Whenever the Travel Channel or Food Network shoot a Detroit episode, at one point or another they bring up Detroit’s “” barbecue scene, name-checking restaurants like Slows as proof that Detroit is on some sort of comeback. And don’t get me wrong, they cook up some good BBQ for whatever that’s worth.
But the very idea that good barbecue is new to Motown flies in the face of the city’s black culinary scene. Take a drive down any of the city’s main avenues and you’ll see countless rib shacks and wing joints, some shuttered and hallowed out, others thriving still. They’ve been doing this for decades, and the mainstream media has barely batted an eye.
In fact, it ain’t summertime in “the D” until the big smokers come out. You’ll spot ’em in front of restaurants billowing, in church parking lots and grassy fields. Ribs, wings, burgers – it’s all there, luxuriating in thick smoke, the crowds of hungry patrons steady. What the food lacks in glitz and glamour, it more than makes up for in authenticity. Give a man an apron, tongs, and a smoker, and he can work miracles, I’ll tell you.
Yes, Detroit may have lost a lot over the years, but there’s meat on these bones yet.
Detroit’s BBQ culture is an extension of the city’s unappreciated Southern roots. In the boom days of the auto industry, countless thousands of blacks migrated to the city from the south, bringing with them not only their hopes and dreams, but some damn good recipes and music. Today, you can get BBQ Alabama style, Texas style, or St. Louis style, take in jazz and the blues at historic clubs, and have it all served with a side of cornbread or black eyed peas. The urban planners of the ’60s might’ve demolished Detroit’s traditional black neighborhoods of Paradise Valley and Black Bottom in the wayward name of urban renewal, but the rich culture that blossomed there has since bloomed all over the city in brilliant color.
In what might look like mere rib tips, I see resiliency and deep, delicious beauty.
One the more obvious examples of Detroit’s traditional BBQ and jazz scene is Bert’s Marketplace in Eastern Market, a popular farmer’s market. On Saturdays during the busy summer months, Bert’s busts out the smoker to feed the throng, a slab o’ ribs at a time, and the earnest karaoke roaring out the door is likely some of the best karaoke you’ll ever here. Local jazz legends crank out the tunes, and the open mic singers are serious about their craft, belting out soul tunes from their heart of hearts. If you’re lucky, a mean whistler or harmonica player will hop on stage, and you never know when an old Motown session player is lurking in the shadows, ready to show their chops.
On weekdays, the vibe is subdued but beating, classic checkerboard floors and cluttered with photos. Blues singers like Big Bill Broonzy sing songs you never heard but always knew on the jukebox, and the food has that down home feel. Order the smoked turkey wings and you get two sides, yams as sweet as heaven, black eyed peas that hop off the plate. The meat rolls off the bone, tender, having been smoked for hours over coals and then cooked to perfection. Usually, smoked turkey is reserved for cooking stock, but when it’s this good, why not serve it for dinner? I’m not 100% sure how Bert’s goes about preparing the smoked turkey – the only evidence of the preparation that remains by the time the plate reaches your table are a few stray bay leaves and some light peppery notes. And is it delicious.
But you don’t have to go to Bert’s to get a taste of slow-cooked Motown. Take a ride through Detroit on a muggy afternoon and stop at the first smoker. It’ll be an education, I promise.