Friends and co-workers kept telling Emerson Holliday that he should be cooking professionally, but he’d never really considered a culinary career. He certainly wasn’t sold on making a career switch and giving up a good job in management.
But he kept hearing that he should turn his hobby into something more.
So he decided to take culinary courses at Gateway Technical College in Racine. He then went to work in Springfield, Ill. at the governor’s mansion. Weekly barbecue “competitions” there gave him insight into people’s love for barbecue.
Eventually he worked his way back to his hometown of Racine and back of the house jobs at Maxie’s and Blue’s Egg in Milwaukee. When the restaurant industry was hit hard with closures earlier this year, Holliday turned job loss into opportunity.
He connected with Alex Hanesakda to cook for the pop-up restaurant Sap Sap in Racine. Hanesakda saw his passion, and a bit of encouragement gave Holliday the push to begin his own pop-ups, Dragon Pit BBQ. Launched in July, the pop ups have made their way to Mukwonago’s Food Truck Frenzy events, and are held every other week at The Branch, 1501 Washington Ave., Racine.
Look for a schedule at dragonpitbbq.com. Pop up menus are posted at https://dragon-pit-bbq.square.site.
His food roots
I just grew up cooking at home. It was a single-parent family, my mom was always working. I cooked for my brother, and I didn’t realize it was a skill or talent until I got to college and started cooking for my roommates. They were like you just do this better …
I’d never thought about it as a career. It was always just a hobby. But I kept hearing the same thing from people. I went to Gateway (Technical College) for culinary, in Racine, to test the waters.
A lifelong love
Barbecue is that thing, my dad and grandfather always did it. I’ve always had the love for the art of fire and meat. People gather around the smoker and it is such a big deal whenever we have family gatherings. I just fell in love with it and the taste of the meat.
Not named yet
It isn’t official, but Smoker T. Washington is the name of my smoker so far, but we’ll see. I bought it about two months ago, when I was working with Alex (Hanesakda) at Sap Sap.
Once COVID hit, I was not doing any jobs.… Alex called me because he was doing Sap Sap (pop-ups) and needed help. I did three or four weeks with him and he said “Why don’t you do your own pop-up? People talk about your barbecue all the time.” I decided to make it happen.
Where you can find him
I am based out of Racine, every other week I am at The Branch rotating with Sap Sap. One week I am doing Dragon Pit, the other I’m cooking with Alex. We’ve done some pop-ups with the food trucks in Mukwonago. We’re looking for more places.
Barbecue fans are everywhere
Right after I started I ended up on “Good Morning America” as a Black-owned business. … It’s been a crazy few months. Since then, people have just been calling to get some barbecue. I always knew there was a barbecue underground, but now I really know. I’ve got people calling from Illinois and Texas.
Simple and smoky
I don’t do a lot of sauces. I try to let the meat do most of the talking. I have a spice rub I created for my pork, but for me it is all about the flavor of the meat. I don’t use a lot of salt or sugar. My ribs are more Memphis style with dry rub. My pork is more Carolina, but I don’t put vinegar on it. You get the flavor of the smoke and the pork.
I do like to put more smoke on my barbecue, so if you’re a barbecue aficionado who likes smoke, you’ll like my barbecue.
On the side
I started with macaroni and cheese, all real cheese, no fillers. I do a vegetarian rice, it is dirty rice but it is fashioned off jollof, the African rice. I use a little Cajun seasoning and my specialty rub. The vegans and vegetarians have been coming in droves to get that rice. I also do fries with my lemon pepper seasoning, Lemon Dita.
About a year ago I started selling the rubs.… I started out making them for me, then it grew and evolved. My father got really sick, and it gave me a midlife crisis. I need to stop talking and start doing stuff.
My first barbecue rub is Big Em’s, named after my father. I’m little Em. He passed a year ago. He struggled with diabetes for a long time, and that is a big reason I don’t use a lot of sugar and salt in my rubs.… Now I’m working on sauces, too.
Favorite thing to cook
Right now, I’m in love with ribs and gumbo. That’s my go-to. My mom is from Louisiana. I was raised on that food, Cajun and creole stuff.
Meals make memories
I love feeding my community and the idea of sitting around the table. My best memories are my grandmother cooking, with her answering questions and giving out advice. People seem to get along better sitting around eating food. People can’t argue when they’re eating.
An awesome resource is “The Flavor Bible,’ It is the best thing to start developing recipes.
I do gumbo a lot, and now that we’re getting to fall, I will probably do more comfort food, stews and curries and slow cooked things.
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Fork. Spoon. Life. explores the everyday relationship that local notables (within the food community and without) have with food. To suggest future personalities to profile, email [email protected]