BBQ spots are not hard to find when crossing into the South, and that food culture has slowly yet surely been brought through generations further north. One spot, to some people’s surprise, in Watertown, Wisconsin is the prime example of authentic Southern food with a nod to Chicago roots as well.
C&J’s BBQ and Soul Food, located at 210 S. Water Street in Watertown, is a hidden gem offering pit-style BBQ and comfort food. Jerimie and Crystal Sanders own the business and they both have plenty of prior experience in food.
“I’m a fourth generation pitmaster, and my wife is a fourth generation chef,” Jerimie Sanders told Madison365. “My family originated from New Orleans, and then they migrated to Eudora, Arkansas. That’s where my dad, uncles, and aunts were born. They migrated from there because of the South and segregation, things of that nature. They came north up to Illinois, so that’s how I came in the picture. My dad met my mom down in Illinois, and they started a family on the west side of Chicago.”
Sanders’ father played a large part in his food journey as the family brought Southern pitmaster traditions and agricultural practices with them to Chicago. Bringing the pits to Chicago connected Sanders’ family and carried pieces of their food history in the process, but when his pitmaster father died at an early age, he had to rely on other family members to start filling in the pieces while working to pick up the tradition.
“I had to reach out to my older uncles and aunties that were still alive to get as much information as I could pull from them on what I needed to do to keep going,” said Sanders. “They were letting me know I needed to keep going, so I had to learn the different cuts and different parts of the meat, I had to learn how to cure wood, and I had to learn a lot of stuff from the point when my dad died kind of on my own. In the midst of that, in high school, I actually met my wife. I didn’t know she was gonna be my wife until years later, but we met in high school.”
Sanders soon found himself in Marshall, Wisconsin to finish high school as he learned about opportunities in Wisconsin from an aunt. With a now single mother who also had six other children, Sanders knew from a young age that he would have to build something from the ground up.
Pride from finishing school, while also being the only Black student in his graduating class, and a reconnection with his wife, Crystal, soon led them to return to Wisconsin around the Dane County area. Although many might not think of there being any Black-owned restaurants in a place like Watertown, Sanders has felt plenty of love from anyone who can identify the care they put into their food.
“We’re here to provide great food and great service,” Sanders said. “That defies the odds because you run into people who are stuck in their ways, but one thing they’ll do is try your food. You got some people that just want to see, they’re coming just to see to be honest. I have people that walk in the restaurant just to see the atmosphere and who the individuals are behind the food. Once they meet us, they meet the presence of God and the presence of a sweet family, and they love people. We’ve defied the odds just off that.”
Sanders is aware of just how special what they have to offer is as they are one of the only businesses serving pit BBQ and Southern comfort food in the area. While there may be more options in places like Milwaukee or closer to Chicago, C&J’s offers something that Sanders sees a lot more people making the trip out to Watertown for.
Sanders appreciates their opportunity and the community support they receive in Watertown and hopes that they keep providing the reciprocal attention and interest. You can catch C&J’s in Madison this weekend, however, celebrating Black Restaurant Week and spreading the word of their presence
“We just want the community to rally behind us because we always tell everybody the professionalism, the food, and hospitality will speak for itself,” assured Sanders. “You will not be disappointed when you come to C&J’s just because of that. We always take constructive criticism here, so we allow our customers to have a voice when they come in. When that customer comes back and they see that we tried an idea that they had said, that makes them feel good, we actually listened.”
Learn more about C&J’s BBQ and Soul Food on their Facebook here.