City Paper is not for tourists
The Mother Ship is on the move. Hitched to the back of Andy Majett’s forest-green Suburban, it pulls away from the curb on Rosemont Street and makes its way through Mount Pleasant. Classic rock hums from the radio, and a plastic bottle of Coke, half empty, rattles in a drink holder as Majett hauls his cargo effortlessly through tight turns and past parked cars, steering east toward Howard University.
The Mother Ship, which Majett designed and built himself, is a mobile, high-performance arrangement of four grills clustered on a converted 15-foot trailer. In the rearview mirror, the Mother Ship glides along, glinting in the sun. It looks like a contraption out of Dr. Seuss: Grill parts jut out at odd angles; tubes run haphazardly from one metal box to another.
With its grills fully loaded, the Mother Ship can cook three small pigs, 54 chickens, 72 ribs, and 12 beef shoulders at once. Perched on the bow of the trailer is a wood-burning smoker built specifically for barbecue competitions. The port and starboard sides have long “pig houses,” and a double propane grill sits on the stern. “It might not be the best grill out there, but it is second to none,” says Majett.
In late June, Majett, a carpenter and architectural designer by day, brought the Mother Ship downtown for the two-day National Capital Barbecue Battle. It was the fourth time he had entered the contest. Last year, his chicken took second prize.
For the occasion, Majett outfitted the Mother Ship with a new floor of white quarter-cut oak, a free-standing counter, and a pair of flower arrangements. He prepared pork ribs and shoulders, chicken, lamb, and butter-soft beef, which he cooked for 14 hours on low heat. In the end, he claimed the “Maurice Evans Spirit of the Barbecue” award for showing the most community spirit and camaraderie.
Right now, though, he’s on his way to 9th Avenue NW between Euclid and Berry Streets, to cook hot dogs and hamburgers for kids in the neighborhood. The meat rides in a blue cooler on the trailer, secured with a red bungee corda precaution Majett says is unnecessary. The Mother Ship’s trailer, he says, is built for a smooth ride, and the cooler doesn’t budge as it travels over the potholes on Euclid.
Majett refers to his destination as “the big one,” which is how he refers to any upcoming barbecue. There aren’t many natural occasions for using a destroyer-class grill, so Majett has learned to create them. Like some Johnny Appleseed of grilled flesh, he stands ready to bring the Mother Ship to block parties, community events, church picnics, and surprise birthday partieswhere he cooks for free, many times supplying the meat himself.
He even provides his services to people who weren’t planning a cookout. In mid-May, he trundled his grill to Rock Creek Park, setting up a surprise barbecue for city workers clearing brush. In the first week of June, he tried to cook for police pulling extra shifts guarding the Pentagon, but the Virginia state troopers told him that regulations don’t permit them to accept gratuities.
Today’s event is another self-started one. Last month, he says, he was sitting on his porch fiddling with one of the grill’s steel panels when Omar McGee, a recent graduate of Howard, walked up to him. McGee was canvassing for funds for his new nonprofit, a group called Inner City Outreach. Instead of giving money, Majett offered a proposition: If McGee’s group would organize a cookout, Majett would tow the Mother Ship to a site of McGee’s choosing and donate meat, his time, and his services for a barbecue. The Inner City Outreach First Annual Community Barbecue was born.
“I told him about my thing; he told me he’s a grill man,” McGee recalls. “Now we’re building up this beautiful relationship. Andy is more important than he knows.”
Majett got his start, he says, grilling at family picnics. He’s got nine siblings and a large extended family. Off-the-rack grills were inadequate for the 500 people who attended his family affairs. So in 1974, he built the Mother Ship. He named it, he says, because he associated that time with “Space Odyssey, going to the moon, and the space shuttle Columbia.”
Majett doesn’t much go for self-analysis. Barbecuing, he says, is “something I like to do.” His longtime girlfriend, Mira Marshall, says, “The psychology of Andy is very complicated.” Part of the impulse is that he enjoys the feedback he gets from people who like the food, Marshall says: “Every time he does a cookout or a contest, he learns something.”
