“Where are you from? Philadelphia? You don’t know nothing about barbecue!” teased Rick Gray, emerging from the behind the counter of Rick’s Backyard Barbeque & Grill, the smoky roadside pavilion in Mizpah that bears his name.
He flipped open the lid of a smoker as big as the hood of a school bus, and when the sweet haze of oak and charcoal smoke wafted off its cargo, I knew what he meant. Two dozen chickens, roasting to a golden brown sandwiched between what looked two bedspring frames, smelled like poultry ambrosia. This was the legacy of New Jersey’s Route 40 barbecue tradition working its low-and-slow weekend magic — and it was splendid.
Gray, 54, is technically still new as a pro on the barbecue scene, a long-serving bus driver for NJ Transit during the week who opened his weekend business during the pandemic last summer. But Gray arrives with a double-pedigree. He’s the nephew of the late Charles “Kingfish” Bryant, who anchored Route 40′s corridor of outdoor barbecue stands for decades beginning in the late 1970s. The sprawling, covered campground-like complex that Gray now occupies was purchased from another Route 40 rib legend, Dewey A. Johnson, a.k.a. Uncle Dewey. When I interviewed Johnson back in 2000, he said he was related to at least 100 of the 500 residents in this small unincorporated Pinelands town located in the Mays Landing section of Hamilton Township, in Atlantic County. (The “uncle” tag was well-earned.)
“I’m carrying on the legacy for Dewey, my uncle Charlie, and all the barbecue people who haven’t gotten recognized,” says Gray. “But I’m humble with it.”
Author Adrian Miller’s new book Black Smoke (UNC Press) is an homage to the Black pit masters who pioneered and perfected America’s barbecue tradition but have too often been overlooked or forgotten. New Jersey’s barbecue is obscure enough in its own right, overshadowed by more famous epicenters across the South. (It gets no note in Black Smoke, either). But Black pit masters have nonetheless led the way for decades in South Jersey, with fragrant smoke signals from roadside stands scattered in small towns across the Pinelands, from Doug Henri of Henri’s Hotts in Folsom to Kingfish in Richland, and Johnson’s stand, which, when it opened along the Harding Highway on a plot of family land in the mid-1990s, became a destination as establishments in the onetime Black barbecue nexus of Lawnside in Camden County began to fade.
“We filled the gap when (the places in) Lawnside closed,” Johnson, now 85, told me recently. Route 40′s barbecue scene, he said, benefitted from the fact that it was a popular alternative route to Atlantic City for travelers from the South.
“I could have sold it for more money, but we’re friends and I thought he was a hardworking young man,” said Johnson, who’d attended events at Gray’s home over the years. “And I think his food is good — very good, in fact.”
Gray credits his father, Melvin Gray Sr., as his barbecue inspiration but says that he’s primarily trying to replicate the flavor of his backyard family cookouts, a distinctive, and perhaps elusive flavor that I think he captures with the touch of charcoal that he adds to regulate the heat of his oak logs. Gray’s seasonings are fairly simple, letting the meats and their slow ride through the long brick smoking pits he inherited from Johnson take center stage. “That old grill has a flavor you can’t beat.”
I was particularly impressed with the spareribs, which were tender enough but still required a gentle tug off the bone before getting splashed with Gray’s sweet and zesty sauce, which has the effect of amplifying the meat’s deep smoke. The difference between a chicken fresh off the grill and one taken from the warming drawer, however, was significant. It’s worth the wait for one fresh.
For Gray, who readily acknowledges he’s in the midst of a learning curve, this new business is as much about embracing passion and fostering togetherness as it is about carrying on a family legacy.
“I love it. I love getting to watch people sit down and eat my food and hear that feedback. I love making them happy on the inside and out,” he says. “And I love doing this because it signifies family, community, and everybody getting together, from all cultures and all neighborhoods coming to sit down here and eat. Because if someone’s going to throw a barbecue, people are going to show up.”
Rick’s Backyard Barbeque & Grill, 6931 US-40, Mizpah, 609-476-4040; ricksbbqandgrill.com; Open Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.