The co-founder of Cozy Corner in Memphis is the first Black woman to receive the recognition.

By Gowri Chandra
October 28, 2020
Advertisement
Credit: Courtesy of The Robinson Family

On October 27, Desiree Robinson, co-founder and pitmaster at Cozy Corner, became the first Black woman to be inducted into the Barbecue Hall of Fame. The honor is a long time coming, both for 83-year-old Robinson and American barbecue at large.

Robinson started the restaurant with her late husband, Raymond Robinson, in Memphis, Tennessee in 1977. In the four decades since, Cozy Corner has become legend in the eyes of food media and pitmasters alike. Still, Robinson was shocked when she got the news.

“It was mind-boggling,” she said. “It wasn’t something that I thought would happen to me. Because you're so used to being under the radar, if not everybody knows about you. It's just not something I really ever expected, but it was such a delightful surprise.”

“The only thing I regret is that my husband is not here to see this happen, because he would never imagine that I would keep the restaurant running,” Robinson added, when she was presented with her trophy. (It is, gloriously, a bronze rack of ribs.)

Robinson has been quick to give credit to her late husband, who engineered the recipes and oversaw the pits until he died in 2001. However, she was instrumental in the sustained success of the restaurant.

“We had a line from the beginning,” Robinson told Food & Wine. “We had been cooking at home for quite a while, and we did a lot of partying back in those days.” Hosting neighborhood soirées, they’d feed guests with cornish hens—something not many people had heard of in the '70s. Along with dry rub ribs and bologna sandwiches, they’re still a staple at the restaurant today.

Credit: Courtesy of The Robinson Family

“Desiree Robinson is meaningful in two very important ways,” said barbecue scholar Adrian Miller, who’s on the Hall of Fame nominating committee. “First, she runs a great barbecue restaurant, so she’s an accomplished restaurateur. She's an example of a widow who collaborated with her husband to create this great restaurant. But once the husband dies, she decides to carry on the business and does it with great success.”

“And the other thing is that she shines a light on the fact that African-American women have been in the barbecue game for a long time,” he continued. “The way that barbecue is presented to most people is so masculinized. It seems like an old boys’ club, but that has not been the African-American experience. Black women have been tending the pit from the earliest days.”

The Barbecue Hall of Fame has officially existed for only ten years. (Before this, the awards ceremony was more or less informal and self-governed.) It is overseen by The American Royal, a 121-year-old organization that also oversees an annual livestock show and one of the country’s largest barbecue competitions, The World Series of Barbecue. Before this year, the Barbecue Hall of Fame had only inducted three Black recipients out of 30. All were deceased: legendary Henry Perry, Christopher B. Stubblefield, and John “Big Daddy” Bishop.

That makes Robinson the first living Black person to receive the honor. Today, Hall of Fame leadership is deeply aware of the need for inclusion. And this, Miller stresses, came before the Black Lives Matter protests this summer.

“I don't want to give the impression that it's rigged towards certain results,” he said. “Somebody could say, okay, you just wanted to make sure a Black woman won, but it's really not that. We do a lot of work to create a representative list, but it is up to people to vote.”

Credit: Courtesy of The Robinson Family

Robinson was selected from a list of 100 nominees, Miller estimated, along with this year’s two other inductees: famed Austin pitmaster Aaron Franklin and restaurateur Joe Davidson. Anyone can nominate anyone; the committee is obligated to consider every name. Over the course of a long conference call, the six-person committee, which includes Texas Monthly barbecue columnist Daniel Vaughn, discusses the merits of each nominee. They try to answer one question: What’s this person’s impact on American barbecue? 

It’s intentionally broad. The committee strives to include diverse representation of restaurateurs, T.V. chefs, pitmasters, and even grill manufacturers—really anyone who has had a significant impact on Americans’ interest in barbecue.

“We think that there's really three to five big components of barbecue,” said Emily Park. She works for The American Royal, and is deeply involved in the Barbecue Hall of Fame. 

While there aren’t specific nomination categories, the committee tries to represent pitmasters, restaurateurs, and the less public-facing people who manufacture smokers, charcoal, and knives—all foundational parts of barbecue, Park explained.

Over the years, authors and grill inventors have also been inducted. Even Henry Ford—whose legacy has been tainted in recent years by his widely acknowledged anti-semitism—was posthumously recognized for his role in developing commercial charcoal. (A lesser known fact: Ford’s brother-in-law, E.G. Kingsford, lent his name to the famed charcoal company which has facilitated backyard grilling for millions of Americans.) This year, the Hall of Fame started a new legacy category, specifically dedicated to recognizing historical figures.

Living inductees include Chris Lilly and Tootsie Tomanetz, both mythical names in the barbecue world. Robinson has long been in their ranks, but institutional recognition is still a welcome milestone.

“He was an excellent cook,” Robinson said, of her late husband. “He could make anything taste good. We were married for 40-ish years and I rarely cooked. And I loved every minute of it.”

Her own culinary skill, however, is not to be ignored; she started preparing family dinners when she was just eight, preferring to cook at the stove while her friends were out playing. Later in college, she majored in dietetics, more commonly called nutrition studies today.

Still, it was Raymond who dreamt of opening a restaurant. The couple first opened one in Denver, Colorado, where they’d lived shortly after getting married. After moving back to their hometown of Memphis, they took over a pre-existing restaurant there in 1977. It was called Cozy Corner, and it already had a pit, having been a barbecue restaurant. 

Credit: Courtesy of The Robinson Family

They kept the name, and the phone number, too—not a lot has changed in the four decades since, although a couple menu items have. Chicken wings were introduced around 2005; the restaurant recently started making its own peach cobbler and banana pudding to replace the pound cakes that Desiree’s grandmother would bake.

When Raymond passed away in 2001, Desiree took over cooking. And up until COVID-19 hit, she would still go into the restaurant a few times a week. When the restaurant suffered a fire in 2015, she oversaw its temporary relocation. Today, Desiree’s daughter Val Bradley manages the place back at its original spot. Bradley’s son, along with two other chefs, tend the pits.

Despite the foundational role of enslaved Black chefs to developing American barbecue, Black representation in the barbecue competition circuit and in restaurant ownership is regularly marginalized. And this isn’t new.

“The role of [Black] women has been undocumented,” Miller said. “So we just don't know to what extent they shaped barbecue culture. We get references here and there, but I just don't think we ever really get an idea.” 

Yet they have been instrumental in shaping American barbecue culture. “A lot of African American-run barbecue places in urban cities were named after women,” he says. “In fact, in the 1930s, you had Black newspaper writers... [connecting] barbecue to the work of Black women, not Black men.”

Accurately representing the past and present of barbecue is something that the Barbecue Hall of Fame is well aware of. “We host a contest in Kansas City, and what we see is a majority of one type of person,” said Park, referring to The World Series of Barbecue. “And that's just not our representation of barbecue.”

Competitions have long been described as overwhelmingly white by the people who run them, acknowledging the stark contrast between barbecue culture as a whole and the competition circuit specifically.

“Our committee has kind of grown and changed over the last couple of years,” Park said. “Our big goal is to make sure that we're honoring all assets and every single type of individual.”

To that end, there are changes coming down the line—down to the definition of barbecue itself. What America recognizes as American, and as barbecue, continues to expand. To that end, Park alluded, cultural influences like barbacoa, tandoori, and bulgogi may start being reflected in institutional awards.

“I'm excited to see when this actually gets out of what we traditionally think of barbecue,” she said. “I think it’s coming in the nominations. Every culture has their own style of barbecue, but you can't say it's not barbecue. Maybe not this year, but we're getting there.”