Food, Family, and a Well-Worn Barrel Grill

Charles Fleming’s earliest food memories can be traced back to the Kinsman neighborhood, when he was around 6 years old and sitting with his dad eating the fiery peppers his grandmother grew. Thing was, those peppers weren’t for him. They were for his father, the late Municipal Court Judge Charles W. Fleming, who would nibble on a side of those hot peppers while enjoying the home cooking his mother brought with her to Cleveland from Conway, Arkansas. The dishes were classic southern soul food such as brains and eggs, hog maw, chitterlings, and pig’s feet. Charles, such as any kid trying to impress his dad, would choke down bites of the peppers sitting on the side of his father’s plate. He’d brave the heat in the hopes of earning the type of respect that’s familiar to any young boy who’s tried to demonstrate his toughness to a parent. But the Judge liked his peppers, and the sharing got tired fast. So it wasn’t long until Judge Charles made sure that his mom set her grandson up with his own side of peppers, leaving them both free to bask in their own respective portions of capsaicin heat. And so began Charles’s indoctrination into a life in which food and family would play a central role.

As he grew up, Charles’s hot pepper obsession evolved into a more balanced repertoire. By 9, he was honing his chicken frying skills, testing batches on his sister. Once the technique was down, Charles took the show on the road, meeting up with his father, who was residing downtown, to make fried chicken for him and his friends. Charles claims cooking was a survival skill. With his dad out of the house and his mom putting in long hours for the Cleveland schools, if he wanted to eat at a decent time, he was going to have to make it happen himself.

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While that’s his story, he wasn’t exactly slapping some peanut butter between slices of bread. Not yet a teenager, Charles was basically catering to an elite club made up of some of the most prominent African American judges and attorneys in the city. Despite his appreciation of the good food, it wasn’t until Charles was 14 that the Judge, prompted by ribbing from his friends and a gift of the The Joy of Cooking, figured it was time to teach himself to cook. And although the Judge took to it instantly, it wouldn’t be until Charles was 18 that his burgeoning love of food would meet a new fascination—the oil drum grill.

Judge Fleming was not the type of man who approached things halfheartedly. After graduating from Kent State, he earned a law degree from John Marshall School of Law (now the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law). From there he practiced law in the city, taught at Case Western Reserve University, and eventually became a municipal court judge. But it wasn’t all books and motions for Judge Fleming. As Charles had seen on his visits to see his dad downtown, Judge Fleming liked to entertain. And there’s no entertaining without food.

So we wind up at the source of some of Charles’s fondest memories—his father’s oil drum grill. It goes by many names: barrel smoker, drum grill, barrel grill, drum smoker. No matter what you call it, the concept is always basically the same. A 55-gallon drum of dubious origin is repurposed to sit on legs (preferably salvaged from an old shopping cart), hold coals, and serve as an apparatus for cooking anything from hamburgers to ribs. For the Judge, once the temperature outside hit 50° the barrel cooker was put to work.

Everything about cooking on the drum suited the Judge, starting with finding one. You can’t just go to the store and buy it. Instead there’s an acquisition process, with neighborhood folks selling the grills in parking lots or from the side of the road. This is not a big box store appliance—it’s made in a community to be used by the community. And because, taking Cleveland seasons into account you’re lucky to get five years out of this type of barbecue (what, you move your grill inside in the winter?), you’ll be making those procurement trips out into the community at least twice a decade.

Then there is the size. The Judge entertained, and you can imagine how much a 55-gallon drum holds. We’ll leave the exact math to you, but suffice it to say you don’t fire up the barrel to heat up a few hot dogs. It didn’t take the Judge long to go from pursuing recipes in The Joy of Cooking to using his barrel to cook whole suckling pigs stuffed with sausage or chicken. And that whole-animal, flamboyant cookery brings up perhaps the most crucial part of Judge Fleming’s use of a barrel grill—it was the center of a celebration. You light the coals and tell your friends. And neighbors. And anyone else who might be around. While the grill as the center ring of entertainment holds true for barrels and non-barrels alike, at the Fleming’s it was always a barrel.

It was two decades ago this summer that the Honorable Charles W. Fleming died. His son Charles has proudly carried on the Judge’s legacy both professionally and recreationally since. A distinguished attorney in his own right, Charles teaches at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law and serves as an assistant federal defender by day. At night, or at least after the workday ends, Charles shares his father’s penchant for entertaining, particularly around the grill. Charles however, has his own way of doing things. Recipes have been rejected in favor of a more intuitive style of cooking, no doubt the result of his years behind the stove refining his tastes while cooking for friends and family. And gone are the long-rusted-out barrel grills he fondly recalls gathering around when his dad served as master of ceremonies. The drums have been replaced by even larger kettle grills, the better to hold the massive quantity of ribs Charles cooks for gatherings including such events as the Women’s Alliance for Recovery Services Real Men Cook fundraiser, where the seemingly annual awards he racks up stand as a testament to the great stuff coming off his fire. But the past is never too far behind, as evidenced when Charles invited us into his kitchen for a meal of those ribs. The first thing we saw at the counter was a lazy susan prominently displaying an array of at least 50 bottles of hot sauce—a less-than-subtle tribute to those peppers he enjoyed during meals around the table with his father and grandmother in Kinsman a long time ago.