Technically the man with the deep voice and serene demeanor behind the counter at the Barbeque Pit is named Edward Whitfield, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone who calls him anything but Pookey. Not even the Garfield High School students who file in at lunchtime or the neighborhood regulars who know to get here early in the afternoon, before the rib tips sell out.
A lot of people ask Pookey what style of barbecue he does in his smoker, a giant double-brick monster that looks like a chamber in which Hansel and Gretel might meet an untimely fate. But style, he says, is a matter of sauce. “What distinguishes the ribs is you don’t burn ’em.” Hoisting a rack of spareribs, fresh from a sojourn in that smoker, he fixes his thumb and forefinger on one of the protruding rib bones and pulls it—cleanly, easily—out of the rack of meat. “There’s no style on that.”
Since the Barbeque Pit opened in late 2010, people have congregated for ribs and brisket and pork shoulder—the trifecta of most barbecue joints around here—plus hot links for just a buck, a big hit with the high schoolers. The street outside smells of smoky alder, apple, and maple wood, much of it from felled neighborhood trees that cure in stacks behind the building.
A native of the Carolinas might quibble with the sauce recipe he devised, subtle of smoke and very heavy on the sweet. A Texan would be offended that Pookey douses his ribs in sauce at all (you might want to ask for it on the side). But Seattle is accustomed to stitching together a nation’s worth of barbecue traditions into our own amalgam. And the Barbeque Pit imbues that approach with soul, enough so that we might pretend, just for this meal, that Seattle has an established, proud barbecue heritage. Those ribs have a charry brown crust, a flecking of smoke singe known as bark. Inside, a ribbon of fat that melts right off the bone; a tight ring of pink lies just beneath the bark, a chemical reaction born from hours and hours in that smoker. There’s no faking that ring—it’s the barbecue equivalent of a well-executed double play. Pookey’s ribs smoke for four hours, though he says there’s a mere 10-minute gap between perfection and overdone.
After moving from Chicago at age five, Pookey grew up at 26th and Fir, three blocks from his restaurant. A contractor by day, he was originally planning to open a fish-and-chips restaurant, but when he came across this space and its neglected pit—long ago it was a Jewish deli, but someone installed that brick behemoth back in the ’70s—it just seemed wrong to do anything but barbecue here. One minor drawback: Pookey had never used a smoker before. A friend had to tell him that the fire belongs inside the small adjacent chamber, called the firebox, and not in the pit itself.
So he practiced, learning how to regulate the temperature via the firebox and discovering the hot spots inside the arched chamber. Now Pookey and longtime friend–turned–pit assistant Tony Newell trade wisecracks, crank up the blues, jazz, and R&B, and chat up every customer who walks in the door, even the scant few who aren’t regulars. A wall of fame outside displays photographs of famous people—Bruce Lee, Queen Underwood, Kenny G—with ties to the Central District. It’s a heartfelt recipe Pookey can’t—and won’t—replicate in a second or third location.
Generations of culture drive barbecue in North Carolina or Memphis or Texas Hill Country. Pookey didn’t grow up with any of that. Nor did Seattle. But that doesn’t stop us from appreciating the craft that goes into smoking a piece of meat into a state of tenderness.
Published: July 2013