
Sweet sauce and boiled meat
Eastern European immigrants flocked to Chicago after the Great Chicago Fire burned the heart of the city to the ground on October 8 and 9, 1871. They brought with them their culinary traditions, including a love of sausages and smoked meats.
While many worked in the construction trades, and others in the stockyards, others opened butcher shops. No doubt they tasted Southern barbecue and sweet barbecue sauce and they loved it. African Americans cooked their meats low and slow with smoke. But in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and other Eastern European countries, ribs were often simmered in a pot for hours with often with cabbage, potatoes, onions, and caraway seeds making a hearty rich stew that was served in a bowl. So when they opened their Chicago restaurants, they boiled their ribs as they did back home, making them so soft and tender they fell off the bone. They then drenched them in sweet ketchup based sauce, saving hours and dollars. Alas, much of the meat's flavor went down the drain when they discarded the water.
To this day, boiled fall off the bone ribs drowning in sweet sauce is the popular standard for much of the population, but for many, that is changing.
The Second Great Migration: Delta barbecue and blues, the second wave
WWII, which the US entered after Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, created millions of jobs in cities building everything from tanks to munitions and uniforms. Chicago was a major aircraft manufacturing center. Between 1940 and 1960, there was a Second Great Migration with Chicago's black population grew from 278,000 to 813,000 and the Southside became known as the "Capital of Negro America".
After WWII, a second great migration of poor black sharecroppers from Delta Country headed to the big city in search of factory jobs. The Delta is where the Yazoo River system drains into the Mississippi River in Northeastern Mississippi and Eastern Arkansas just south of Memphis and north of Vicksburg, and mechanization was displacing manual labor not to mention racism and Jim Crow "separate but equal" laws. They brought with them the blues and barbecue and settled on the South and West sides of Chicago.
A chronology of important dates in Chicago barbecue history
1865. In 1865, immediately after the Civil War, the Union Stockyards became a central distribution point for shipping live animals. In 1880 Gustavus Swift introduced a new rail car design that was cooled by ice. Chicago became the central final feedlot, slaughterhouse, butchery, and meat packer for the nation, processing more meat than any city in the world, peaking in the 1920s.
Slowly the meat industry decentralized, with Kansas City and others competing with Chicago, and business on the South Side declined. The Yards closed at midnight on Friday, July 30, 1971 and was eventually demolished. The Union Stock Yard Gate remains and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1981.
1930. Russels, owned by white people in Elmwood Park since 1930, is still going strong.
1932. Twin Anchors Restaurant & Tavern, 1655 North Sedgwick Street Chicago, IL 60614 312-266-1616. One of the oldest restaurants in the city, it was a speakeasy during Prohibition, and a favorite of Sinatra when he was in town.
1940. The Original Leon's Bar-B-Que became popular during Chicago Fest on Navy Pier. The event is now gone.
1948. Calumet Fisheries has been making amazing smoked fish at this same location, and it is strictly take out. Watch this video from local restaurant review show, Check Please, on PBS.
1950. Leonard Chess founded Chess Records on the Southside and started recording Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Sunnyland Slim, and other Delta Blues icons. In 1951 Chess published "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats which topped Billboard's R&B chart and has been called the first rock & roll record.
Barbecue sauces in those days were thin and mostly oils, perhaps lard, with vinegar, and spices, perhaps a little ketchup and hot pepper. Charlie Robinson, owner of Robinson's Ribs, was quoted in an interview as saying "Sauce is a key item, there's no question about it. We use a tomato-based sauce in the Midwest, but down South they kinda use a vinegar-based sauce and that just don't fly here in the Midwest."
1951. George Stephen, Sr., frustrated by his inability to control the temperature in his backyard grill, had the welders at the Weber Brothers Metal Work,s where he worked, cut up a buoy that was to be used for Lake Michigan boating. The Weber Kettle was born. Among its innovations was a tight-fitting lid and much of the early marketing involved touting the merits of "covered barbecuing". Today it is by far the most popular backyard grill in the world with the basic unit selling for under $100. They also operate three restaurants in the area wher most of the food is cooked spectacularly on large Weber Kettle grills.
1954 two brothers, Bruce and Myles Lemons from Indianola, MS, moved to the city in the 1940s and opened Lem's Bar-B-Q House. In 1968, the second Lem's Bar-B-Q House was opened by another brother, James. There is just one left, at 311 E. 75th St., Chicago, IL 60619.
1955 Glass Dome Hickory Pit opened in 1955, I think, and closed in the 1990s. Anthony E. Beninato, Sr., owner died in 2011. Originally located at 2724 S. Union (shown above) it moved to two blocks west to a larger more ornate facility at 2801 S. Halsted St., a few blocks from Comiskey Park, home of the White Sox and it was a favorite of fans. It was also a popular hangout for men with klout in the lilly white neighborhood where Mayor Richard J. Daley, other machine pols, and many top mobsters lived. The Pit made the news on 12/8/1955 when Alex "Louie" Greenberg, 64, owner of the nearby Canadian Ace Brewing Co., was shot by two men as he and his wife entered their car after dinner. Tavern owners said that Greenberg's men had been employing tactics reminiscent of the Prohibition era beer wars, when Greenberg was schooled as a member of the Capone mob. Mrs. Greenberg said the attack was a stickup, but police doubt that robbery was the motive.
1957. Argia B. Collins, Sr, introduces his Mumbo Sauce which is still being made.Click here to read the history of Mumbo Sauce in Chicago and DC, and get a recipe for the DC icon.
19??. Kraft BBQ Sauce introduced.
1963. Gale Street Inn opens and becomes famous for its boilbecue ribs.
1960s? According to internet reports, The Homestead opened in Blue Island around 119th and Vincenes. It was a small bar and ribs were smoked in a pit out back by the owners Joe and Josephine. "The smoke filled the air outside and the hickory fragrance could be smelled for blocks" said one fan. They expanded several times driven by demand, and eventually they sold the recipes to the House of Hughes on Cicero in Crestwood. HoH closed in 2011 or 2012.
19??. Smoky Joe's on South State Street in the 1960s or 1970s.
1974. In November, Dr. Hawkeye Pierce, in an episode of the Korean War television sitcom called MASH, got so fed up with the food in Korea that he decided to order from a restaurant named Adam's Ribs, supposedly located beside the Dearborn Street Station in Chicago. "I've eaten a river of liver and an ocean of fish! I've eaten so much fish, I'm ready to grow gills! I've eaten so much liver, I can only make love if I'm smothered in bacon and onions!" he ranted, and dialed Dearborn 5-7500. According to unverified internet sources, at the time the story was set in the early 1950s, but not at the time it was filmed, there really was an Adam's Ribs in Chicago, and the phone was Dearborn 5-2750.
1977. Carson's Ribs opened the first of many locations. It was an upscale place and still is. The original downtown location is still popular and there are two remaining in Deerfield and Milwaukee.
19??. Jimmy Cole, Cole's Family B.B.Q., Robbins, IL. Miss Blanche cooked on a block and steel charcoal pit built into the wall. It is still open.
1973. Michael Robertson, owner of the Hickory Pit restaurant in downstate Decatur, IL, designed a pit that was more automated and eventually began manufacturing them. The company built 20,000 Southern Prides in Chicago before it moved to Alamo, TN.
1982. Royko Ribfest (see sidebar) Robinson's wins first.
1985. Sweet Baby Ray's barbecue sauce was created by Larry Raymond for his entry in the Royko Rib-off. They placed second out of 700 teams. Larry's brother Dave and a friend decided to market it, and today it is the most popular BBQ sauce in the nation, by far.