Discover more from The Bittman Project
Food with Mark Bittman: Ed and Ryan Mitchell
Transforming the tradition of authentic barbecue into a pure labor of love — plus, working with your dad
Since I work with one of my beloved daughters, Kate, one might say that for me, every day is Father’s Day. (Awwwww….) But when she and I got a pitch about Ed Mitchell’s Barbeque, written with his son Ryan, we knew we wanted to do an official Father’s Day episode, with all four of us.
Both Ed and Ryan have had rich journeys, with many stops along the way — journeys that led them to where they are today, working alongside each other. Ed grew up during the Jim Crow South; segregation dominated life in Wilson, North Carolina, his hometown. He went to college, served in Vietnam, and worked at the Ford Motor Company until he was 45 and came home to help his mom with their small family grocery store. One day, his mom wanted barbecue, and Ed rolled his parents’ rustic cooker into the parking lot and smoked a 35-pound pig while his mother prepared coleslaw and collards — and a career in barbecue began, a career that’s drawn the attention of Anthony Bourdain, Calvin Trillin, and Michael Pollan.
Ryan worked alongside his grandparents in the Mitchell family corner store from a young age, then went off to play football in college and to investment banking, quite sure that he would NOT end up in the family business. He pictured a different path for his career, rebelling against barbecue because it felt like a chore. But after eight years in banking, a major market crash and brutal layoffs, Ryan stepped back and reevaluated his professional life and left his desk job to return to his roots and pursue what he realized was his real passion: working alongside his dad.
Ed and Ryan remind me a lot of me and Kate, except perhaps a bit more organized. They work really well together, and I think you’ll be touched by our interview with them. Below: the recipe for “I Don’t Eat Everybody’s Potato Salad!,” from Ed Mitchell’s Barbeque.
“I Don’t Eat Everybody’s Potato Salad!”
Makes: 5 servings
Time: 35 minutes
Suggs Christian Temple is the name of our home church in Wilson. My grandparents were cofounders of the church, and their names are still on the church walls. Granddad co-owned the land and gave it to the church to be built in 1978. For the Mitchells, church on Sunday was law in our family. All of us went to church, even my grandfather. Church for me was the best time to see all my friends. The Sunday service was always good, but to play with all the kids from my church in the park next door was the highlight of my childhood. The food and the hospitality that went into post-church was so amazing to me.
Every First Sunday, we partook of bread and wine, and we would commune by washing one another’s feet. A lot of Black churches have moved away from that tradition. We washed one another’s feet up until the late 1990s. It was an act of service, humbling yourself in front of your neighbors. The women washed each one another’s feet, and vice versa with the men. They were country boys who didn’t put on shoes until Sunday. You can’t re-create that kind of humility today; you have to believe in that type of community service based in scripture. I sat next to my granddad so that we could wash each other’s feet. Granddad would say, “We understand the service, but my baby ain’t going to be washing everybody’s feet, y’all could chill with that.” It was the smelliest and best of times.
Reverend Denmark Suggs was our original pastor. Our church pastor’s anniversary dinner was held every year, and this is when Reverend Suggs would ask my grandmother to make the potato salad. Only a select few church members were asked to make the potato salad. First Sunday, my grandmother would always cook for our fellow parishioners. She always made sure our favorite dishes were on the menu so that she wouldn’t have to cook for us after church.
So when we say “I don’t eat everybody’s potato salad” in the Black community, that means either the person didn’t know how to season or prepare potato salad in the old way, or their home was unclean. I recall older Black women at church saying, “She might have all kinds of stuff in her house. I don’t know if I want to eat her potato salad.” As a child, you hear all the gossip at church.
Reverend Suggs always visited our house. My grandfather and he were fishing buddies. Pastor knew how clean my grandmother’s house was and that her kitchen was always spotless. You could eat off the floor in my grandmother’s house, and my grandmother’s potato salad was legendary. We served it at our restaurant, pig pickin’s, church, and every family function. — Ryan Mitchell, Ed Mitchell’s Barbeque
5 pounds russet potatoes
1 1/2 cups regular mayonnaise (preferably Duke’s)
1/4 cup yellow mustard
4 green onions, diced
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
5 small sweet pickles, diced
4 hard-boiled eggs, diced
4 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled
1 teaspoon paprika
Wrap the potatoes in aluminum foil. Place the potatoes on the smoker and cook for 30 minutes. Take the hot potatoes from the smoker, let cool, and remove the potato skins with peeler. Put the potatoes in a bowl and mash or whip them to make them extra fluffy. Fold in the mayonnaise, mustard, green onions, salt, pepper, and your favorite seasonings. Fold in the pickles, eggs, and bacon, then adjust the seasoning, adding more salt, mustard, or mayo as needed. Refrigerate for 15 minutes before serving. Lightly garnish with the paprika just before serving.
— Reproduced by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.