Barbecue is defined not only by wood smoke and cut of meat but by regional variation. There’s central Texas style and east Texas style, Kansas City style and Memphis style, even regional styles within North Carolina based on the use of mustard, tomato, or vinegar in the sauce. Oh, and sauce or no sauce? That’s another contentious debate. On Chicago’s South Side, there is a less widely known but distinctly regional item: hot links and rib tips smoked indoors in what’s called an aquarium smoker. It’s found nowhere else but here.
For Saveur, Kevin Pang hangs around Garry Kennebrew’s landmark restaurant, Uncle John’s Bar-B-Que, to investigate the way South Side barbecue style reflects life in this racially divided city known for Italian beef sandwiches and deep-dish pizza. South Side barbecue is Pang’s favorite Chicago culinary creation, yet pitmasters fear its extinction, since too few young cooks are interested in learning how to make it. Cooked indoors over real wood, the aquarium smoker has no thermometer or dials to make adjustments. The pitmaster eyeballs the meat’s progress and controls the fire with a garden hose. The good stuff requires an artful master, operating on sight, skill, and intuition.
I surveyed fellow Chicago food writers, pitmasters, and barbecue enthusiasts, and nobody could come up with even one barbecue restaurant with an aquarium smoker on the North Side of Chicago. Put another way: The North Side is predominantly white. South is predominantly black. And South Side barbecue is something cooked by black people, catering to black communities.
There already exists a glut of barbecue restaurants on the North Side, and many of these full-service restaurants have loyal followings, including Smoque, Lillie’s Q, and Green Street Smoked Meats. But all those restaurants serve an amalgam of regional styles, a greatest hits of American barbecue from Memphis to Kansas City to Austin, many cooked in gas-powered Southern Pride smokers or Oyler Pits. And while it’s true that they have comfortable chairs and drinks served in Mason jars, I’ve always found it curious that even my most culinarily adventurous North Side friends have at most a peripheral awareness of South Side barbecue, and almost none have tried it. I don’t believe explicit discrimination on an individual level has anything to do with it. But it may say something about being comfortable living in our social silos.
Natalie Moore, a journalist with WBEZ radio and author of the well-regarded The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation, pointed to Chicago’s history of housing segregation to potentially explain the divide. Real estate commissions as late as the 1940s could write restrictions into deeds blocking white families from leasing or selling their property to black families. After the Supreme Court struck down this practice in 1948, white families on Chicago’s South Side moved out en masse. What were once all-white neighborhoods in Chicago transformed to all-black. The effects linger to this day. In 2014, Brown University’s American Communities Project named Chicago the nation’s most segregated city. White Chicagoans don’t tend to visit places where South Side barbecue shops are located, Moore said. “If you don’t live or have families in those neighborhoods, you’re not going to be exposed to it,” she said. “Those patterns of segregation still exist today. It’s not a relic.”