Food & Drink

The Truth About Barbecue

And a Man Named Pookie Who Makes It

The Truth About Barbecue

kelly o

CHERRY You can smell the sweet smoke for blocks.

Talking about barbecue can be exhausting. A lot of people have a lot to say about the subject, and when they start in, the conversation usually takes a quick turn toward differences and divisions—vinegar versus tomato, pulled versus chopped, rub versus marinade, mesquite versus any other kind of tree on the planet, the favorite local joint versus some shack's worth of paradise three states away. It's too much.

And, of course, people fight over where barbecue came from. Some say the word was passed on from the Taino of Hispaniola to the colonialists of Europe, who promptly knocked them into near extinction. Some say it came from the food served at booze and pool joints, their signs advertising "Bar-Beer-Cue" across the South. Some want to give French interlopers credit, saying they saw Caribbean natives cooking pigs whole, or barbe à queue. ("From beard to tail"? Seriously? Fortunately, most linguistic experts have kicked this theory to the curb—it feels nice to keep barbecue's etymological roots in the New World.)

But all those picayune debates obscure the bright, happy truth: Barbecue brings people together. It is not a class-specific food. Throwing a barbecue has always been a popular way to lobby for votes, both black and white, across the South. It's a meal that poor farmers and rich business owners can enjoy together. It also isn't a race-specific food. Journalist and historian John Egerton has written about the barbecue restaurant being a natural interracial meeting place long before the courts enforced integration in the 1950s and '60s. (Though one South Carolina barbecue restaurant chain, Piggie Park, entered the legal canon in 1968 by appealing its "right" to segregate African Americans all the way to the Supreme Court. Happily, Piggie Park lost its case. The restaurant still thrives.) A graduate student in American Studies at the University of Virginia named Laura Dove has written that barbecue is one thing that all Southerners—besides vegetarians—can rally around: "Without the racist subtext of the Stars and Bars, the anachronistic sexism of the Southern Belle, or the bland ennui of a plate of grits, barbecue has become a cultural icon for Southerners of every race, class, and sex."

With all the things the South got wrong, barbecue is something they—or maybe, since I identify as half-Southern, I should say "we"—got right. And as the diaspora poured out of the rural South and into Northern cities, it became something city folks started to like, too.

So in the spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood, let us now gather around Pookie and his Barbeque Pit on 25th and Cherry—even though I am a vinegar man and he's a tomato man.

Born in Chicago but raised in Seattle, Pookie—his real name is Edward Whitfield, but no one in the world knows him as anything but Pookie—says he used to play at Jimi Hendrix's old house and that Quincy Jones lived right around the corner. Pookie seems like a man who likes his history. His worn brick walls show off pictures of Ali knocking down Liston and Frazier, a photo of Mount Saint Helens exploding above the caption "May 18, 1980," a painting of Miles Davis shirtless in bed (after the album cover for Doo-Bop), a portrait of famous black cowboy Nat "Deadwood Dick" Love, and a shellacked page of the Seattle Times from 1980 (apparently a slow news day—nothing about its content reveals why it's up there). A poster is laid out on a low table near the back of the Pit, educating the ceiling about African kings and queens: the bearded and severe-looking "black Napoleon of the Sudan," Samory Toure; the wild-haired Moshoeshoe, King of Basutoland; and the serene-but-tough face of Nzingha, Warrior Queen of Ndongo and Matamba (who, despite years of pitched battle with the Portuguese, died a peaceful death at the age of 80).

Up toward the front of the Barbeque Pit, Pookie is talking with a lady who seems to be a regular. He hands her a wrapped-up package of barbecue and a separate wrapped-up bun ("to keep the bun from getting soggy," he later explains). He looks a little tired.

"Yeah, I've got to do this and my day job," he says.

"How do you find the time?" she asks.

"I don't!" he says. They both laugh.

Later, he explains that he doesn't have any sweet potato pie today because that day job—as a contractor—kept him too busy to make any dessert. The Barbeque Pit is only five months old and still getting on its feet. But he's got everything else: sandwiches of pulled pork, chicken, and beef; ribs in a sweet-then-spicy tomato sauce; plus greens, baked beans, and potato salad. In short, everything you could want from a barbecue joint, short of a cold beer.

