Dr. Howard Conyers works for NASA during the day, designing facilities for testing rocket engines. Then every night or during his spare time, he cooks old-fashioned whole hog barbecue while documenting the history of Black barbecue.
For almost eight years now, he’s been working to change the narrative around barbecue and the Black people behind it. “The history of Black barbecue has never been fully documented by someone from inside the culture, who can fill in the gaps with passed-down knowledge. If I don’t record it, it’ll end up in the cemetery,” he said to bon appetit.
The rocket scientist and barbecue pitmaster comes from Manning, South Carolina, a town in the Pee Dee region. “Actually, I grew up in a little rural area called Paxville. . . seven miles from Manning,” he told Southern Living. Conyers barbecued his first hog when he was 11 years old. He had learned to cook barbecue from his father, who also learned it from other cooks in the community.
“We’d cook them nice and slow—12 to 15 hours each—and use literally every part of the animal. It was always one of the biggest things that brought my family together,” Conyers recalled tending the pits at family reunions during his high school days. Even though Conyers’ father was a Black farmer, he made less than his White counterparts due to many factors including being denied loans.
So, he became a welder to make ends meet. Being a welder enabled him to make all his pits himself. “The first pit I remember as a child was an old International refrigerator with a round top,” Conyers said. “He laid it down on its back so the door was on the top. He cut two doors on the end and he put a rack in there, but you still used your barrel outside to make coals.” His father later began making pits out of barrels and then sheet steel, according to Southern Living.
Even though Conyers’ father did not earn much, he made sure his children got an education. Conyers earned his BS in Bioenvironmental Engineering at North Carolina A&T and then earned a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and materials science from Duke, before heading to Louisiana. He took his first job at Stennis after his Ph.D. and lived in Slidell for a year before moving to New Orleans.
But while in New Orleans, Conyers realized that he was missing something back home that is unique — and that was his family’s special style of whole hog barbecue. So he decided to continue his family’s tradition and let his new neighbors in New Orleans know more about it. He participated in Hogs for the Cause, an annual barbecue competition and fundraiser in New Orleans.
“I cooked my first hog in New Orleans in 2013,” Conyers said. “I did a practice run [for friends] for the Super Bowl in February and then did Hogs in March.”
Soon, people started taking notice of his style of whole hog barbecue. He came back home to South Carolina and cooked with some well-known pitmasters of the organization Palmetto State during their inaugural event at Charleston. Conyers went on to barbecue publicly at festivals and events while speaking at universities about the history of Black barbecue to make sure that Black pitmasters get the credit they deserve.
“…Long after the Civil War, up through the 1970s when you started to see a lot of white barbecue institutions popping up, somebody Black was usually doing the cooking. But all the credit went to the white owners. I would love to one day ask people like [the high-profile, third-generation white pitmaster] Sam Jones, ‘Who was cooking with your grandfather on that farm? Whose hands were working the pit in that cookhouse? You never talk about those people’.”
The NASA rocket scientist and barbecue pitmaster, who traveled around the world sampling BBQ and gathering stories from pitmasters all over, was recently tapped to host Nourish, PBS’ food show that “highlights the connection between the culinary and community realms.” Getting the world’s attention to the origins of Southern cooking was what moved Conyers to the project.
“I don’t see African-American contributions to the Southern food movement being recognized in a big way,” he told Nola.com in 2018. “When I look at top chefs in New Orleans, I don’t see very much African-American, Native American or Caribbean influences, and I don’t see people who reflect those cultures.”
Today, Conyers is in the process of turning his years of research into a book about Black barbecue while traveling around sharing knowledge at universities and food events about the history and craft that cultivated Black barbecue.