Rocket scientist and barbecue pitmaster Dr. Howard Conyers talks aeroelastic engineering, whole-hog roasting, and how black pitmasters have been written out of the history of barbecue.
We are in mid-city New Orleans with Dr. Howard Conyers, host of the PBS show Nourish, a rocket scientist by day and whole hog barbecue pitmaster by night and by the weekend. If we have to have only one more episode in this flagrantly fabulous town, then we’re glad it’s with Dr. Conyers. He is originally from the deep South, the rural South, but he chose to make New Orleans his home after Katrina. We talked about that move and about how black pitmasters are reclaiming barbecue and about exactly what space engineering and fire-meets-pig engineering have in common.
Nathan Thornburgh: A Tuesday afternoon deserves at least a few fingers of liquor. Cheers.
Dr. Howard Conyers: Cheers.
Thornburgh: Wow. Oh, that’s good.
Conyers: That’s great. Uncle Nearest. He knew a little something or two.
Thornburgh: You had said definitely that this is what we should drink on the podcast and I’m glad you did. Tell me what Uncle Nearest 1856 is about.
Conyers: So Jack Daniel, he learned how to make whiskey from a slave. And his name was Nearest Green. This particular story came out maybe about two years ago. So, they started making this particular whiskey to honor his contributions to the Jack Daniels distillery.
Thornburgh: So I think there was an African American woman named Fawn Weaver who had heard about the story (I only know this because you set me on this whole path of finding this bottle and thinking about it). But Fawn had heard the story about Uncle Nearest, which is I guess what they called Nearest Green, who was an emancipated slave who taught Jack Daniel’s, the Jack Daniels, how to make whiskey. I think Weaver went to Lynchburg, Tennessee—that happy town that they show in the commercials—and she looked for a sign or some sort of commemoration for this man who had been at the birth of Jack Daniel’s whiskey and she couldn’t find it. I’ve never met this woman, but I assume she’s the kind of woman who’s like, “Well, fuck it. I’m going to do it myself.”
Conyers: I really enjoy hearing that story. When I heard that story, I started thinking that there are more people out there than just Uncle Nearest. There were a lot of black men who were making whiskey in the American South. They were making corn liquor or moonshine.
Thornburgh: It really reminded of the revelation you had about kind of flipping through a guide of the best American pitmasters and seeing that it’s all white men, basically. I mean, no African Americans. It’s like: “African Americans made this in the first place. How are they not in the picture?”
Conyers: Yes, I was thinking that when I chose that particular drink.
Thornburgh: I think in any discipline, any science, any act that has come out of America, there’s always going to be someone written out of that story. It usually is African Americans.
Tell me about that moment where you saw that other people were getting acclaim and recognition for things that you can do.
Conyers: Nobody [who was getting acclaim] looked like the men I learned how to barbecue from. That was kind of the most disheartening thing because the story that was shared with us is that white people used to cross over to the black lines to get barbecue from some black men who made it. So, it looked like a total switch.
Thornburgh: This is in rural South Carolina, where you grew up?
Thornburgh: And your father was a welder, right?
Conyers: Yeah, my father was a welder.
Thornburgh: Much of this very muscular, intense barbecue that I’ve seen you do starts with an act of welding. You make these incredible contraptions that are put together from one piece of this and different parts of that to hold animals large enough to make you interested in barbecuing them.
Conyers: Yeah, it takes a lot of ingenuity and resourcefulness.
You could do your culture well, but you can also be an engineer. You can be a doctor. You can be a lawyer and still hold true to who you are as a person and the things that make you special.
Thornburgh: New Orleans is known for a whole lot of things and incredible food culture. Barbecuing is not…
Conyers: No, I tell people who come to New Orleans looking for barbecue: “Please don’t come. Please go to the other regions.” I know there are some great barbecue spots in the city of New Orleans, but please come to New Orleans for New Orleans cuisine. Go to Texas. Go to South Carolina. Go to North Carolina for their barbecue. Come to New Orleans for the gumbos, the etouffee, the jambalayas.
Thornburgh: Absolutely. How long have you been in New Orleans?
Conyers: I’ve been in New Orleans since 2011. I moved to New Orleans in February of 2011, Mardi Gras time.
Thornburgh: Was that why you moved at that time?
Conyers: No, I didn’t know. My realtor was kind of joking about me living close to the parade route. I was like I hope not. She was like, “No, you’re in the middle of it.” And then the year after I was like, “Oh yeah, I’m in the middle of it.”
Thornburgh: Do you leave town?
Conyers: I haven’t gotten to that point yet.
Thornburgh: Do you join in?
Conyers: I go to the parades. I really like seeing the Black Masking Indian culture. That’s probably my favorite thing about carnival season.
Thornburgh: Part of the reason you wanted to come and live here in New Orleans, even though you work in Mississippi, was that you saw the city had some need after Hurricane Katrina.
Conyers: I mean, that’s kind of cliche. I hate saying that, but I felt like, hopefully, through my life story, my life’s work, that young black males and young black people could see that there are opportunities. I want them to see that different careers are attainable.
