Michael Gebert (@skyfullofbacon) is a James Beard Award-winning editor of Fooditor.com and Sky Full of Bacon.
America's urban barbecue boom is often driven by entrepreneurs looking to emulate regional icons they see on TV—typically Memphis pulled pork and Texas brisket. But in Chicago, the trend for newcomers to look outward ignores the rich smoked-meat tradition in their very own backyard.
A true regional style develops out of local conditions. Chicago’s indigenous South Side, African-American barbecue style may not be a major one next to Memphis or Texas, but it’s real all the same, with its own distinctive story.
It started, like Chicago blues, with migrants from the Mississippi Delta after World War II. A group of brothers from Indianola, Mississippi named Collins opened grocery stores and prepared takeout barbecue on weekends, which grew into actual barbecue stands. They cooked pork because that’s what they’d cooked at home, and the Chicago stockyards had plenty of it; they cooked spareribs and even rib tips, the scrap piece filled with cartilage, which the stockyards gave away for free.
And because Chicago was a town full of Eastern Europeans, pitmasters had access to another scrap meat—sausage. Ribs, rib tips, and hot links remain the holy smoke trinity, cooked relatively quickly (for barbecue) over a roaring hickory pit to a point definitely chewier than “fall off the bone.”
Which leads to the other distinctive sign of Chicago barbecue—the steel and glass pit, often called an “aquarium smoker.” In the 1950s, the health department wasn’t fond of grimy brick pits that were common down south, so a local metal fabricator devised a pit that could be taken apart and hosed down. It was the Collins brothers who noticed that it also made a great display case in your stand’s front window.
In the 1950s and 1960s, independent barbecue businesses became symbols of black economic empowerment, and their owners became important local backers of the civil rights struggle, supporting Martin Luther King’s protests in Chicago, and breaking down barriers by getting black-owned products (like Argia B. Collins’ Mumbo Sauce) into white-owned grocery chains.
South Side Chicago stands differ from the roadside joints you see in Texas or the Carolinas—they’re take-out only, which usually requires you to dine on the trunk of your car—but chat up the folks in line at Lem’s or Honey 1 and you’ll find a vibrant kinship of barbecue.
From caramel cake to hickory-smoked ribs, here’s what to look for in Chicago’s barbecue scene.