For years I have been agitated and downright frustrated every time I am in the grocery store and see the smiling faces of Uncle Ben, Aunt Jemima, and Rastus (the Cream of Wheat man). It was only after the murder of George Floyd that people and corporations started acknowledging the vestiges of slavery and racism that are so engrained in our culture that it’s easy to overlook or dismiss. So when I started hearing about this new book, The Rib King, by Ladee Hubbard, I was intrigued. The Rib King is a story about servants to the use to be wealthy Barclay family. They create a sauce that is finger lickin’ good and everything changes. I imagine that the stories of all of the smiling faces on the boxes of the things we love might be very similar to how it went down in The Rib King.
For over a decade, August Sitwell worked at the Barclay’s house. The Barclays had rescued him from an orphanage and he became the groundskeeper for them. Eventually he gets a promotion to work inside the house. He works alongside the all Black staff at the Barclays, including the cook, Miss Mamie and a maid, Jennie. There are also other orphans that work there, who were “rescued” by the Barclays in order to “civilize” them. Back in the day the Barclays used to be rich, but they have squandered all of their money and inheritance. Even though the Barclays are broke, they decide to host a dinner party and leave it up to the servants to figure out how to feed all of the people. They cobble some meat pieces together and cover it in sauce that they create. The sauce is bomb and everybody loves it. The sauce becomes a business opportunity for the Barclays. Mr. Barclay starts selling the sauce and calls it “The Rib King.” He also uses a caricature of August Sitwell grinning to sell the product. Neither Mamie or August are compensated for their creation. The first part of the book is all about Sitwell and just as the sauce saga heats up, the book fast forwards to 10 years later and focuses on Jennie, who used to work at the Barclays with Sitwell.
Jennie is a creator too, and has developed a salve with Mamie. She also owns a small shop. She lost touch with Sitwell, but she has seen his grinning face all over the place on advertisements for appearances by the Rib King. As she tries to find financial backing, her quest takes her back to the things that happened at the Barclays, the crimes of the Rib King and all of the consequences.
To be completely honest, it took me a long time to really get into this book. I didn’t get hooked until the sauce came into play. It was worth hanging in there, but I wish it had moved a little faster. Ladee Hubbard manages to tie so many themes together in this book – this country’s love of Black caricatures (especially for food advertising), racism, equity, and economics are front and center. There’s also some suspense and revenge for a little excitement. It’s worth a read.
Thanks to Bibliolifestyle, Amistad Books and NetGalley for the advanced copies.