Behind the Flavor

If you’re enjoying your meal, you have my daddy to thank. Not only was Ed Wiley, Jr., the most soulful saxophonist you’ve ever heard, but he was one of the best cooks on the planet. He spent his early years on the Chitlin Circuit – that’s the network of night clubs, hotels and restaurants throughout the South, Midwest and parts of the Northeast that were frequented by Black musicians during the Jim Crow era. He made scores of records between 1950 and 2006, and his gutty sound was a huge part of the early blues, which would become the foundation of rock ‘n roll music. (If you get a chance, Google that name sometime.) But Ed Wiley, Jr. was almost known as much for turning a half bag of groceries into a king’s feast for his band mates as he was for blowing a mean tenor sax.

I’m here to vouch for the fact that his legendary prowess in the kitchen is no fairytale. Even my mother, herself an excellent cook and the sister of a renowned master chef, is quick to note that it was my dad who took her cooking game to a whole new level. After the first of their seven children were born, my mother and father settled in Baltimore and later in Philadelphia. By then, Dad took mostly local gigs between Maryland and New York and concentrated on raising his family. Once we moved to the suburban Philadelphia community of Levittown, our home backed up to a small wooded area full of fruit trees and berry bushes. Everything we picked in those woods – blueberries, blackberries, plums, grapes, apples, hard pears, sour cherries – my father turned into something good to eat.

My father fried the best chicken, made the ooziest baked macaroni and cheese, and collard greens and ham hocks to die for. He could make an orange-glazed duck (with that sweet, crackly skin) to rival that of any chef, and a cake so light and moist that thinking about it still makes my mouth water. When he’d say, “You kids want some doughnuts?” or “How ‘bout some ice cream?,” we knew it was time to get out the flour or the fresh peaches and sweet cream.

But being from Texas, Big Ed’s specialty was barbecue. He’d dig a hole about four feet deep, chuck in some apple and hickory logs and a bag of charcoal, pull his special grate over the top and roast three or four slabs of ribs, a beef brisket or a pork shoulder. The meat would slow-smoke and tease us for half a day before, in my father’s eyes, it had reached the perfect level of smokiness, tenderness and overall deliciousness.

I guess it only made sense that, by the time I was in high school, my father decided to turn his kitchen wizardry into a profession. He started a catering business, and we all chipped in with the cooking duties. And on Saturdays, my father and late brother, Duane, would head to Emmanuel Temple Church in North Philadelphia and sell barbecue out front. We’d unload our 10 cases of ribs and head back home. It didn’t matter how early it was when we sold out, the pit stop was then closed. The line would tail up Marshall Street, and the poor souls at the end would be mouthing prayers, asking God not to let the Wiley men run out before they could grab a rib platter or half a chicken.

If you find that your meal today is satisfactory, please shout it from the treetops! Blow up the phone lines … Tweet somebody … make it your Facebook feature of the week. But even more important, remember the man behind flavor, Ed Wiley, Jr.

I lost my beloved Dad on Sept. 28, 2010, but he lives on through his many recordings and, of course, through the never-ending array of delicious dishes.