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Royko vs. Robinson’s Ribs

In African America, Barbecue, Black America, Black-owned businesses, Charlie Robinson, Chicago history, Mike Royko, Mississippi Delta, Racism, Royko RibFest, The Charlie Robinson Story, W.P. Norton on February 16, 2017 at 2:49 pm

A reflection of an editor in Robinson’s Oak Park storefront.

The excitement of this year’s annual gathering of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (#AWP17) in Washington, DC, took me back to the first book I edited — The Charlie Robinson Story: From the Son of a Mississippi Delta Sharecropper to the Top of the Chicago Barbecue Charts.

Charlie Robinson

OAK PARK, ILLINOIS — Chicago’s Mississippi-born baron of barbecue is sharing his story with the world.

Robinson seared his name into the Chicago annals of African-American history at RibFest 1982, where a centuries-old family barbecue recipe took him to first place over legendary Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko.

In 2012 I finalized the editing of Robinson’s manuscript, The Charlie Robinson Story: From the Son of a Mississippi Delta Sharecropper to the Top of the Chicago Barbecue Charts. The book is now available in limited edition.

The first book written by the Mississippi-born, Oak Park-based restaurateur looks back with surprisingly little anger on life begun in a Mississippi Delta cotton economy that seems little changed since the days of slavery.

Robinson recalls in stark detail the daily indignities of the race-based world that forced him at the age of 12 to address white children no older than him with the words “yes, sir” and “no, sir.”

You can almost feel the hundred-degree heat of Mississippi burning your skin as he describes his first job picking cotton 10 hours a day for thirty cents an hour.

But you can also share the joy of a young man whose skill on the basketball court earns him a scholarship to a Great Plains college where he learns about the world beyond the Mississippi Delta.

No less striking is the pride that shines through Robinson’s retelling of how the black-owned Chicago Defender newspaper urged the descendants of the enslaved to come to Chicago on trains staffed by black porters.

Or the sense of wonder that pours off the page when he tells how his life changed that late September day in 1982 — a moment captured by a Chicago-Sun Times photo showing Royko raise Robinson’s arm in victory as RibFest judge Don Rose and WLS-TV anchorman Tim Weigel look on.

The unforeseeable outcome of the 1982 contest I call “Royko vs. Robinson’s Ribs” is a quintessential Chicago story about a newcomer who rises from obscurity to a seat at the table with room to spare for any flavor strong enough to reach toward the skyline of a city defined by its power to redefine itself.

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