Photos by Dennis McGrath
Vice: Tell us about your new book.
Bobby Seale: Barbeque’n With Bobby Seale is about learning and understanding how to barbecue with baste marinades, which is different from barbecue sauces. Sauces, yes, we love ’em, they’re tasty, they’re delectable, but practically every sauce has some kind of sugar content. And when you take raw meats and get them into a sugary sauce, you’re setting yourself up for the sugar in the sauce to burn over the hot coals. You don’t put the sauce on until the meat is durn near done.
My uncle Tom Turner in Liberty, Texas, taught me to barbecue with his baste when I was 12 years old. People from 100 miles around came to his barbecue-pit restaurant. He became well known for having some of the best barbecue there was. I loved being around that restaurant. I mean, barbecue became my favorite food at a young age. We’d help him out, and he’d pay us $2 a day, you know, for stacking bottles, cleaning up, sweeping up the sawdust.
I remember the last time we were there, he had built an extra place for the white folks on the other side, because there was discrimination back in those days. Black folks and white folks could not eat in the same location. So the white people who would come by, you know, he would just sell the ribs to them to go. And they asked him, “Tom, why don’t you build a place for us to be able to sit down and eat, instead of just coming here and getting takeout.” So my uncle built a sort of extension to the restaurant, but it was separate from the larger part where the black folks were. I used to serve black folks on one side, white folks on the other side, all his great barbecue dishes.
What was his secret?
What he would do is, he’d take a big vat, and he would chop up onions, lemons, scallions, celery, bell peppers, and he’d boil it all down for 30 minutes. He’d take this marinade, pour it over the meats, and then in the evening, when the iceman came by—you know, you had an icebox then, you didn’t have a refrigerator in 1949—he would get three 50-pound blocks of ice. He’d take an icepick and chip ice over the top of the meats sitting in the marinade. Then he’d leave the meats marinating all night in washtubs.
The pit was a big, commercial barbecue pit with two steel doors on the front. He would load it with cords and cords of hickory wood at night. Before we closed up, around 12 at night, we would light that fire in that brick pit and let it burn. When we’d come back in the morning, we’d have mostly coals of hickory wood. We took those coals and spread them out in the back of the pit, and then we would lay rib after rib after rib up on the racks inside the pit.
Then we’d take a big kind of a mop that he’d made, an extension mop, you know, three to four feet long. You’d dip the rag wound around the tip of that, and you’d just mop and baste the meat with that same baste that was in the tub where the meat was marinated. And then you’d flip and turn these ribs for four or five hours. The chickens would be up on a higher rack so they wouldn’t burn. This is the method by which my uncle Tom Turner would barbecue.
So this is where I get my philosophy of barbecuing from baste marinade. This is the technique, this is my philosophy. It’s a tried and proven philosophy of barbecuing methodology.
What was your uncle Tom like, as a man?
Well, he was a rough man. You know, he took no crap. Every once in a while, you might have a racist. He packed a pistol around his restaurant and back and forth from home, because if someone was going to rob him, or some racist was going to act the fool, he might shoot him. Normally, he was just a man interested in business and getting along with people. He didn’t have a lot of time for people dilly-dallying around.
He created. He was creative in cooking. This man could cook. This man liked to cook, he knew what to do—outside of the barbecue.
But anyway, he was just a man who took no crap from nobody. Don’t jump up in his face, talking about what you going do to him, because he might shoot you. That’s what other people would say: “You can’t mess with old Tom there. You mess with Tom Turner, that man might shoot you.”
Do you think that influenced you later, when you got into self-defense and started the Black Panther Party?
Oh, my self-defense had more to do with my father. My father always taught me, you don’t let nobody jump on you. If somebody jumps on you, hits you… My father, his phrase was—and it was in an ordering, directive tone—“You go get you some, and you knock the shit out of them, keep them off you, boy, you hear me?” And I’d say, “Yes, sir.” You know, I was scared of my father.
