THOSE BARBECUING BROWNS
Natel Brown Walker works fast in the galley kitchen of Mr. Brown's Bar*B*Que, rinsing slab after slab of raw ribs.
She rubs them with a dry spice mixture, then "splits" the meat, slitting the ribs so the ends don't curl up and burn on the grill. She glimpses over her shoulder at the TV soap opera as she slips the knife between bone and fat. Nobody, not even her stepbrother, Tyler Castle, is as patient with preparing baby backs for slow, tender cooking.
Walker's meat-handling techniques make boiling the meat unnecessary.
"Lazy people boil," Walker says. "If you want the fat off, it's called taking your time and trimming."
"Natel is at one with the meat," Thomas Brown, her father, says. "She's been in the zone' cooking meat for a long time."
As has he.
Thomas Brown wears glasses like his 25-year-old daughter and a similar mile-wide smile. He's passed on the art of barbecuing to his family of two daughters, three stepsons and various relatives.
This fall, the Felida family opened Mr. Brown's Bar*B*Que on Williams Avenue in north Portland, a few blocks around the corner from where Thomas Brown grew up.
"Barbecue gets in your blood," Thomas Brown says, hauling a pan of ribs and another of marinated chicken breasts to the two barrel grills behind his bunker like restaurant.
And barbecue stays in your bloodlines, if the Browns are examples.
Thomas Brown's father, Rufus, established the Mr. Brown's Bar*B*Que reputation that spread around north Portland like the aroma of pork ribs over apple chips.
Working maintenance for Armour Processed Meat Co. in the early 1950s, Rufus Brown established a side business. He loaded up the '56 Mercury with ice and freezer paper and sold meat, bought at a discount, to the neighbors.
Evenings and weekends, he cooked up hot links, pork ribs and sauce and sold barbecue for $ 7 a plate. Neighbors hung around his front porch, waiting for their dinner.
Rufus Brown was known then as "The Hot Link Man" or plain old Mr. Brown. He died in 1990.
Back in the same neighborhood at the new Mr. Brown's, Thomas Brown says many of his customers remember his dad.
Rufus Brown was a stubborn, determined man, like his son and his granddaughter, who both admit to bullheadedness.
When Armour saw the inroads he'd made into the north Portland market, the company wanted to switch him to meat sales, but Rufus Brown said no: He had a more profitable gig going on the side. Rufus Brown was fired, got his peddlers' license and as Thomas Brown recalls, "stunk up the place" with his meat and secret recipes.
Rufus Brown's cooking passion helped send all four of his children to college, including Thomas, who graduated from Portland State University. He later worked for the phone company and as a news assignment editor for KGW-TV.
Those jobs became history but barbecuing didn't, and the Browns make their livelihood from grilling meat, saucing and serving it. "I love to feed people," Thomas Brown says. "So did my daddy."
.Clark County connection: Owner Thomas Brown, 48, lives with family in Felida. He set up his first barbecue grill in front of the Felida Minit Mart in 1989 and later, in 1990, gassed up his mobile Bar*B*Que Bus, which catered to the Hazel Dell area.
Daughter Natel Brown Walker, 25, and stepson Tyler Castle, 25, cook and manage the restaurant with Thomas Brown. However, as Tyler says of his twin, Grant Castle, brother Derrick Castle, 26, and stepsister, Vernasheal Brown, 26, "We all cook."