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July, 2018

BBQ Research–Historic Nicodemus, Kansas Edition


A few years ago, I learned of Ernestine Van Duvall, a barbecue and soul food artist who had strong ties to Nicodemus, Kansas–the oldest black settlement west of the Mississippi River. I thought it would be a great story for my forthcoming book on African American barbecue culture, so I reached out to Angela Bates, the current owner of Ernestine’s BBQ in Nicodemus. She apprenticed under Ms. Van Duvall, and is doing a lot to uphold her legacy. Every year, on the last weekend of July, Nicodemus hosts a “Homecoming Celebration.” At this gathering, people from across the country–many with ties to the community–travel to Nicodemus. The town’s population swells from 20 to 200-plus people. What better time to chase this barbecue story?


I  made the four hour drive from Denver, arriving during a torrential rainstorm, but I made it to Ernestine’s BBQ.

Ernestine’s BBQ is a charming place with a lot of tributes to Ms. Van Duvall. I found Angela Bates dutifully preparing plates of BBQ for her customers. I have so much more to tell, but I’m saving it for my book!


It’s the kind of place where every thing is made from scratch: the bbq, the side dishes and the dessert. I got the rib and brisket combo, baked beans, potato salad (very good), lemonade and a transcendent sweet potato pie a la mode.

That sweet potato pie tho . . . .

The best part was hanging out in the restaurant and listening to the memories that people had of this historic place. Friends, relatives and strangers all got into the mix!  Five and a half hours later, I called it an evening and headed to my hotel.


I took a self-guided walking tour of the town, and basked in all of the fascinating history of this place. then I joined the community pancake breakfast.

After the breakfast was the annual parade featuring community leaders, community elders from near and far, local politicians and candidates, Civil War and Buffalo Soldier re-enactors.  As they drove or rode by, they threw candy out to the kids.

After the parade, it was like being at a combination of a family reunion and a community fair. There were family research organizations on hand, free health screenings, vendors, a group working on Black Homesteaders, and a DJ. Of course, I was most interested in the food: bbq sliders, cheeseburgers, chicken wings, hot links, shaved ice, smoked turkey legs, pies and lemonade were some of the delicacies available.

I was really intrigued by this “Spicy Roast Beef Nachos” dish invented by this particular vendor:

I headed back to Denver with a much coveted slice of rum cake that was a raffle prize.

This was an incredibly fun weekend, and I wished that I could have stayed for the final day of church services and a community dinner.

I highly encourage you to visit Nicodemus, Kansas and Ernestine’s BBQ!

Ernestine’s BBQ
108 1st Street
Nicodemus, KS 67625
(785) 839-8200.



Chicago BBQ Research Trip–Southside Edition

The research for Black Smoke, my forthcoming book on African American barbecue culture, is underway! I took my first trip to Chicago, and explored the city’s south side. That area has been predominantly African American for several decades. 

Saturday, July 21st

Most barbecue joints on Chicago’s south side are takeout joints. So, I decided to rent out a room at the Calumet Park Recreation Center where my cousin Jonathan Shaw is the director. Here’s what we sampled:

I’m grateful to the friends and family who joined me to that day to sample and talk barbecue. I learned a lot!

My Chicago BBQ Tasting Party

Aftewards, local food writer Mike Gebert offered to take me to the legendary Lem’s Bar-B-Q.

Lem’s Bar-B-Q

Of course, we followed the locals advice, and ate ‘cue out of the back of his car. The other option was to eat it on the car’s hood.

Later that night, I needed to hit a spot that balanced out what I ate earlier in the day. I went to Majani’s, a vegan soul food restaurant, that had a vegan barbecue option:

The barbecue cauliflower was tasty, reminded me of sweet and sour vegetables served at a Chinese restaurant.

Sunday, July 22nd

I had a full day going to church and visiting relatives, so I only hit one spot . . . the famous Leon’s BBQ and Grill. This place is so beloved that after it closed a few years ago, Denzel Washington’s public pining reportedly convinced the cooks to come out of retirement. Catch the recap here.

Monday, July 23rd

I purposefully got an evening flight so that I may hit a few more spots before heading back to Denver. Here’s what I got:

My general observations about Chicago south side barbecue based on the places that I sampled:

  • A rib tip and hot link combo is this area’s archetypal barbecue. 
  • Fries and white bread come with every order. Some speculate that early barbecue purveyors used both to soak up the grease and sauce.
  • The hot links aren’t really spicy. A surprise.
  • The typical sauce is a thin, sweet, tomato-based sauce.
  • Unless requested otherwise, the barbecue sauce is liberally applied over everything.
  • “Barbecue chicken” in Chicago is fried chicken drenched in barbecue sauce!
  • Not many side dishes and desserts on the menu.
  • The use of glass-encased aquarium smokers is prevalent. 
  • Turkey is a consistent menu option.

The restaurants I mention:

The best things that I ate on this trip:

  • Haire’s seasoned shrimp.
  • Lem’s rib tips.
  • Leon’s rib tips.
  • Majani’s sweet potato rolls. 
  • Q’s Tips & Wings turkey tips.
  • Uncle John’s jerk-seasoned rib tips.
  • Sunny’s rib tips.

Farewell, Chicago! I had a blast on this trip, and y’all have some great barbecue on the south side of your city. I look forward to exploring other parts of town. 

Celebrating a Century with Cake!


We had a very blessed time celebrating the 100th birthday of Lometa Gaskin, one of the church mothers at Campbell Chapel African Methodist Church in Denver, Colorado. 