Which is fine, because the Barbeque Pit seems built for takeout rather than eating in. Pookie has some chairs and counter space, but most people pick up and take away, presumably back to kitchens where they unwrap their prizes, pop cans of beer, and listen to the records of their choice. (Not that Pookie has any deficiencies in the music-taste department. Judging by the posters on his walls, he likes Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, and Dexter Gordon. Judging by the music playing in the Pit, he likes Funkadelic and Bootsy Collins.)

While we wait for our order, he shows off his brick oven "pit" with its black metal sliding doors. He says the pit was installed in the 1950s, and it certainly looks that old. He brings out a side of ribs, smoked stiff and covered with his dry rub. He opens a lower door to reveal charred logs. He stokes them with some grease from a water bottle. The flames lick up the sides of the logs and start to swell before he closes the door. "That's an old trick," he says. Pookie burns cherry, alder, and apple, and says, "I've got my eye on a maple tree on 29th." People can smell the sweet smoke for blocks around, and Pookie totes the odor around with him. "The dogs in my neighborhood give me a queer kind of look these days," he says. "They growl—but it's a different kind of growl."

The pulled everything at the Barbeque Pit (pork, chicken, beef) is cooked soft enough for a baby, and Pookie seems to favor a patina of sweetness—an initial brown-sugar tang with a wellspring of spice that rises behind it. His ribs aren't "falling-off-the-bone" soft, like the barbecue aristocracy seems to favor. But I don't give a damn—I've got teeth and opposable thumbs that can operate cutlery. I'm a man. What really counts are those smoky, fatty, and ribby flavors. The collards have a soft but not mushy texture (also with a hint of sweetness and a chunk of salt pork for a treat), and the baked beans are as creamy as you could want.

Barbecue is a fundamentally good food, no matter where you're from or how you prepare it. Its forces of brotherly love—plus Pookie's painting of Miles, his music posters, and his tired eyes—should bring the Barbeque Pit much acclaim and admiration. recommended

Got a hot food tip?
Send us an email!

Comments (25) RSS

Oldest First Unregistered On Registered On Add a comment
derek_erdman 1
This story made my day. I am so excited to eat at this place.
Posted by derek_erdman on April 6, 2011 at 1:58 PM · Report this
What a story, I wish you had a picture of the African kings and queens.
Posted by allmoney on April 6, 2011 at 2:45 PM · Report this
I didn't see the Kings n Queens picture.... I was too busy tasting the food.

Derek! Go! Get the ribs! A++++
Posted by Kelly O on April 6, 2011 at 3:21 PM · Report this
Hm, I wonder if The Twilight Exit allows take-in? That would totally solve the "cold beer problem"!
Posted by COMTE on April 6, 2011 at 10:49 PM · Report this
Spiffy D 5
I live close by and it does indeed stink up the whole area. In a good way!
Posted by Spiffy D on April 7, 2011 at 9:56 AM · Report this
6 Comment Pulled (Spam) Comment Policy
I've seeen more than one BBQ place in this space (Seattle lifer). I caan hardly wait to try this place.
Posted by wickedtruth on April 8, 2011 at 8:41 AM · Report this
"His ribs aren't "falling-off-the-bone" soft..."

Thanks for saving me the horror of ordering the ribs here.
Posted by seattlebikeguy on April 10, 2011 at 8:35 AM · Report this
razorclammer 9
I didn't have the heart to write up a downer review on Yelp for this place, but it really isn't very good. If you do go, order a sandwich; seems to be the best deal. Nice guy. If business does pick up, I imagine his food will get better for lack of sitting around all week.
Posted by razorclammer on April 10, 2011 at 12:25 PM · Report this
reverend dr dj riz 10
@9.. i've been here more than a few times ..different days and different times.. i've never had old food..or food that's been sitting out for a week.. and..
that the meat isn't falling off the bone tender doesn't mean that it isn't tasty or tender at this man manages to have near perfect - at least for me- ribs is pretty special.. but nobody, including me, like there..
Posted by reverend dr dj riz on April 11, 2011 at 12:07 PM · Report this
derek_erdman 11
I stopped by today but he was closed due to a "medical emergency".
Posted by derek_erdman on April 12, 2011 at 1:13 AM · Report this
Fnarf 12
@11, I think one of the hallmarks of a good barbecue joint, in the northwest at least, is some irregularity in hours. You want it to be run by a guy like this, not a corporate outfit with a great logo and trademark symbols on the menu.