I think my life story is pretty unique. You can have two different sides of your life or three different sides of your life. You don’t have to be one-dimensional. You could do your culture well, but you can also be an engineer. You can be a doctor. You can be a lawyer and still hold true to who you are as a person and the things that make you special.
Thornburgh: So obviously, you’re mechanically-inclined and you have a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. You have other degrees as well.
Conyers: I have a degree in environmental engineering, which basically combines agriculture and engineering together, and I have a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and aeroelasticity.
Thornburgh: Aeroelasticity. One of the things that make your show pretty delightful to watch is how you approach barbecue because of your background. So, when you walk up to a full line of, of pigs rotating slowly, you’re like, “Hey, what’s the gasket made of? What’s the ball bearing that is like creating the ability for this thing to rotate?” You geek out on that, where I would probably just be knocked unconscious by the amazing smell of the fat on the fire.
Conyers: I definitely want to see all the engineering behind it. I have a great appreciation for it.
Thornburgh: Tell me about the Nourish episode that featured a whole cow. That’s one of the episodes I remembered best. It’s pretty audacious.
Conyers: Have you seen many people cook a whole cow?
Thornburgh: I’ve never seen it in person. I’ve seen a lot of animals at their end, but not that.
Conyers: So, the cow is actually kind of like Uncle Nearest. I wanted to show African American contributions to barbecue. And in a lot of historical literature that I read, they talk about an African Americans cooking whole cows.
Cooking a whole cow was the only thing I didn’t know anything about. My father had never heard of anybody barbecuing a whole cow.
Thornburgh: So, it’s just been lost kind of in the culture.
Conyers: It’s been lost in the culture.
Thornburgh: So you work at the Stennis Space Center. What exactly do you do there?
Conyers: Currently, I work on facility design. Basically, I work on like designs to like make sure valves and different components are in place to make sure we can safely test the engine. But sometimes it can be something as simple as a stair rail that you might need to replace or you might want to have a fuel cell backup and he may be involved with that are building another building, like a storage shed.
Thornburgh: You’re saying engineering and barbecuing are not very similar, but I just can’t help but think that there’s some heavy overlap because you’re talking about having ideas of how to work things together.
Conyers: I guess one thing engineering and cooking a whole cow have in common is you have to learn how to distribute your lows, and understand how to handle lows and handle loads or forces. Every material not going to handle it the same way. You have to know what materials can handle certain temperatures, certain weights.
Thornburgh: Right. You’ve got to account for the physics involved, as well. Does your background help you create a different barbecue experience than what other people can do?
Southern food is built upon African American foods and indigenous foods. You can’t omit those two communities when we talk about southern foodways.
Conyers: I see things a lot differently. I had the opportunity to cook in Denver, Colorado, I had to think about the fact that I wasn’t in the south anymore.
Thornburgh: That is true. Your highest mountains in the south are not going to be high enough to affect your pasta cook time.
Conyers: Exactly. So, I had to think about how you cook barbecue in Denver, Colorado, where’s the altitude difference. I don’t know how many people would take that into consideration.
Thornburgh: You are super accomplished in your field. Is barbecuing a release from that?
Conyers: It started out being a release and therapeutic, for the first four or five years after I moved to New Orleans.
Thornburgh: Now, you’ve got pressure because everybody wants to know what Dr. Conyers is barbecuing because of the show.
Conyers: It’s been something I really enjoy. Hosting and co-producing the show has been a really awesome experience.
Thornburgh: People should definitely check it out. There’s this element of education, which as we were saying right at the top, is strangely necessary. People need to be educated on the African American quality of barbecue in this country.
Conyers: Southern food is built upon African American foods and indigenous foods. You can’t omit those two communities when we talk about southern foodways.
Thornburgh: Another guest on the show, Pepper Bowen, pointed out that African Americans own maybe 1% or 2% of the farmable land in this country. Being public and out in front about that information seems like it’s only going to be more and more important.
Conyers: Anthony Bourdain said something that really resonated with me when he was in Kenya. He said something to the effect of “I appreciate people that allow me to tell their stories, but people need to tell their own stories.” When I heard him say that, I said to myself, “I need to take this thing a little more seriously.” I mean, I already took it seriously, but I need to really dive deep into that.
Thornburgh: Right. You have the opportunity to be that person. What is next for you in terms of cooking and what, what you think you might be able to do with that?
Conyers: I need to sit down and focus and write this book.
Thornburgh: You have a book project that you’re working on?
Conyers: There’s a ton of barbecue books out there, but not a lot of African American books barbecue. Adrian Miller is writing a book on barbecue.
I think we need an African American voice who actually grew up in this tradition, and being in the community where my father learned how to cook in the ground and people before him cooked in the ground. There’s a different set of knowledge that comes down with the barbecue tradition that’s not in the books. It’s all passed orally, and I want to make a documentary on barbecue. I want to give people a comprehensive story.
Check out Dr. Conyers’ PBS show Nourish.
Stay tuned for updates on lawyer and food historian Adrian Miller’s upcoming book on barbecue called Black Smoke.