Lee Smith | 67

He embodied the entrepreneurial spirit of the 20th century, taking his barbecued wings and ribs wherever hungry people could be tempted. 

Barbecue is the only secret its owners share with everyone — one plate at a time. What made Lee Smith’s barbecue beloved by his patrons might be analyzed in a lab for its combination of personally selected ingredients — but even if it could be reproduced, it would lack something else that kept customers coming back: the presence of the man who made it.

Mr. Smith, as he was known to customers — “Bubba,” to his family — was the hand and heart behind the smoker at Lee’s and Dee’s Bar-B-Que Express in St. Paul.

It’s a classic 20th-century story. Humble beginnings? Check: Smith was born in Tallahatchie County, Miss. Entrepreneurial spirit? Check: Smith would fill coolers with wings and ribs, put them in his station wagon, and head out to factories where workers needed a fine hot lunch, or off to bars when closing time put hungry patrons out on the sidewalk.

His day job was fixing leather goods at Pedro’s Luggage in downtown St. Paul, but once he had money — and the reputation as a man who knew his way around a plate of irresistible food — he opened Lee’s and Dee’s in the Summit-University area. (Dee, or Doretha, was his wife.) Thirty seats for locals and whoever famous happened to hear about this fine Q.

High-haired boxing promoter Don King showed up once, and Smith’s daughter Vickie Nash remembered how much he liked it: “He left my mom a $400 tip.”

Mr. Smith retired a few years back, handing over the business to his daughters, greeting patrons in the dining room. The restaurant recently closed, and one hopes his recipes find their way back to the table somewhere.

It may not be immortality, but it’s as close as a man can get.

James Lileks