For Joe and Peg Grate, it all began on Christmas in 1989. Joe, 59 years old at the time, sat at the bar of New Haven’s Knickerbocker Golf Club enjoying a few drinks with his friends during the club’s annual Christmas party. Just as the first abrupt beats of “Jam Tonight” by Freddie Jackson came on over the speakers, Joe felt a light tap on his shoulder. That was the first time he saw Peg. She was 50 and every bit the firecracker she is today.
“I asked him if he knew how to swing, which was an older dance, the dance of our generation,” Peg recalled. “And he said yes. Then I asked him if he wanted to swing with me. He said he did.”
They danced all night and, as Joe says, the rest is history.
* * *
Joe and Peg operate a rickety food truck in the Ingalls Rink parking lot on the corner of Prospect and Sachem streets. And from it, they serve some of the most delicious barbecue in all of New Haven.
Although neither looks a day over 60, Peg is now 72 and Joe 10 years her senior. Both grew up in similar small Southern towns. Peg was born and raised in Haynesville, Louisiana — a tiny town on Route 79 a few miles south of the Arkansas border. And Joe grew up in Georgetown, South Carolina, an old coastal town “with great barbecue.” In 1959, after serving in the Korean War as a combat engineer in the 27th Infantry Regiment, nicknamed the “Wolfhounds,” Joe followed his sister’s advice and moved to Connecticut. He immediately found a job in the automobile industry; shortly thereafter, he opened his own auto body and repair shop on the corner of Dixwell Avenue and Munson Street. After running the shop for several years, Joe segued into the food industry by turning the auto body and repair shop into a gas station and convenience store.
Then, in 1990, when the Volvo Tennis Tournament moved its location from Stratton, Vermont to New Haven, Joe and Peg’s lives changed.
When Volvo put out a call for volunteers to cook at the tournament’s food court, Joe responded.
“That’s when I had an uncle from South Carolina come up to visit,” Joe said. “He gave me some facts and pointers on barbecue. That’s where it all started.” After their immense success at the tournament, Joe and Peg decided to open up a restaurant at the same junction as Joe’s former gas station and convenience store. They called it Joe Grate and Peg’s.
The restaurant’s menu offered a panoply of authentic Southern food nearly impossible to find in New England, from barbecued spare ribs and chopped pork to peach cobbler and sweet potato pie. Eventually, their customer base grew so large they had to switch locations to Hamden. Then, on a cold February evening in 2004 — after over a decade of successful restaurant-life — fate again came crashing in.
“It was in the evening,” said Joe. “There was nobody in the restaurant except me and my grandson. I was in the kitchen cooking and he was at the side bar eating. Then, all of a sudden, boom!” A car came crashing through the front wall. “I walked out to the counter and there was a car right in the middle of the dining room,” Joe recalled. “So it was pretty clear we couldn’t use the restaurant after that point. I finished the cooking, though.”
That night, Joe and Peg returned home and decided it was time to make a change.
“We had had enough,” Peg explained about running the restaurant. “It became a chore. You have no life; we were there all the time. We even had to spend many nights there. We just needed a break, so we went off on a little excursion.”
They sold the restaurant, loaded up their SUV, and “took off for a month.” Joe and Peg followed I-95 south all the way to Georgia, and from there they headed west to Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, Tennessee and Missouri. Along the way, they stopped at every barbecue place they could find.
“We tried everything,” said Peg.
Joe laughed in response. “Man, we had fun.”
And when they returned, they brought with them an idea that would not only change their lives, but also help reshape the culinary landscape of New Haven … a food truck.
* * *
Fast forward 11 years to a cool fall morning at the Ingalls Rink parking lot. Joe and Peg’s white food truck lumbers into the lot at its usual 10 o’clock arrival. The words “Joe Grate and Peg’s Barbecue Catering” are emblazoned in red lettering across the side of the truck. Under a faded painting of Joe’s face lays his famous slogan, “It’s all in the sauce.” The truck rolls to a stop at the north end of the lot. The menu, a cardboard slab taped to the side of the van, offers nearly 20 items, from corn on the cob to their signature meals, like Georgia hot sausages, brisket or chopped pork. Since they closed the restaurant in 2004, Joe has gone blind due to glaucoma. Although this severely limits his abilities to help out around the truck, he has not broken stride at the grill.