The Mother Ship pulls up to the block-party site. Majett is the only one who’s gotten there on time, so he kicks back and waits, picking at his fingernails with a silver box cutter. A few passers-by tell him he’s got “some grill there,” but mostly they leave him alone.
Nearly 30 years of cooking with the Mother Ship has left Majett with an encyclopedic knowledge of barbecuing. He shows off the consistent brown coloring on the inside of the smoker. There are no blackened hot spots, proving that the interior has been exposed to the correct mix of oxygen and carbon. The top, he points out, is beveled, with three-quarter-inch cylinders like a corrugated metal roof. This is to maximize the heat cycles, he adds, without elaborating.
For serious barbecues, Majett cooks with a combination of oak (for heat) and peach wood (for moisture and flavor). Today, because he’s planning to cook for a mere 200 kids, he readies the propane powered double grill at the rear. He scrapes the grill clean with a sharp tool, then cuts off the top of the Coke bottle and positions it under a metal tube to collect dripping fat.
Omar McGee had envisioned the barbecue as a big-to do, in the weeks after he spoke to Majett. He put out a press release announcing that Wizards players and Toronto Raptors guard Morris Peterson would be in attendance. There would be free food, music, and prizes. Majett didn’t make the list of featured attractions.
But not everything goes as planned. The truck carrying generators, tents, and games runs out of gas one block north of the event. The tents are a lot smaller than expected. Cars ignore the no-parking signs and park in the fire lane. Morris Peterson, McGee says, has pulled out at the last minute. Nobody from the Wizards comes out. And the DJ doesn’t turn up.
Still, there are teenagers from a nearby pool, younger kids from a local day camp, and a few members of the Howard football team. McGee’s dad, Arthur McGee, is also there. The elder McGee drove his Winnebago 12 hours through the night from Flint, Mich., to support this kickoff event.
Arthur McGee, who owns an auto-body shop, has built several grills himself. “I haven’t seen one like it,” he says of the Mother Ship. “It looks like it’ll do the job.” Majett gives him a tour of its features, and the two men share a laugh.
As the kids arrive, around 2 p.m., Majett fires up the grill. Tongs in both hands, he stacks hot dogs like a miniature cord of wood, with rows layered on top of each other, and surrounds the piles with hamburgers.
The kids mostly ignore the grill. The younger ones munch cotton candy; the teenagers flirt with one another. One 9-year-old sizes up the Mother Ship: “It looks like a robot got thrown into a junk factory and recycled.” The assessment isn’t far off the mark; the raw materials for the grill are metal scraps Majett’s friends put aside for him.
Barbecue attendee Nadia Francis sits with her friends, watching Majett work. “To these citizens of the nation’s capital,” she bellows, “he’s serving up inspiration one pound of meat at a time.” One of her friends looks embarrassed.
A little before 4 p.m., the crowd is thinning. Tomorrow, Majett is grilling for a cousin’s birthday, and he needs to go pick up some meat. “Are you a grill man?” he asks Arthur McGee. He hands over a pair of tongs, says “Be brave,” and drives off.
McGee’s face lights up at the prospect of taking the helm of the Mother Ship. He’s also dumbstruck. “I’ve only known Andy for a few hours,” he says to nobody in particular. He hunts up a fresh pair of latex gloves.
Omar McGee takes Majett’s gesture as a vote of confidence. “Andy and I are tight,” he says. “He knows I’m with you. I’m a product of you. Andy has confidence in me,” he said.
Around 5 p.m., it starts raining, softly but steadily. Kids go home and the bouncing castles are folded and loaded into the trucks. Omar McGee wonders out loud when Majett will return for his prized possession.
When Majett pulls up at 6 p.m., he unrigs the Mother Ship. He gives away the extra hot dogs and hamburgers and tracks down a stray pair of tongs. Then he stows his cutting surface inside one of the pig houses for the trip back home. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.