#TBT - Talking smoked turkey and Hills Bros BBQ with Stephanie Johnson-Toliver.
The #TBT series is a collaboration between the Black Heritage Society of Washington State and Africatown Seattle to give historical insights and perspectives into Black history and Black contributions in the Seattle area and Washington State as a whole.
By Stephanie Johnson-Toliver
As Near As I Can Recollect
I’m looking back with both light- and heavy-hearted reflection that leaves me nostalgic and thankful for the memories. At the Black Heritage Society, I sit with a rich collection of Washington State black history that documents people, places and things. Today, it’s the places that are on my mind and one place in particular was triggered by a friends Facebook post.
“Where do I go to get smoked turkey legs?”
The question made me pause and think about a time in our Central Area community when this would never have been a question or issue. The grocers, the take outs and neighborhood restaurants were always the convenient and reliable go-to that was down the street or around the corner for all things smoked, fried, smothered or barbecued. Catering to a community’s needs and wants is paramount and in the case of the Central Area, as the black population shifted and declined so did the accessibility and convenience for certain food commodities. Excuse me, where are the smoked turkey legs?
Remembering Hills Brothers BBQ Smoked Turkey’s
Hills Brothers BBQ, and fondly aka “Nasty Brothers” or “Dirty Brothers”. The stories behind that aka are made of urban legend and has all to do with the distinct flavors and atmosphere of the joint. Opened in 1953, located on 21st Avenue between East Cherry and East Jefferson streets, it was a go-to that I personally recall as early as 1959. I remember piling into the car on Beacon Hill and falling asleep in the back seat only to wake up to the aroma of heaven on earth and a line forming outside the door of a small shack-like building with smoke pluming from the chimney. The line would grow because it always seemed to open at least 30 minutes later than the posted time because the ribs could not be rushed. There was an old soda cooler inside the joint that had glass bottles submerged in ice water and when a coin was deposited it would release the opening to a maze-like turnstile with the reward being your flavor of choice. My mother would get a single order of ribs-“hot” with potato salad and the white bread was wrapped in wax paper. It was a treat for my sister and I to get one rib and a piece of bread. The best part of sharing was dipping the bread in the sauce…I’d close my eyes and smile. I can still smell and taste it.
Through the years, owners and creators of the delicious, smoky and spicy ribs, Robert and Zeb Hill held down the business. The structure never dramatically changed…the secret sauce never changed…and the business name never changed even when years later the management turned over and existed into the 1990s. Because there was a big pit for smoking meat, the opportunity opened at Thanksgiving to arrange for Hills Brothers to smoke your holiday turkey. Some of the best turkey I have ever tasted was smoked there. I remember hearing some small drama about timing for the pick-up of the turkey. It went something like this.
Knock, knock. No answer. Knock, knock. No answer.
Knock, knock. I’m here to pick-up my turkey.
Response behind the door: Come back in an hour…because the turkey could not be rushed.
I miss the take-outs and restaurants that were black owned and operated in the Central Area, and the grocers who were intentional and provided what their black customers wanted.
I’m excited to know that Chef Kristi Brown, That Brown Girl Cooks is coming to 23rd & Union, Cortona Cafe is holding down the corner at 25th & Union, Caliste’s Po’Boy Pop-Up at 18th & Yesler, Erika White blowing it up at Fat’s Chicken & Waffles on E. Cherry, Simply Soulful in the Madison Valley, Taste of the Caribbean on E. Jefferson, and after the retirement of long time beloved owners at R&L Home of Good Barbeque whose legacy will never die, The Barbeque Pit will occupy the space beginning next Spring. Here is a photo I took of words on a favorite poster at the Home of Good Barbeque. I loved that place, too.
Barbara, Will you donate the sign to BHS Collections?
Support existing black business in the Central Area, advocate for more opportunities available to black owned business, and keep eyes open for new businesses that will want and need your patronage.
Listen to this Shelf Life Project podcast episode on food that includes black folks sharing thoughts about Hills Brothers BBQ, Jackson St. Red Apple and Thanksgiving with family. Thank you, Shelf Life for collecting and preserving the stories. The project is now located at Wa Na Wari.