Pittsburgh soul: Southern presence fills restaurants
George Wilson stokes a hardwood fire in his towering brick smoker six days a week, slowly cooking slabs of ribs and whole chickens. The tradition turns 50 in May.
The recipe for the sauce slathered on smoked meats at Wilson's Bar-B-Q on the North Side, however, is more than twice as old.
"It goes back to my great-grandfather," says Wilson, 80. "He was a slave in Louisiana."
Connections between the old South and restaurants in and around Pittsburgh are as palpable as the tang of Wilson's barbecue sauce.
Many of the legendary places are gone, but barbecue joints, soul-food restaurants and Southern-style eateries still dot Penn Avenue from the Strip District to Wilkinsburg, branching off on side streets in Garfield, East Liberty and Homewood, as well as in neighborhoods such as Hazelwood, Oakland and Squirrel Hill.
They serve barbecued ribs, pulled pork and fried chicken. Most have macaroni and cheese and collard greens. A few offer "chitlins" and hoppin' John, a dish of seasoned rice and black-eyed peas — foods brought from Africa with slaves.
Most of these restaurants are relatively new, but continue a Southern presence that has been here for generations.
"Pittsburgh has a very extensive, long and a very definite history of soul-food restaurants," says John M. Brewer Jr., 65, a local historian and author of "African Americans in Pittsburgh" ($19.99, Arcadia Publishing), who closed his Homewood restaurant, Ramseys II, in 2007 after 16 years.
The Lower Hill District once boasted nearly 50 such businesses, ranging from sit-down places to people hawking food grilled on their front porches, Brewer says.
Today, more than 20 soul-food or Southern-style restaurants are spread throughout the city and its suburbs. Several have closed in recent years. Big Mama's House of Soul closed last month in the Strip District, but reopened Downtown on Libery Avenue as Big Mama's House of Southern Cuisine.
Pittsburgh's black population grew from 25,000 to more than 50,000 between 1910 and 1930, says Laurence Glasco, a University of Pittsburgh history professor. The period known as the Great Migration brought droves of Southern blacks north to cities like New York, Chicago and Pittsburgh.
"That's when you got the largest migration of blacks here from the South," Glasco says.
Most came from Alabama; many also arrived from Georgia and the Carolinas, he says.
Blacks left the South to build better lives, but they brought some things with them — including their tastes in food, says John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi.
"When you leave the South, you travel with your culture — your music, your literature, your food," Edge says. "You set up a new home, but resurrect that 'preserved in amber South' you left behind."
By the 1930s, the Hill District was awash in Southern-style restaurants, Brewer says.
Erin Godfrey, originally from rural northeastern Georgia, made her peach shortening cake and other Southern specialties at "Ma" Pitts on Wylie Avenue. Her sister, Bessie Mae "Tommy" Rawls, ran B&M restaurant along Centre Street. Her menu included salt pork, fried chicken and sweet potato pie.
There was Eddie's and the Crawford Grill No. 1, Silver Pig Bar-B-Q and Townsend's, famous for its ribs smothered in mustard sauce.
Boykin's had restaurants in the Hill District, Homestead and Homewood — which also was home to Harmony Hut and Woodside Bar-B-Que.
"It was the same Southern-style cooking, the same ribs they had in the South," Brewer says.
The old Southern pit masters are gone, but Wilson carries on a family tradition he brought with him when he arrived from Little Rock, in 1945.
Wilson first opened in Manchester in 1960. Ten years later, he moved into a former used furniture store at the corner of North Taylor Avenue and Buena Vista Street.
Wilson learned his trade from his ex-slave great-grandfather, Allen Beard — who died at age 97, "as far as we could figure," Wilson says — and his grandfather.
"My great-grandfather taught me a great deal. But he taught my grandfather a great deal, too, and my grandfather finished my college education as far as rib cooking," Wilson says. "I'm doing the same thing they taught me,"
Although blacks and whites in the South typically eat many of the same things when it comes to traditional Southern cuisine, the term "soul food" was coined in the 1960s as part of the black-power movement, says Frederick Douglass Opie, a history professor at Marist (N.Y.)