When I turned 13, a man tried to kill him. My father shot him. And I was there, know what I mean? He didn’t die, but my father shot his arm off with a Savage high-powered rifle. He had that hollow-point ammo, and you could knock an elephant down with that. My father fired one shot that dug up the ground, and the guy’s running with this knife in his hand, and my father cut loose another shot, and his left arm, as he’s running, was hit, and it spun this guy around and threw him to the ground. He got up and started crawling with his other hand, and let his knife go. He was trying to get to his car, he finally got in, my father shot again and it went through the back window of the car. My point is, that’s where I learned that I must defend myself, to the point that if you have to kill a person...
I was raised a hunter and a fisherman, OK? My father bought me my first .30-.30 Winchester high-powered rifle when I was 12 years of age. He had seven or eight guys, and they’d go hunting up in Northern California. We hunted deer and bear. And so that was how I was raised.
In the 60s, once you had started the Black Panther Party, was there a lot of barbecueing going on then?
Oh my God. That was a mainstay! I did barbecue fundraisers in Oakland where we sold 3,000 plates at $2 a plate. We got most of the meat and the food and stuff donated, because we already had free food programs. We were starting up a free breakfast program. My God, those rallies I used to organize, me and my Black Panther Party members would have barbecue out there all over the place. We’d tell the people how the money goes to the free breakfast program, the free preventative-medical-health-care clinic, and so on. We’d have a flatbed up there with entertainment, speakers, microphones, the whole caboodle.
Weren’t Bobby Hutton and Minister of Information Eldridge Cleaver on their way to help out with a barbecue in ’68 when they got into a shoot-out with police and Bobby Hutton and a policeman were killed?
That’s what Eldridge Cleaver said, that they were picking up stuff, because there was a barbecue fundraiser rally the next day or something like that. But I’ve since found out that was a lie. That was just his slick little way of saying that they didn’t ambush the cops, the cops shot at them. But in fact, I found out that they shot first at the cops. Martin Luther King had just gotten killed, so my problem there was trying to stop riots. In fact, I stopped all riots in the San Francisco Bay area. I didn’t believe in riots. That’s flat, straight out. I was supposed to be going to Martin Luther King’s funeral, and Eldridge Cleaver took David Hilliard and four or five guys out and in effect they ambushed the cops, I have since found out. That’s really what happened. They got in a shoot-out situation, they got dispersed, they couldn’t shoot, they weren’t trained, trying to run around and do some old guerilla bullshit. And you know, I always was pissed off with them about that. I’d had military training, and I knew the difference between a domestic-style situation and a military situation. And Eldridge just turned out to be a goddamn anarchist, you know what I mean? But at any rate… bang, bang.
So Eldridge and Hutton and those guys were just pissed, and wanted to go get some?
Yeah, because Martin Luther King was killed. And I’m saying all over the place, “No rioting, we’re not going to do anything,” blah blah blah. But they didn’t listen to me.
Actually, I also read where Minister of Defense Huey Newton wrote somewhere that in 1967, when he got shot and shot a cop, he was on his way to get barbecue in Oakland.
That’s a lie. He wasn’t going to get no goddamn barbecue. But Huey’s situation was different. Frey, the police officer, really did try to kill Huey. Frey had ordered Huey to walk to the police vehicle. And Huey always recited the law. That was his strongest articulate advocacy point. Anytime a police officer moves a person from one spot to another, technically that person is under arrest. I ask you, “Am I under arrest? I demand to know what I’m being arrested for.” So Huey stopped and turned around right in front of the police vehicle, and Frey had his gun out. Huey grabs at the gun, y’know—I had seen Huey do this before, when we got into a fight with police. So what happened is Frey pulls that trigger and shoots Huey right in the thigh. Now, Officer Heanes, the other police officer, the shot goes off, he’s looking at Huey grabbing Frey, and he’s trying to shoot Huey, but they’re rolling and moving. It was told in court that the first bullet that hit Officer Frey was from Heanes’s gun. This is the real situation. Huey hits the ground, and Huey pulls his own gun out and fires back at Heanes and wounds him. Huey shoots Frey more, because Frey is moving and not dead, and then falls down, because he’s shot. The other guy, Gene McKinney, who had got out of the car and ran, came back and helped Huey get away from there. Huey wound up in the hospital, and that’s where the police arrested him. Huey’s situation was different from Eldridge’s.
