Meet A Black Man Who Is A Rocket Scientist At Day And A Barbecue Pitmaster At Night

by Duke Magazine

During the day, Dr. Howard Conyers works for NASA, building facilities for testing rocket engines. Then, every night or in his leisure time, he cooks traditional whole hog barbecue while researching the history of Black BBQ.

He has been working for nearly eight years to shift the narrative surrounding barbeque and the Black people who make it. “The history of Black barbeque has never been completely documented by someone from inside the community who can fill in the blanks with passed-down information.” “If I don’t videotape it, it’ll wind up in the graveyard,” he joked.

Manning, South Carolina, is the hometown of the rocket scientist and BBQ pitmaster. “I grew up in a small rural town named Paxville, which is about seven miles from Manning,” he told Southern Living. Conyers first grilled a hog when he was 11 years old. He learned to cook barbeque from his father, who had learned from other cooks in the neighborhood.

Even though Conyers’ father was a Black farmer, he earned less than his White rivals owing to a variety of issues, including being denied loans.

To make ends meet, he became a welder. He was able to make all of his pits because he was a welder. “The first pit I remember having as a kid was an old International refrigerator with a round top,” Conyers recalled. “He flipped it over on its back, so the door was on top.” He cut two doors in the end and installed a rack, but you continued to use your barrel outdoors to make coals.” According to Southern Living, his father later began building pits out of barrels and then sheet steel.

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Even though Conyers’ father did not make a lot of money, he made sure his children received an education. Conyers received a BS in Bioenvironmental Engineering from North Carolina A&T and a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and materials science from Duke before moving to Louisiana. Following his Ph.D., he accepted his first position at Stennis and resided in Slidell for a year before moving to New Orleans.

But while in New Orleans, Conyers realized he was missing something particular from his hometown: his family’s special style of whole hog barbecue. So he resolved to carry on his family’s tradition and inform his new neighbors in New Orleans about it. He took part in Hogs for the Cause, a New Orleans-based annual barbecue competition, and fundraiser.

“In 2013, I roasted my first hog in New Orleans,” Conyers explained. “I performed a Super Bowl practice run [for friends] in February and then Hogs in March.”

People soon began to take note of his whole hog BBQ approach. He returned to South Carolina and cooked with other well-known pitmasters from the organization Palmetto State during their maiden event in Charleston. Conyers went on to barbeque publicly at festivals and gatherings, as well as talk at universities on the history of Black barbecue, to ensure that Black pitmasters receive the recognition they deserve.

“…Long after the Civil War, up until the 1970s, when several white barbecue establishments started springing up, someone Black was usually doing the cooking.” However, all of the credit was given to the white proprietors. I’d like to ask folks like [the well-known, third-generation white pitmaster] Sam Jones, ‘Who was cooking with your grandfather on that farm?’ Whose hands were at work in that cookhouse’s pit? You never bring up those people.”

The NASA rocket scientist and barbecue pitmaster, who traversed the world trying BBQ and collected stories from pitmasters everywhere, was recently recruited to anchor Nourish, a PBS food show that “highlights the relationship between the culinary and community spheres.” Conyers was drawn to the project because he wanted to bring the world’s attention to the origins of Southern food.

In 2018, he told, “I don’t see African-American contributions to the Southern food movement being recognized in a big way.” “When I look at great chefs in New Orleans, I don’t see a lot of African-American, Native American, or Caribbean influences, or people that reflect those cultures.”

Conyers is currently in the process of turning his years of research into a book about Black barbecue, while also traveling around sharing knowledge about the history and craft that cultivated Black barbecue at universities and food events.

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