"Soul was the cultural component to the black-power movement," Opie says. The empowerment movement echewed "talking black, listening to black and eating black."
A number of local businesses still embrace the term. There's Soul Food Connection in Wilkinsburg, Food 4 the Soul in Bloomfield and T&K's Soul Food Kitchen in Oakland.
Some restaurants, though, shy away from being classified as soul food so they can attract black and white customers, Opie says.
"They're trying to be all things to all people," he says.
Jean Gould changed the name of her restaurant when she moved from Wood Street, where she opened in 2000 as Jean's Soul Food. The Jacksonville, Fla., native decided she did not want to intimidate potential customers, namely whites.
So when she moved into a renovated bank building two years ago, the restaurant became Jean's Southern Cuisine.
"We didn't want to say it was soul food so we could broaden our appeal and have all types of people," Gould says.
Even with the name change, Gould says the menu still is filled with family recipes, including a million-dollar pie "from my mother's mother and her mother."
Beginning at age 9, Gould learned to cook stoveside at her mother's hip — the same as many Southern cooks.
"It's about putting all you got, your heart and soul, in it," Gould says. "You cook with love."
Like Gould's and Wilson's menus, Southern-inspired food options in Pittsburgh run the gamut.
Z-Best Barbecue converted a Garfield house into a takeout joint that offers "Gramma's Southern Style Food," which includes ribs and chicken swimming in mustard sauce.
Downtown's Rivers Club hosts a gourmet soul-food and jazz dinner twice a year. The next will be April 3.
The special event started six years ago and was the brainchild of banquet server Connie Davenport. The menu includes fried chicken, cornmeal-crusted catfish and Davenport's potato salad, yams and greens from her Alabama-born grandmother's family recipes.
The special events attract more than 300 people and are intended to celebrate Southern regional cuisine, as well as introduce the food to people who otherwise might never try it, says Robert D. Jones, the club's chief executive officer.
"It's not a competition with the soul-food restaurants," Jones says. "We want people to understand that this is American food we should enjoy in the North as they do in the South."
CJ's in the Strip: 2901-2911 Penn Ave., Strip District. 412- 642-2377
Soul Food Connection: 819 Wood St., Wilkinsburg. 412-241-4910
Big Sam's Memphis BBQ: 1204 Federal St., North Side. 412-323-0333
Wilson's Bar-B-Q: 700 North Taylor Ave., North Side. 412-322-7427
Mr. Ribb's: 1315 Fifth Ave., Uptown. 412-281-4292
Gibson's Take Out: 10731 Frankstown Road, Penn Hills. 412-241-2821
Jean's Southern Cuisine: 730 Penn Ave., Wilkinsburg. 412-242-4084
Food 4 the Soul: 4707 Centre Ave., Bloomfield. 412-681-1429
JT's Rib Shack: 11814 Frankstown Road, Penn Hills. 412-793-6264
Chef J Tropical — at Envy Nightclub: 4923 Penn Ave., Garfied. 412-512-2226
Yvette's on Eighth: 106 E. Eighth St., Homestead. 412-462-8450
The Dream Bar-B-Q Spot: Corner of N. Braddock and Hamilton, Homewood. 412-361-7469
Z-Best Barbecue: 5165 Penn Ave., Garfield. 412-450-8263
Patricia's: 418 Saint Clair Ave., Clairton. 412-233-3373
Simmie's Restaurant: 8500 Frankstown Road, East Hills. 412-731-5357
T&K's Soul Food Kitchen: 305 N. Craig St., Oakland.
Mr. Willie's BBQ: 2121 Murray Ave., Squirrel Hill. 412-325-3332
Savor the Flavor: 705 Brushton Ave., Homewood. 412-871-3021
Miss Lucy's Soul Food Cafe: 101 North Mill St., New Castle, Lawrence County. 724-598-4044
Smokin' Memphis-Style BBQ: 3231 Brighton Road (Marshall-Shadeland). 412-766-3400