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Illustration for growing up on Los Angeles Black barbecue by Camilla Sucre Camilla Sucre

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Growing Up on Los Angeles’s Black Barbecue

In the 1970s and 1980s, zig-zagging across the city to pick up food for summer barbecues became a rite of passage for one writer

When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, we had a core group of four other families we socialized with. All summer long, we’d either host gatherings or drive to Diamond Bar to spend time with the Davises; Fountain Valley to visit Uncle Ed’s family; Carson to see the Edwardses; or Sylmar, where the Wilsons lived.

For a 10-year-old, each home seemed a million miles away from the others. And looking back, the distances between these Southern California homes actually were quite far. If mapping from the farthest points that are still within Los Angeles County, the drive is 1 hour and 46 minutes, for a total of 98 miles. And if we include Uncle Ed’s Fountain Valley home in the northern part of Orange County, that added 30 minutes of travel time — that’s without traffic.

Long car trips were something that all Americans did, but a two-hour drive in any other part of the country can land you in another state. In Southern California, a two-hour ride might put you across county lines at most. These trips were best handled with a license plate game or nap before arriving at the get-together, which was always in full swing by the time we arrived.

If the party was at our house, we could watch the day unfold in our home. After an hour, it was a scene. Mr. Wilson always danced while drinking his rum and Coke, even if the music wasn’t on. Aunt Dee and Uncle Ed had the loudest and most frequent laughs. Mr. Davis always asked about my grades, and the Edwardses were the best huggers. Mom fussed while marinating ribs and chopping a mountain of potatoes, onions, and peppers. She’d do this while smoking a Benson & Hedges Ultra Lights Menthol cigarette, as Pops played DJ blasting Stevie Wonder’s Songs In the Key of Life. Pops’s tunes would move to a more sultry selection as the sun set over our Altadena home.

Even as a child, I knew it was a party. And the party was not complete until guests filled paper plates that regularly collapsed under the weight of ribs, potato salad, barbecue baked beans, and macaroni salad. I remember the grape Kool-Aid with lemon slices, and coolers full of soda cans that my sisters and I weren’t allowed to touch. I vividly recall the adults’ behavior changing as the levels on the liquor bottles got lower. I knew Uncle Ed was lit when the cup filled with rum kept spilling onto the shag carpet. Mom’s smile stayed put as she giggled and did her basic two-step to the music in the sweltering living room packed with dancing bodies.

Someone always inevitably, drunkenly, jarringly scratched the vinyl entirely. Enthusiasm for their favorite jam prompted them to lift the needle from the record and shout at the top of their lungs, “That’s my song! We’ve got to start that one again!” By the time night fell, everyone secured another plate full of food, loosened belts, played cards, or danced in the living room while Marvin Gaye’s Give It Up played on repeat.

The gathering was a coordinated effort between my parents. Mom did most of the shopping and preparation, while Pops had two tasks: to make sure all the meat was barbecued the way Mom wanted, and, before the party, to pick up the hot links from South Central Los Angeles. He always waited until the last minute to accomplish the latter, then drove to a handful of unfussy, minimal businesses selling flavorful link sausages to Southland residents on a Saturday morning. If venturing solo, Pops left the house for hours, returning with boxes full of frozen pork and chicken sausages.

Every once in a while, I or one of my sisters accompanied Pops on his hot link journey. GPS didn’t exist yet, of course. Neither did smartphones, and we never put on our seat belts. We left Altadena on a mission, Dad’s traffic instincts, and a Thomas Guide (a paperback, spiral-bound atlas outlining street maps throughout Los Angeles). I was always puzzled when Pops snuck in a snack or two at barbecue stands — after all, barbecue was on the menu later in the day. But as an adult, I realize now that his strategy made sense. As we made our way through city streets with the heat pounding on our pea green Chevy Nova (or the bright green Celica Hatchback), he’d lean over and ask, “You want to get a little something to eat?”

Pops introduced me to the immeasurable pleasure of snacking while running errands around Los Angeles. But he took it to a new level during hot link pickups. He would grab a few juicy rib tips — the meaty part on the underside of spare ribs — or miniature sweet potato pies from restaurants throughout the city. A stop here, a nibble there. All in the name of putting on a great barbecue.

Because I was so young and my father died in 2008, my memory of these hot links and barbecue stops are a bit hazy. I wasn’t the kind of 7-year-old who paid attention to business signs and names. To help jog my memory, I sought out lifelong Los Angeles residents, and our conversations helped paint a picture of South LA barbecue — its long-forgotten history, the places still kicking, and how it endures.

