in partnership
(Image: Courtesy of Miceala Thomas)

Emma's BBQ celebrates food, family and a beloved matriarch's legacy

In its purest form, cooking is an expression of love — sharing a piece of oneself with someone else.

In Columbia City, at Emma's BBQ, one family is serving up both their heart and history inside a perfectly packed takeout box.

"Emma's BBQ is a place we like to, as a family, call home," said Tess Thomas, owner of Emma's BBQ.

"Love is the main thing my grandmother works off of," said Miceala Thomas, Tess' granddaughter and general manager of Emma's BBQ. "So, anytime I think of Emma's, I think of love."

Three generations of the Thomas family work at Emma's. Presiding over it all, the matriarch, Tess, a 74-year-old dynamo who seems to be in constant motion.

"Momma T. Momma T. Where do I begin? She is one of the most loving, caring, compassionate people," said Taylor Thomas, who also works at Emma's.

"She's like an angel to the community. She's well known, she has a good heart and she believes love covers everything," said Courvoisier Carpenter, a cook at Emma's BBQ.

"As long as I can remember, my grandma has always been about her business. She's going to go lead by example, and if you don't keep up, then you're going to get left in the dust," said Miceala, with a laugh. "How many 74-year-old ladies can you say that about? Not many, but she is no joke."

Tess' family describes her as "her own form of quality control." Nothing leaves the kitchen without getting her seal of approval first — that includes best-sellers like the brisket, pork ribs and macaroni and cheese (which is also sold at Lumen Field).

"When people come in, they say, 'What style of ribs do you do? Is it Kansas City? Is it Texas-style?'" said Tess. "I tell them it's Emma's style."

The namesake of this restaurant, Emma, is Tess' mother. Born in Rose Bud, Arkansas, the recipes used at the restaurant are her family recipes, passed down during the countless hours they spent together in the kitchen.

"[Emma] would say, 'Little Testy, you've got to get in there, and let's get dinner started for your dad.' That's how I learned to cook, but I wanted to do it. I loved being next to her," said Tess. "She could smell something. She could taste something, and she would put her own twist on it. That brought forth those recipes that she brought from the old South."

"These recipes are over a hundred years old," said Miceala. "When you think about how and what had to take place for these recipes to come about and for them to taste so good when you think about the things we had to work with, I think that, culturally, it is the definition of resilience. Culturally, we have been able to take very little and make it abundant. So, for me, these recipes are my history. They are a link to the past. We are feeding people's souls a piece of our own."

Emma's BBQ is Tess' retirement career. She was a singer, opening for the likes of BB King and James Brown, a teacher, school administrator and, for some 40 years, a foster parent.

"I've always had a love for children, and I was a foster parent for many, many years. I fostered over 130 young men," said Tess. "Children are what carry life on. Fostering became a passion when I really learned some of the tragic pieces of these children's lives. My job then became, how can I help this young person become a productive member of society? That was my mission, and I carried it out to the fullest."

With one mission complete, Tess is now in the midst of another.

"You start learning those things later in life of what matters to you. What really matters is family," said Tess.

In building Emma's BBQ, she is not just celebrating her mother's legacy — she is creating a legacy of her own, something to pass on to her children and their children after that. One built on the simple yet profound act of sharing love through food.

"Everything that leaves out of Emma's BBQ my hands have touched, and that is the love I want to convey."