In the weeks leading up to her birthday, we asked Sister Gaskin what her favorite food is. She always replied, “Cake.” When we pressed her to identify her favorite cake, she would loudly say “CAKE!” So, Sister Bridget Broomfield of our church came up with a brilliant idea: Why not celebrate this birthday by making a cake for each decade that Sister Gaskin has been alive! Ideally, we’d get a representative cake for each decade.

I put a query out on social media, and we got A LOT of great suggestions! Here’s what Sis. Broomfield decided to make:

German Chocolate Cake

15 layer Red Velvet Cake

Chocolate frosted Vanilla Cake

7-Up Pound Cake

(Grape) Jelly Cake

Coconut Cake

Pineapple Upside Down Cake

Brownie Cake

Combination Rainbow Cake (the base) and Sock-It-To-Me cake (the numbers).

Here’s a gallery of the cut pieces:


Time to Celebrate National Fried Chicken Day!


July 6th is “National Fried Chicken Day”! To encourage your celebration of this most important day, here’s round-up of some things that I’ve done about fried chicken:

A fun video:

Some articles:

The History of Fried Chicken in London,” James Fitzgerald, The Londonist, Aug. 21, 2017.

The South’s Best Fried Chicken,” Adrian Miller, Southern Living, Aug. 2017.

“17 Bucket List Fried Chicken Restaurants to Try Before You Die,” Justin Bolois, First We Feast website, June 10, 2015.


P.S.–Today is also “International Kissing Day.” You should think carefully about the order in which you celebrate these two holidays.

July 4th Meal Recap–Especially Those Alligator Legs!


Let’s face it. When one wants to be an known as a barbecue expert, one’s grill game has to be tight. At this point in my life, I’m far better at eating barbecue than cooking it. My dad usually handles the barbecuing during the summer holidays, but I volunteered to cook the Fourth of July meal.

My dad’s double barrel smoker.

This meal was going to be a challenge because my dad has a very old school, double barrel smoker. With a small opening on one side to vent air, and possibly add more fuel. Fire control would be key. I planned to use a mix of charcoal and pre-soaked hickory wood chunks for fuel. 

I had three slabs of pork spareribs, and I seasoned them alternately with Savory Spice Company’s Platte River Rib Rub and an Appalachian Pork Rub that I got at a past Southern Foodways Alliance symposium. I put an Arthur Bryant’s rub on my chicken. Then I got some freezer-inspired mojo. Why not try to smoke some alligator legs that I got from Ronald Brooks, a self-described, African American Cajun from Opelousas, Louisiana?  Brooks belongs to my church, and he runs a barbecue restaurant in Aurora, Colorado (here’s a restaurant critic’s review of his place).

I could tell right away that the alligator legs were lean, so I had to figure out how to get some flavor without drying them out. I used a marinade, and the Arthur Bryant’s spice rub mentioned above. I also sprayed them an apple juice/cider vinegar mop that I used for my ribs.

Several hours later, here’s the end result:

The pork spareribs had great flavor, but they were chewier than I would have liked. Still, no complaints from my family. I did mop along the way, so I need to figure out how to have tender ribs relying on a rub for flavor and slightly crunchy exterior.

The chicken turned out very well. A nice hickory flavor, a nice amount of spice on the skin, and tender meat through out. 

Ah, the alligator legs. They tasted like chicken . . . rubber chicken. I messed up by trying to smoke them using an indirect heat method. Despite my attempts to keep them moist, they were very chewy. If I had to do it over again, I probably would have injected with some flavored liquid like some do on the barbecue competition circuit. I also would have grilled them directly over the fire, on high heat. Lesson learned. Now, I need to figure out how to salvage them because I hate throwing away food.

All was not lost. some bratwurst and jalapeno cheddar sausage for additional meat, coleslaw, potato salad and roasted ears of corn. And . . . we ended everything with my favorite dessert: Lemon icebox pie!




Soul Food Advisory: Catfish Haven, Denver, Colorado


For whatever reason, two people from very different parts of my life mentioned Catfish Haven during the past week. So when a catfish-loving friend visiting Denver asked me to take to her to a spot, I immediately thought of Catfish Haven.

We got there right before closing time (the kitchen closes at 9 pm, but the bar closes at 10 pm), but we called ahead and got our food soon after we arrived. Here’s my report:

Bone-in catfish–If getting my fish with bones is an option, I always go for it. This fish a true delight with a nicely seasoned crust, and the fish was HOT! 

Catfish fillets–two nice-sized fillets with that same well-seasoned crust coating some hot fish.

Coleslaw–very standard, and tasted store-bought.

Macaroni and cheese–very standard.

Potato salad–Very standard, and tasted store-bought.

Dessert: none available! I guess whoever was supposed to make them didn’t feel like doing so.

In sum, the fish was tasty enough to make me visit again and try some other things on the menu. I’m intrigued because this place also bills itself as “Jamaica House,” and there are some Caribbean dishes on the menu. The sides we tried were very plain, and aren’t much of a draw. Even if they were made in-house, they didn’t taste like it. Again, I look forward to dining here again and trying other dishes. 

The décor is fun, and I spotted this sign:

I found out that the Catfish Haven’s owners were the same people who owned the venerable A&A Fish Market on 28th and Fairfax in Denver. I was said when that place closed, so I’m glad they found a new home. 

Catfish Haven
4650 Tower Rd
Denver, Colorado 80249
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