But anyone who mentions the "theory" about "Bar-Beer-Que" deserves to be smacked on the head with one of those pool cues. "Barbacoa" is the correct answer.
Posted by Fnarf on April 12, 2011 at 11:37 AM · Report this
I need to check this place out!
kinda reminds me of the OK coral in greenwood. Hopefully it's a little more organized.
Posted by Conrad McMasters on April 12, 2011 at 12:08 PM · Report this
balderdash 14
I am SO on this. Thank you, Brendan.
Posted by balderdash on April 12, 2011 at 12:38 PM · Report this
LOVE BBQ! Can't find a menu online, any vegetarian options?
Posted by thunderchaps on April 12, 2011 at 12:53 PM · Report this
Thunderchaps, if you want vegetarian BBQ, check out Uncle Mike's in White Center. My meatless friends have raved about the vegetarian options there and all the sides, including the incredibly savory greens, are meatless.
Posted by Smartypants on April 12, 2011 at 1:33 PM · Report this
Vegetarian options? You'd be entirely missing the point of going to a BBQ place.
Posted by derp derp derp derrrrrrrr on April 12, 2011 at 5:05 PM · Report this
derek_erdman 18
@12: I went back today and it was closed again. The same sign was up, stating there was a medical emergency and they would reopen tomorrow. Today is yesterday's tomorrow, and they were closed yesterday for the same reason.

My point is, this place is DEAD TO ME.
Posted by derek_erdman on April 12, 2011 at 5:27 PM · Report this
@13: We can only hope it's better than OK Corral. I so want (wanted) to like OK Corral, but it just wasn't good.

My brother used to live really near this place, so I'm assuming it's in that space across from Twilight Exit that used to be a BBQ place back in the day. Seems like all you'd need to do is put good BBQ in that space and it would be a goldmine.
Posted by j-lon on April 13, 2011 at 12:08 AM · Report this
I can't defend the Q at OK corral, but their greens are fanfreakintastic, or at least they have been every time i've had them.
Posted by flounder on April 13, 2011 at 12:25 PM · Report this
A friend of mine tried the place and was very dismayed when Pookie wouldn't let him order anything with sauce on the side, the true test of good bbq.
Posted by kathrine on April 14, 2011 at 12:02 PM · Report this
@16 Yep I like that place but Roro's tops my list right now. They have more filling on the sammiches.

@17 Ha ha! Completely untrue! Thanks for playing, though.
Posted by thunderchaps on April 27, 2011 at 5:49 PM · Report this
Ribs should NOT be "fall off the bone" tender, they should be "pull away from the bones easily" tender. Rib meat that doesn't cling to the bones until gently pulled away is overcooked.
One way to tell is that the rack loses it's body a bit, and the meat pulls back from the rib ends. It shouldn't be "smoked stiff." When properly finished the rack will bend nicely but not double when held in the middle.
One suggestion if the ribs are a little underdone (teeth are okay, but you should never need cutlery with properly cooked ribs) would be to bring 'em home and finish them in your oven.
Posted by shaddapalready on October 3, 2014 at 9:32 AM · Report this
Is the OK Corral STILL open!? I like the guy that ran/runs the place on a personal level, but he saw no problem with telling me he uses ALL types of wood in his pit, including broken-up pallets and other soft woods. That isn't proper BBQ.
Posted by shaddapalready on October 3, 2014 at 9:37 AM · Report this
WOW, just noticed this article is 3 years old! Is this place even still open?
Posted by shaddapalready on October 3, 2014 at 9:39 AM · Report this

Add a comment