In my family’s own Altadena community, we could stop at Smokehouse, only blocks away from John Muir High School near the corner of Woodbury and Lincoln. The folks at Bill’s Chicken sold more than just chicken; they also kept barbecue items on a secret menu — you just had to ask. Both businesses closed decades ago, but Altadena residents always made regular stops at both spots to pick up excellent barbecue baked beans or the area’s most popular fried chicken, a succulent feast packed in a grease-stained brown paper bag along with the requisite slice of white bread.

While figuring out Pop’s routes, Andrew Jackson, a retired law enforcement officer and the owner of Boss Hog Real Pit BBQ, spoke of his own, including the notable Mr. Jim’s on 54th and Vermont with the unforgettable slogan, “You don’t need no teeth to eat Mr. Jim’s meat.” He also remembers how the legendary Woody’s Bar-B-Q tried to expand 52 miles east into Rancho Cucamonga, only to close that location in the ’80s. “Pig Out Barbecue was now the Baldwin Hills Shopping Center. There used to be island partitions on the main strip,” he tells me. “It was Santa Barbara Boulevard but is now Martin Luther King Boulevard. Gadberry’s on Slauson and Broadway would smoke up the whole corner.”

I remember stops with Pops at Woody’s on Slauson. It was impossible to miss Crenshaw’s busy strip, with a packed parking lot and smoke billowing from the chimney. Pops always ordered rib tips with less sauce, because they were compact and easier to eat in the car.

Charles Maye also remembers driving past Woody’s predecessor. Maye grew up in the Mid-City area and recalls riding with his family past the plume of smoke on Crenshaw south of Adams, when Leo’s churned out St. Louis-style barbecue in a space that eventually became Phillips Bar-B-Que. (Phillips opened in 1980.) “I was really young and sitting in the back seat just passing by Leo’s, and always remember the smoke once you hit Adams. It had a distinctive smell. You could see the smoke coming out of the chimney,” he says.” I remember mainly the beef and the pulled barbecue.”

Just like my family, Pasadena native and CP(BarB)Q owner Chris Patton has specific needs for barbecue gatherings. His own grandfather was the 1970s celebrity Gene Gene the Dancing Machine, who taught Patton everything he knows. “I don’t buy a lot of barbecue,” he says. “When I do, I want something that’s different from what I do. My grandfather would go into Chinatown to get live chickens to butcher, and he was the type to get hot links from Pete’s or Mama’s. You’ve got to be a hot link connoisseur to eat those, they are hot as hell.”

Each of these residents mentioned Papa Pete’s Gourmet Sausages. For 72 years, this Los Angeles walk-up supplied Louisiana-style hot links from a small room with a steel outer door on Central near Hawkins House of Burgers, also a Pops stop. The Hawkins salmon croquettes can be eaten by hand in minutes.

Pete’s stopped selling from that location in April 2020. The Pete’s Foods website states the business is steering all efforts into production and selling directly to local retailers and markets (Eater LA was unsuccessful in contacting the producer).

After Patton’s recommendations, I walked into Mama’s Chicken and immediately knew: This was one of our stops. On Slauson between Crenshaw and Western, the store hasn’t changed much over the decades. This small grocery with a display case is owned by Karen “Mama” Whitman, who sells sausages (chicken or turkey) daily to businesses and residents who love their flavor. They’re sold in two- or five-pound boxes and freeze perfectly until you’re ready to grill them. And just like Pops did decades ago, I headed right to the back to see the inventory, space, and kitchen where the sausages and dishes from the daytime menu are made.

I bought a two-pound box of Mama’s chicken sausages and threw them on the grill at home. My touch was slightly less charred and crispy than the Pops version; he followed Mom’s direction to intentionally add a dark char. After adding spicy brown mustard to a brioche bun, I took a bite.

I now fully understand why mom sent Pops for a link pickup. The wonderful links from Mama’s still hold up; the flavor and snap are beautifully familiar. So are the conversations with these lifetime Los Angeles residents who helped me piece my memories back together. This is what Los Angeles means to me. These recent treks to present and long-lost eateries reawakened my own personal barbecue connection while I tasted rib tips at Woody’s, or met younger pitmasters like Bootsy’s, who perfectly grills and smokes salmon. The barbecue of my ’70s and ’80s youth still exists, but I just kept driving past it before now. And now it’s time to collect a box of links from Mama’s, invite friends and family over, turn the music on, and keep those memories and history flowing.

Camilla Sucre is a Caribbean American artist from Trinidad, born in New York and raised in Baltimore.

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