What was Eldridge like?
Eldridge was just a pure anarchist. He wanted to pull that Bakunin bullshit off, you know what I mean? I mean, to show you what I’m talking about, Eldridge put out a pamphlet called “Catechism of a Revolutionary”—this is after that shoot-out situation. This is a Black Panther Party Ministry of Information pamphlet. I had not read this shit, OK? I did not know it was all Bakunin, the 1800s anarchist. And Marlon Brando called me up, he said, “Bobby! I’m not going to send you any more money.” Because Brando would give me money. I guess he must have donated ten grand to me. But he says, “I’m not gonna work with you guys any more. You’re running around telling people to kill their mother and father for the revolution. That ain’t right.” I said, “We don’t do any such goddamn thing, what the hell’s wrong with you, Marlon?” “Here on page so-and-so!” “Of what?” He says, “Your ‘Catechism of a Revolutionary’!” So I says, “Rosemary, hand me that out of my briefcase.” I had the thing in my briefcase for two months and never read the damn thing because I’m busy, I’m organizing too much. So I got on page so-and-so, and he’s reading, “Kill their mothers and…” and I says, “Damn, I’m sorry, man…” He says, “OK, I’ll see you, bye”—click. So I lost my funding source because of Eldridge Cleaver’s bull. Later in life, I’m really taking the time to look at this and put two and two together. When I go back to speaking with Eldridge in 1992, we got a chance to get in various conversations. So I’m asking Eldridge, you had “Catechism of a Revolutionary.” I remember you called Martin Luther King a nonviolent fool. Now you’re a born-again Christian on the other side of the fence. So when Little Bobby Hutton was killed, were you operating from the standpoint of “Catechism of a Revolutionary”? He said, yeah, I was just stupid, I just thought we had to do something, boom boom boom.
What does “Catechism of a Revolutionary” say, exactly?
It’s based on Bakunin. He ran around and said kill officials of the government of all kinds, murder them, shoot them down in the street, blah blah blah. Kill the police and so on—anything that represents the state.
I was one for programmatic organizing. All those free breakfast programs, I created those programs. Huey Newton didn’t create them, he was in jail when these programs were created. Huey did not start that. I started that shit, you know what I mean? I did that shit. Because to me, you cannot go around here just standing on the street corner, talking a bunch of quote-unquote militant talk if you’re not gonna organize the people. “We need unity in the black community,” that’s what the phrase was. I said, well, you’ve got to unify people around something. That’s what I used to say to some of these guys way before the party ever started. A bunch of armchair revolutionaries, never did anything. And ultimately I created, got Huey to help me create, the Black Panther Party. I’m the one that got the office, I’m the one that painted the sign on the window, I’m the one that laid out the application to join. I did all of that shit. I was an engineer, I made good money, then I was in city government and I made good money as the director of the youth-jobs program. I invested my money and time. I wasn’t married or anything. You have to do real things. I was a carpenter and a builder. That’s what I was about, moving to build the house, a political house, a political, electoral framework to unify people around grassroots programs.
You got any more questions on barbecue?
Back then, was there ever any problem with the Muslims and Nation of Islam people who were around about people eating pork?
