Smoke Signals: Montclair’s Wood Pit

Stumbling across the recipes of his mother, the family “barbecue queen,” changed Lawrence Hackney’s life. Now he keeps her spirit alive at the Wood Pit.

Wood Pit
At the Wood Pit in Montclair, Lawrence Hackney (with longtime companion Kim Chandler and son Carl Hackney) holds a plate of his mom's recipe barbequed ribs, to be slathered with the family's legacy Carolina mustard-vinegar sauce.
Photo by Amy Roth

If not for a discovery he made while cleaning out a family storage facility in 1998, Lawrence Hackney, chef/owner of the Wood Pit in Montclair, might still be a broadband communications consultant. And a smoke trail of barbecue wisdom stretching back a century might have been lost forever.

Rummaging through that storage bin in 1998, Hackney came across a large box full of handbags that belonged to his mother, Lillie Mae Brower, who died in 1986 at age 62. “They were alligator, lizard, all kinds of exotic stuff,” Hackney recalls. “I knew my sister would gobble those up.”

Digging deeper, he unearthed a shoebox of cancelled checks, decades-old paystubs and a bundle of notes written on scraps of paper in his mother’s neat handwriting. “As soon as I saw them, I thought, God, I sure wish these are what I hope they are.”

They were indeed. Lillie Mae, known as the family “barbecue queen,” kept her recipes in her head, as far as anyone knew. But her son had stumbled across her cooking notes, including the ingredients for the family’s generations-old recipe for North Carolina mustard-and-vinegar sauce. Says Hackney, “That’s the one that lit my eyes up.”

The Brower family traces its heritage, culinary and otherwise, to Hackney’s great-great-great grandfather, General Jackson Brower, born in Brower Township, North Carolina in 1835. Far from a military man, Gen-Jack, as he was known, was born a slave on the plantation of Alfred Brower. After emancipation, he and his wife, Betty, moved to Robbins, her hometown, where his cooking prowess and generosity endeared him to the entire community, which brought him their meats to smoke.

Generations later, when Hackney was growing up in the Bronx, the second of four children, “for every event, my mother made barbecue—birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, everything.” Lillie Mae’s sous chef, so to speak, was her younger sister Betty. They showed Hackney what to do—and not do, like opening the smoker while cooking. “If you’re looking, you’re not cooking,” Hackney quotes his mom.

Lillie Mae was much more than a barbecue queen. After she moved with her family from North Carolina to the Bronx in 1952, a year before Hackney’s birth, she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees and a PhD. in child psychology from Columbia University. She served as executive director of Edwin Gould Services for Children and Families in Manhattan from 1973 until her death.

After a stint in the Army, Hackney was working in the cable TV industry in Dallas when his mother, in failing health, asked him to return home to the Bronx. He did, bringing his wife and daughters. Lillie Mae died eight months later. Hackney took an executive job with a cable and broadband company, eventually relocating to South Orange, then Montclair in 1999.

Armed with his mother’s notes—which his Aunt Betty, who still lived in North Carolina, fleshed out into finished recipes—Hackney stepped up his barbecuing with a cooker in his garage. Alarmed by thick plumes of white smoke from the (initially not well vented) garage, some of his Montclair neighbors called the fire department. He learned to appease them, and the firemen, with regular peace offerings of succulent smoked brisket, pulled pork and ribs. The delight they took in his cooking stirred thoughts of what he might like to do if the cable/broadband business ever went slack.

When it seemed to do just that, in 2007, Hackney, who is divorced, and his companion, Kim Chandler, opened the Wood Pit in a former pet shop on Bloomfield Avenue. “The first week we were open was phenomenal,” Hackney, 60, recalls. “And then it crashed, like someone turned the off switch.”

Over the years, business has revived, and Hackney is now considering an on-site expansion. Still, he freelances as a communications consultant to make ends meet, and says that he, Chandler and son Carl Hackney, 26, from his first marriage, have not taken salaries in almost four years.

Lillie Mae’s spirit pervades the enterprise. Serving her collards, yams, barbecue beans, mac and cheese, pulled pork, beef ribs and smoked chicken, the Wood Pit enjoys universally glowing reviews. Most of all, there is plenty of the North Carolina mustard-and-vinegar sauce that has sustained the Brower family perhaps since Reconstruction.

“There are others like it,” Hackney allows, “but not just like it. That sauce makes the Wood Pit what it is.”

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