“Joe does all the cooking,” Peg noted as she explained the hours of food preparation involved even before their truck arrives at the parking lot. “He grills the butts for the pulled pork, he does the brisket, he does the ribs, all of it.”
When I expressed my surprise, Joe admitted, “After doing it for all these years, it becomes natural. I can’t see your face, but in my environment, around the grill in our back patio, I can maneuver.”
That morning, while Peg set up the generator behind the truck, Joe put out the chairs to the small table in front where they keep the condiments and napkins. The inside of the truck, though, looks like the food-truck equivalent of Merlin’s laboratory. Condiments, cans of beans, bags of sandwich bread, styrofoam serving trays and plastic utensils line the walls. Two stout stoves squat in the back on the driver’s side, while cast-iron pots and tin serving trays sit atop the burners. And a tall white refrigerator wedges itself into the back corner across from the stoves. Peg shuffles around the back, warming the stove tops and pushing pans of grease out of the way, while Joe mounts his throne: the decaying driver’s seat. There he’ll sit for the rest of the afternoon as an onslaught of customers descends from Science Hill, or climbs down from the scaffolding of the new colleges, and strolls into the parking lot for a taste of authentic Southern barbecue bathed in a sauce unlike anything you’ve ever tasted.
“People seem to follow us wherever we go,” Peg said. “We get over 50 customers an afternoon and we have a lot of fun with it.”
Whether in spring downpours or 100-degree summer heat (which would usually mean it is about 120 degrees in the truck), Joe and Peg are there. Joe takes the orders and hollers them back to Peg, all of 72 years old, who scurries around the stove with surgical deftness. As long as the truck is there, the crowds flock. When they’re not in the lot, Joe and Peg cater. They do as many as 15 to 20 events a year — fairs and craft shows, weddings and bar mitzvahs. “The lines go around the corner at those,” Joe said.
“We love it. And the people are the greatest joy, meeting people from all over. That’s what we love most about it,” said Peg.
Joe and Peg’s food truck embodies the essence of the new food truck cult. To the elderly couple, they took their remarkable cross-country barbecue tasting trip, married it to their restaurant, and then put it on wheels. Joe and Peg brought north their own experiences and cultures from places as far away as Memphis, or as idiosyncratic as Haynesville, Louisiana, and gave them to the local New Haven community.
Davenport College Dean Ryan Brasseaux teaches an American Studies course in the fall called “Introduction to Public Humanities.” Each year, Brasseaux and his students create a project focused on the local community. Two years ago, they made a website about local food trucks.
“New Haven is a city of great culinary diversity,” Brasseaux said. “And I think that’s reflected in the food trucks.”
Not only do these trucks reflect the city, but also their widespread popularity is beginning to change the culinary landscape of the community.
“Food trucks are a more democratic model than brick-and-mortar establishments,” said Brasseaux. “Not only do they go into the community to bring food to the people, but also the [financial] overhead — or lack thereof — allows for a diverse array of cuisines through trucks that most people can afford.”
As Brasseaux states, there is nothing more democratic than a food truck: food from all over the world conveniently accessible to people at an affordable price. It’s casual, it’s innovative and it fosters relationships that help to revitalize a community. Everyone loves the food trucks that gather at Ingalls Rink, from Yale professors to construction workers building the new colleges. And to those who know Joe and Peg, there is no couple more idyllic or appropriate for their setting. It is almost out of a storybook: the couple who met late in life at a dance party on Christmas, who, with their unlovely but friendly truck, take their delicious culinary culture to a place far from their home. In doing so, they bring the community together, every day, always with a smile.
“It’s crazy, all that we do,” says Peg. “But if that’s what crazy is, then I love it.”