Please, I didn’t even relate to the Muslims at all. You don’t even come around to me, talking about “You can’t eat pork.” Like Nipsey Russell, the comedian, used to say: “Man, I thought you had a grudge against the white man oppressing you. I’ll organize against that, but I ain’t got no grudge against a ham hock.” I got no time for that. That’s ritualistic bullshit. I’m an engineer. I worked in the Gemini missile program, two years in the engineering department. I did electromagnetic-fueled black-light nondestruct testing on all engine frames for the Gemini missile program. I placed myself in the high-tech world before I even got interested in the civil rights protests. I base things on good proven scientific evidentiary fact, I don’t base things on some mythical bullshit. Nation of Islam at the time was running around calling all white folks devils. Well, that’s just bullshit. That’s some old metaphorical mythical misrepresentation. You don’t call white folks devils. You’re part of this biologically existing Homo sapiens humanity. I mean, I liked Malcolm X, you know, because he didn’t bite his tongue. But I had no time for the Nation of Islam. You don’t wanna come around my organization. I got big pork. I got pork chops, pork roast, pork ribs, and beef, chicken, and everything else.
And I know that nowadays, an excessive amount of fat in the food—not the food itself, but the fat—blocks arteries. I don’t deal with no marbleized fat of rib steaks and stuff, because they’re too fatty. But anyway, the Nation of Islam was around this college that I went to, but I wasn’t even interested in them. I would never have joined them, even though I liked Malcolm, because I didn’t believe in religious doctrine being at the helm of the human-liberation struggle. That’s the way I saw it.
Do black people make the best barbecue?
Well, anybody can make good barbecue. When I was a judge at the National Rib Cookoff in 1988, I tasted barbecue from all over the world. Hawaii, Japan, you name it. And most of it has some good flavorful fact about it, you know? I met some guys from Texas one time, at the Rib Cookoff, they said “Hey, man, we here for the money, but you the one that can make the barbecue.” I said, “Why you say that?” He says, “Black people make the best barbecue.” This is some old white guy, explaining to me… I said, well, that’s your opinion. Anyone can make good barbecue.
I heard that some former Black Panthers are marketing hot sauce?
That’s David Hilliard. It’s called Burn Baby Burn Hot Sauce.
Are you involved with that?
No, I ain’t got nothing to do with it. Absolutely nothing to do with it.
Have you tried it?
How have you responded when people have said that you’re selling out by doing this barbecue stuff?
Revolutionaries eat, too. I was on national television about 15 years ago, when Spike Lee’s Malcom X film came out. They had a panel of eight people up there. So one little chubby, fat white guy, says, “That Bobby Seale, well, he just sold out.” I said, “Man, what the hell are you talking about?” “Yes, he sold out, because he wrote a barbecue book.” I says, “What about the jazz album I put out? I’m an architect, if I did a book of space-saving architectural designs, would that be ‘selling out’? Here’s my barbecue book.” And I held it up, and I said, “This is the only down-home, hickory-smoked, Southern-style barbecue book in America, and for your information, revolutionaries eat, too.” I shot him down, this silly idiot, I said, man, later for you. And I’ve had people say, “What’s he doing writing a cookbook?” What is that, not manly enough for you? Get out of my face. They don’t even know what manhood is. I have a big long philosophical argument with idiots who come up here with some mythical misrepresentations of what manhood is, or—the whole shit, what a revolutionary is, you know what I mean? You got guys that have a two-dimensional method of thinking or maybe a one-dimensional level of thinking. They’ve either got their penis in front of their ego or their ego in front of their penis, and one idea ain’t too much better than the other. If you gonna revolve things around some penis relationship… I remember Eldridge Cleaver in his book, talking about the gun was an extension of his penis. I mean, get outta here. I look back on that stuff and I say, man, this brother here, he tried to say he was justified in raping white females because of what the white race had done in the past. So I say, well, then he’s stooping to their level, you know what I mean? We were never racists. The FBI and COINTELPRO tried to put it out that the Black Panther Party was racist, but we weren’t. It was not about discriminating against people because of the color of their skin. We were about all power to all the people, as opposed to any power to the racists and the avaricious who work with the racists to exploit and oppress us. That’s what I stood for, and I don’t care what J. Edgar Hoover and anybody else tried to say I was about. They’re wrong. I know what I was about.
