Nicodemus’ noted culinary star was Ernestine VanDuvall. She passed in 2004 at the age of 83. Her grandmother, Emma Williams, came with her parents and two siblings and was with the first settlers arriving at Nicodemus in 1877. Emma was the mother of Henry, the first baby born in Nicodemus. Her second son Charles was Ernestine’s father. Ernestine’s great-grandfather, Tom Johnson, and his three adult children, including Emma, were among the first families to leave the town and locate on their homestead 3 miles north of Nicodemus. Tom and each of his children homesteaded land in section 23 of the Nicodemus township. They became successful farmers and, in the 1880s, were noted for the number of livestock they had acquired.
Ernestine learned to cook in her mother’s kitchen, and on Sundays, each of her eight sisters would make their favorite pies for visiting family and friends. Ernestine’s was lemon meringue. As a young child, she started working at Nicodemus’ local café, Julia Lee’s, where she learned to cook fried chicken and other dishes. As an adult, she moved to California and opened her first restaurant Ernestine’s BBQ in Pasadena, and often catered for Walt Disney. She returned to Nicodemus in the early 1970s and opened up her first and only restaurant in Nicodemus.
She closed in 1984, but in 1989, her niece, Angela Bates, who worked for her in Pasadena, moved to Kansas. Angela opened her first café in the nearby town of Bogue, then a year later in Nicodemus, and finally in the home of Ernestine next to the site of her old restaurant. She named it Ernestine’s and used Ernestine’s famous recipes that she had learned to cook. Ernestine assisted her until her death, making peach cobbler and entertaining the guest by playing the piano and singing the blues and gospel.
Before Nicodemus became known as a unit of the National Parks, people knew Ernestine of Nicodemus, the famous BBQ Queen. Her name still reverberates in the homes and businesses where she is remembered as a bigger-than-life personality, singing the blues and gospel and playing the piano. At the same time, they ate her famous fried chicken and barbecue ribs. She had a sign in her restaurant with a picture of a kid in a high chair eating ribs; it said, A happy baby eats Ernestine’s ribs.
Although Ernestine’s BBQ was closed during the pandemic, the famous BBQ sauce was still being purchased in stores and outlets throughout the state. After remodeling, the restaurant re-opened in 2021 for the spring/summer season. Angela will re-open the café this spring at the end of April 2023. Her hours will be Fridays and Saturdays from 11:00 AM -2:00 PM. Large parties and catering can be arranged by appointment. She will close for the season the last week in October 2023. During the renovation, a wayside sign and a life-size silhouette of Ernestine were installed at the entrance.
Over the years, many Park Service superintendents, park rangers, interns, and other staff have had the great opportunity to taste and experience Ernestine’s famous barbecue. Ernestine’s BBQ sauce is even available for purchase at the Visitor Center. Visit Nicodemus National Historic Site, read about her history, and experience the culinary legacy of Ernestine VanDuvall.
By: Angela Bates, Executive Director, Nicodemus Historical Society