Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Pete Powdrell, the Barbeque Man

A story I wrote earlier this year for Accent Albuquerque magazine about Pete Powdrell. Pete died last week at age 86. He was an inspiration to everyone. Photo by Steve Bromberg, courtesy Accent Albuquerque. DD


After 37 years in the barbeque business and 85 years on this planet, Albuquerque’s barbeque extraordinaire Pete Powdrell is still trying to get better at his craft.

It’s a craft that has put untold millions of pounds of Powdrell prepared, slow-cooked, hickory-smoked beef, pork, ribs, chicken and sausage into the bellies of people all over the United States. It’s a craft that he learned from his grandfather Isaac Britt, who set the standard that Powdrell is still chasing after 37 years of operating Albuquerque’s premier barbeque joints.

“I learned this from my grandfather,” Powdrell explains as he recounts a life, business and skill that have brought to his family the blessings of friendship, livelihood, community and just plain fun.

“We lived on the farm and in the country, and we would have community and family get-togethers every month or two. He was the barbeque man, and I hung around him all the time. And I tell you, he could make a piece of wood good enough to eat. I still haven’t gotten that good, but I am getting better!”

Albuquerqueans who have visited the Mr. Powdrell’s Barbeque restaurants since 1969 and dined on those savory, succulent, smoky and saucy pieces of meat might disagree that Powdrell needs to learn more about slow-smoking meat. After all, every week, they glom down 2,000 pounds of beef, 1,000 pounds of ribs, 500 pounds of chicken and several hundred pounds of sausage that the people at Powdrell’s two restaurants lovingly prepare.

“We just cook it the old-fashioned way. We don’t do nothin’ special. We just give it time too cook,” Powdrell says. “We use wood. Everybody has forgotten how good wood makes food taste.”

What also might be forgotten, or perhaps not even known, is the inspiring story of how Powdrell and his late wife Catherine became Albuquerque’s premier rib and barbeque couple. It’s a story that involves risk, obstacles, love, community, faith, determination, honesty, hard work and a city that embraced an African American family from West Texas in the 1950s.

Powdrell and his wife had to work extremely hard to achieve their success. They just had to. He had only a third-grade education, and she finished only the seventh grade. They were married at an age that might shock today’s world. He was 18 and she was 14 when they both said “I do” on May 28, 1939. They had 11 kids, seven boys and four girls, at a time and in a place that was not supportive of African Americans. They came to Albuquerque—11 kids in tow—with agricultural and construction skills. And Powdrell started his business at age 48, an age when many people are beginning to think that they are on life’s downward slope.

“The state of Texas in the middle 1950s, you’re looking at segregation in the school system. You’re looking at limited jobs.” says Powdrell’s 60-year-old son Joe, “It was an agricultural community driven by cotton and oil, and my dad was a share cropper.”

Joe’s two older brothers attended segregated schools around the West Texas town of Crosbyton, about 36 miles east of Lubbock, where the Powdrells’ 11 children were born.

“They had the segregated schools,” Joe recalls. “My oldest brothers, in the eighth grade, they were in the segregated school. The buses would pick up the black children all along these little rural communities and take them to one school they designated 50 miles away. They were getting up a 4 o’clock in the morning to catch the bus to get to school by nine, and then they’d get back home at nine o’clock at night—learning absolutely nothing.”

There was a white school about a half a mile away from the Powdrells’ home, and the bus that took the black kids to their school actually drove past the white school.

It was an atmosphere that Mrs. Powdrell didn’t want for her children.

“Mom was a real aspiring person,” Joe says. “She wanted to go to school. She wanted to go to college. But in Texas, the cycle of agriculture cuts you off at about the seventh grade. My mom didn’t want her kids to duplicate that cycle. She saw the patterns, and she saw her daughters getting ready to repeat her life.”

So in 1958, Pete and Catherine, based on the advice of relatives who had already settled in Albuquerque, packed up the kids and everything they could take—it wasn’t much—into a 1956 Ford station wagon and a 1951 Ford one-and-a-half-ton truck and drove to Albuquerque to start a new life.

Twelve days after arriving, Pete had a job doing construction work for Bradbury & Stamm. It was no easy thing to support 11 kids, and so Powdrell worked other jobs on the weekends, as well.

“We worked for the King family, before Bruce was governor the first time,” Powdrell says. “He sold hay to people and we hauled it for them.”

Powdrell had, and still has, a work ethic that should get anyone through.

“When I came here, I didn’t pick my job,” Powdrell says. “Whatever I could do to get a bag of groceries, I did it—legally. No hanky-panky around here. Never has been and never will be. I used to go up to Glorieta to help build a church up there. I did that for a year-and-a-half. I had to be at work at 7:30 in the morning, and I was there, five days a week.”

Powdrell, like his grandfather, had always barbequed, and it was that sort of hobby cooking that eventually got him started in business.

“There was a little church and I want to give them full credit,” Powdrell says. “La Mesa Presbyterian Church. They had a young pastor there by the name of Stuart Coffman. He being an old Texas boy, he loved barbeque, and he had me cooking barbeque every year in March or April. They liked it, and by the fourth time, they got to talking to me and saying, ‘You can cook, you need to go into business. You can make a living because everybody loves your barbeque.”

With help from church members with things like insurance and legal matters, he opened his first restaurant on South Broadway in 1962. It lasted only a few months. But the business bug had hit, and seven years later, in 1969, the Powdrells opened a restaurant near Carlisle and Gibson.

It was a success, they eventually moved to a location on San Pedro a few blocks north of Gibson.

Over time, the family opened four restaurants (only two remain) and became a fixture at the New Mexico State Fair and various county and regional fairs around the state.

The secret to Powdrell’s signature flavor is the slow smoking method. At 200 degrees, it takes 17 hours to cook a 10-12-pound brisket, and 10-12 hours for ribs and chicken. The Powdrells never fast-cook anything.

“We don’t rush anything,” Powdrell says. “If we run out of ribs or beef, we don’t rush up and get something ready. If it takes two or three days to do it, that’s what we do.”

Joe now runs the business full-time, while his brother Mike is the corporation’s vice president. The two are transitioning the business as their farther winds down his involvement.

The business has brought the Powdrell family blessings it never could have imagined, including good will, good fortune and friends and customers who encompass the rich and famous as well as regular folks.

“This business has always been bigger than anything we could have ever imagined,” Joe says. “Not only have we had financial success to a certain degree, but we have had good human relations success, our family has extended into our own employees and customers—it’s huge.”

Joe says that nothing will change at the restaurants as his dad reduces his involvement.

It better not, because Pete Powdrell can indeed make a piece of wood good enough to eat.

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