INTERVIEWED BY BEN WHITE
To order the revised edition of Barbeque’n With Bobby Seale, visit Bobbyqueseale.com.
Photo by Dennis McGrath
3 to 5 slabs (10 to 15 pounds) pork spareribs, cracked, fat trimmed
2 quarts Uncle Tom’s baste marinade
1 3/4 quarts of Bobby’s Spicy Barbeque Sauce
1 tablespoon ground black pepper, garlic parsley powder, veggie or no-salt all-purpose seasoning, onion powder with parsley, paprika, celery seed
1 to 2 pounds of hickory (or mesquite) wood chips, baste-soaked
TO MARINATE RIBS
With a meat cleaver, crack thick gristle bone in four or five places on each slab of ribs. Place slabs, whole or halved, in a large aluminum roasting pan. Pour in approximately 1 quart of baste marinade to submerge ribs. Cover pan. Marinate for 2 to 3 hours at room temperature, turning occasionally, or refrigerate overnight. A 24-hour refrigerated marinating gives excellent results.
CHARCOAL-WOOD PIT FIRE
Presoak hickory-wood chips in 2 to 3 cups of baste marinade for 30 minutes and let chips drain slightly. Spread half of soaked chips over a closed bed of 60 to 80 white-ash-hot charcoal briquettes. Let wood chips burn into pit fire until flames are out. Midway through 3-hour cooking time spread second half of chips over an additional 30-odd white-ash-hot briquettes. Place ribs on grill, close cover, and adjust pit damper vents three-fourths closed to lower fire.
GAS GRILL METHOD: Preheat and reduce to medium-low. Place ribs on the grill, sear in any seasoning, lower heat as needed, cover, and periodically baste the same as with charcoal-wood pit fire.
As pit fire gets ready, remove ribs from marinade. Drain and pat dry.
Retain used marinade and strain through a fine sieve for spray-basting over pit. From shakers, sprinkle light coats of black pepper, garlic, parsley, salt, onion powder or onion parsley powder, paprika, garlic parsley powder, and celery seed on both sides of ribs. With fingers and hands press and rub seasonings into meat. Place ribs on lightly greased grill 4 to 6 inches above hot pit fire. Sear and brown, seal in coated seasonings for 3 to 5 minutes on each side. For complete searing, rearrange slabs as they brown and close pit cover after turning.
Liberally brush or spray-baste browned ribs and turn and baste again every 10 to 15 minutes for 3 hours. Close cover after each basting. To control any pit flames lightly spray-douse them with baste or water and/or adjust damper vents three-fourths closed for a couple of minutes. Constant basting over a pit fire kept at 250 to 300 degrees is necessary for juicy, tender, moist hickory-smoked spareribs.
If desired during last 20 to 30 minutes of cooking time brush on favorite sauce or tong-dip cut ribs in sauce every 10 minutes (close pit cover after each saucing), or brush sauce on whole slabs every 10 minutes, then cut into single pieces. Serve with favorite heated sauce.
Makes 7 to 12 servings
QUICK PIT-BASTE MARINADE
1 cup hickory liquid smoke
1 cup red wine vinegar
1 cup Worcester sauce
1 cup cooking sherry
1 cup fresh lemon juice, seeded
3 quarts of water
Combine all baste ingredients in 3 quarts of water in a 6-quart pot on high heat. Bring to a boil. Turn heat down to low and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Can use for 10 to 30 minute quick-hot marinade or you can let it cool and use it to marinate overnight, refrigerated. Let remainder cool.
GOOBERED* FRUIT COTTAGE-CHEESE SALAD
2 medium-size apples, cored and diced
2 pears, cored and diced
1/4 pound fresh cherries, pitted
2 peaches, pitted and diced
1/4 pound seedless grapes
1 pound cottage cheese
1/4 pound chopped pecans, almonds, or walnuts
Loose lettuce leaves
Combine fruit and nuts with cottage cheese and mix lightly. Serve on lettuce leaves.
Makes 6 servings
*(Goobers is an African word for nuts.)